22nd November 2018

Engaging Culture, Not Accommodating It

Recently some colleagues of mine were discussing the statement “we are to engage the culture, not accommodate it” by missiologist Ed Stetzer. The discussion centred on what that might look like in theory and in practice. I understand it to mean that our Christian worldview is very different to that of the dominant worldview/worldviews of the societies in which we live. We somehow need to be able to interact or engage and involve ourselves with people of the cultures of which we’re a part. It is vital that we do this in a manner that won’t be offensive and make them not want to have anything to do with us. We do this well when we interact and seek firstly to understand their culture by taking a learner’s role so that we better understand how they view life and why they do the things they do. This is a great reason for Christians to have a number of non-Christian friends.

On many occasions we will be able to participate with them as we “engage” with them but at other times we may just have to be observers (non-participants) as what they are involved in violates our conscience and the clear teaching of Scripture. Participation in those things will probably communicate that we condone practices for which the Bible teaches abstinence. In these instances it is important that we don’t come across full of judgement and condemnation. Don’t even raise the issue unless you see that it’s placing them in harm’s way or they raise it asking your opinion. Our hope should be that after developing a friendship, we can share God’s narrative with them and God’s Spirit through His Word will first change their hearts and then their behaviour. God is a master at transforming people from the inside out!

In that case we are not “accommodating” their culture by participating along with them in questionable activities, but are continuing to engage with it by looking at areas where we can and will fully participate along with them, hopefully having a lot of fun in the process. This allows us to build friendships with the people around us and also build a knowledge of their worldview. This then equips us to better contextualise the Gospel, or ensure that the message is communicating clearly when the opportunity arises to share it with them.

As a young missionary living among a remote tribal group, I must confess to violating this important principle. As part of investigating the culture of the people, my co-workers and I were attending a 3-day “spirit festival” where the first of the rice harvest is offered to the spirits in an attempt to keep them on side. Dancing to the sound of pounding drums is involved in calling the spirits. In my younger years, having once been a drummer in a couple of bands, I was fascinated by the drums the people made and asked if I could take a much closer look at one. After first taking a good look at their craftsmanship I then proceeded to pick up the drumsticks and try it out, pounding away for a couple of minutes. Much later, I would discover to my horror that in the minds of the people, I was calling the spirits to come and be appeased by their offering of the best of their rice harvest. Looking back now I can clearly see my huge blunder as I violated this important principle of engaging the culture (attending as a passive observer) while not accommodating it.

John Sharpe

John and his wife Betty spent over 20 years working in Indonesia as tribal church planters. Now they work with an organization in Australia, equipping others to go and reach the unreached with the Gospel.