What is Culture?
This is the second post in our series on contextualization and the gospel. You can read more posts here: Contextualization and the Gospel.
The first step in a conversation about contextualization and the Gospel is to talk about culture. What is it? How does it shape us? How does it affect how we live out our lives and our faith? Only after we have come to a common understanding on what exactly culture is will we be able to to talk further.
A Definition of Culture
Surprisingly, the word culture is a hard word to define. Instinctively we all seem to know what we mean when we use it, but rarely will you find scholars or anthropologists who agree on an exact meaning. A search from around the web and sociological literature reveals the following definitions:
- A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next. – Ifte Choudhury
- The distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively. – Wikipedia
- “Culture is the conceptual design, the definitions by which people order their lives, interpret their experiences, and evaluate the behavior of others.” – Sherwood Lingenfelter (Ministering Cross-Culturally, p. 18)
While no one definition of culture can be agreed on, certain themes begin to emerge. Culture is related to groups of people, has to do with their behaviors, involves the way they conceptualize and understand their world, and to some degree defines individuals as members of a larger group.
Everyone Has a Culture
No one is born with a culture, it is something we learn as we grow up. By the time we are only a few years old we have become fully emerged in our home culture. We begin to act in certain ways that are similar to those around us, we see the world through the same lenses as those like us, and we start to identify as being similar to those around us. In a sense, our culture helps shape the lenses through which we see the world. It affects everything we do.
Culture shapes our worldview.
While this may seem simple and a no-brainer, it has been surprising for me to meet people who think that they have no culture. I think this may result from a confusion in America between the words culture and heritage. For many people their ancestors immigrated to the United States so long ago that they no longer feel a connection to that heritage. They then wrongly assume that they don’t have a culture.
Instead, what they need to realize is that they do have a culture. Most likely they have acculturated to the dominant majority culture in the United States. They have taken on values, behaviors, and worldviews similar to most people who make up the majority culture.
Another reason that many people can assume they don’t have a culture is due to culture blindness. “We become certain that our way of doing things is the proper way, and we are blinded to the possibilities of doing things differently or of engaging in new behaviors that might be beneficial to our community.” (Ministering Cross-Culturally, p. 23) This certainty in our own way can lead us to view ourselves as normal, and everyone else is different. We’re normal, they’re ethnic. In reality, everyone is ethnic! We all have an ethnicity and a culture, we are all shaped by culture.
Culture and the Gospel
In the coming posts we’ll talk more about how culture affects ministry. For now it is important to recognize that everyone has a culture, and our culture affects everything we do. We’ll flesh out how that influences everything we do in our next post.
If you are interested in learning more about culture, especially as it relates to ministry, I recommend the video we created that goes into more detail on the topic:
photo courtesy: Jorge Quinteros