Be Aware of How Culture and Church Traditions
Affect This Understanding
Today the church has a rich history of almost two thousand years. Over that period of time the church's understanding of itself and its mission has gone through many changes. Two of the forces that have impacted the church's understanding of these two crucial areas are: 1) the culture in which each body of believers finds itself and 2) church traditions—both current traditions of other churches and church traditions developed long ago.
1. The Culture in Which a Local Church Exists. To effectively fulfill God's plan it is necessary that the good news be packaged in a way that is understandable to the peoples of the earth in their multitude of different cultures. Believers have to carry the good news to peoples of cultures that are different from their own. This initial penetration of the gospel into a new culture can be very difficult. The New Testament pictures this process as the original group of Jewish believers shared the gospel first with the Samaritans (Acts 8) and then with the Gentiles (Acts 10-11). As people respond to the gospel and join themselves together into local groups of believers, they tend to adopt practices and organize themselves in ways that fit their cultures. Once the church has been successfully planted in a new culture there is a natural tendency for that church to begin to take on characteristics of that culture. Sometimes this is spoken of as the process of indigenization. Meeting places and forms of church administration usually come to resemble those of society at large. While much of this accommodation to the local culture is a good thing, as it is necessary if the gospel is going to be accepted and spread widely among others of that culture, it can also lead to great danger. It is possible that un-Christian elements of the surrounding culture can enter the church during that indigenization process. New believers who have not been well grounded in the Christian faith are a frequent source of these troublesome cultural aspects. Sometimes the church may be tempted to compromise in crucial areas of belief in an attempt to gain acceptance by society at large and win more converts.
This danger is not new. The New Testament pictures the Early Church as responding to such dangers. For instance, the Greeks viewed the human body as wicked while the spirit was good. To those who believed this, it made no sense for God to become a man. How could God, who is good, take on a wicked, sinful human body? In an attempt to make Christian belief more acceptable to the Greeks some taught that Jesus was not fully God while others taught that he only appeared to be a man. John writes to condemn certain teachings and warns that certain ungodly spirits and false prophets, claiming to be from God, were denying the fact that Jesus was a human being (1 John 4:2-3). A current African example of accommodation to accepted cultural beliefs is the way traditional ancestral worship practices have in some places been brought into certain churches through their practice of praying to the saints.
2. The Traditions of Other Churches and the Past. As a local church, or group of churches develop, certain ways of doing things become established. These practices soon become traditions. Many traditions of the church have their roots in the cultures of the past. Over time the culture outside the church may change but the traditions inside the church may not. For instance, the clerical robes many churches use were once the way all Europeans dressed. Sometimes the traditions become such an integral part of the church's way of doing things that these traditions are thought of as a part of the gospel. Jesus had many conflicts with the Pharisees over their traditions and whether they should be considered as having equal authority with the Old Testament Law. The Pharisees were greatly distressed when Jesus healed people and in so doing violated their traditional understandings of what a Jew might do on the Sabbath.
When the gospel is taken by believers to another culture, those believers often carry their traditions along with them as well. These traditions may prove to be unnecessary hindrances to the acceptance of the gospel by the new culture. For instance, the Early Church struggled over whether Gentiles had to obey the Jewish Law. The New Testament makes it clear that Jewish believers continued to be practicing Jews after accepting Jesus as their Messiah (Acts 21:20). But what about the Gentiles and the Law? This issue caused a deep division within the Church. In a major meeting in Jerusalem, at which all the church leaders participated, it was decided that Gentiles did not need to follow the Jewish traditions concerning the Mosaic Law (Acts 15).
When missionaries brought the gospel to Africa in the nineteenth century, they brought along with them the traditions that were being practiced in Europe and North America at the time. They built church buildings, established schools, and taught new believers to sing hymns. All these traditions, and many others, were treated as if they were integral parts of the gospel message and must be practiced by all Christians. This made it very difficult for Africans to become Christians, as they saw Christianity as very foreign. Missionaries sought to win them by encouraging younger Africans to come to their schools where they could be taught Western ways and Western languages. Eventually many Africans decided to become Christians, but only after they had accepted Western ways of doing things and looking at life.
Today it is common for Christians in Africa to be exposed to the practices and beliefs of Christians in other lands. Satellite television allows Africans to see how Christians in Australia worship God and to listen to preachers from around the world. The exposure to these different ways is in itself neither good or bad. But there is a danger that some practices may be copied without understanding the context in which they arose and, as a result, may be misapplied in the cultures of Africa. There is also the danger that a church in Africa may incorrectly assume that if they copy certain practices of successful churches in the West or elsewhere then their church will grow to be just like the successful church.
Ideally the activities of the church in every culture should be the same: sharing the gospel, winning the lost, helping them grow in Christ, incorporating new believers into local churches, and helping all believers play their God-given ministry roles. But how these activities are played out will be determined by the culture in which each local church finds itself. Practices that are appropriate in one culture may be very inappropriate in another culture. It is crucial that Christians are able to distinguish between those beliefs and practices that are foundational to the gospel and those that are merely the way certain believers are "doing church."
3. How These Can Affect the Church. As new believers come into the church they bring with them the attitudes and practices of the society in which they live. Where this does not affect the key elements of Christian doctrine, including the church's understanding of itself and its mission, there is no harm done. But frequently what is going on in society does affect the church in important ways. For instance, if the concerns and goals of society end up replacing the Mission God has given the local church. All societies have problems of various sorts. If society comes to see the church's role as primarily to help society right its wrongs and cure its ills, this attitude often ends up affecting the church's understanding of itself (see figure 3). The church may get heavily involved in politics. It may decide that eradicating poverty and providing employment is what the church is really all about. Many times these goals are good in themselves and represent activities the church should be involved in doing. But they are not the primary reason Jesus established the church. When the church accepts the mission society dictates instead of the Mission Jesus has given, the church will loose its way and cease being the salt and light it was meant to be.
Every local church has a past, which includes certain traditions. Even when a new local body of believers starts, those who start it come from somewhere and they bring their traditions with them. Most churches take in believers from other churches. Each newly transferred believer brings with him or her the traditions of the church they left. Traditions can be good. They tell us what to expect next and how things are going to be done. Everyone uses their past experiences to assist them in facing the challenges of today. Where challenges of past are like challenges of today, there is a positive transfer and that is helpful. But when society is going through dramatic changes, such as is happening in the world today, traditions can be harmful. Traditional solutions to the problems of yesterday may not work in the world of today. When a local church refuses to change and adapt to society around it, the church looses its ability to impact society, and thus will also loose its ability to fulfill its God-given Mission. God may have to pass over certain churches and use other, newer churches which are more flexible and open to change.
The church needs to be constantly asking itself questions like these:
What is God doing today?
Are the ways we are doing things getting the mission done?
Are our leaders able to adjust to the changes around us? If not, what can be done about this?
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