Cultural differences are a challenge for those who want to share the gospel cross-culturally. One of the most challenging aspects is overcoming the notion that my culture is the best and others are inferior. Another challenge is deciding which parts of any culture are contrary to obeying God and which parts can remain because they do not run contrary to the Word of God. It can be tricky because the Bible states the will of God, but also reveals how His people lived contrary to it and more in keeping with the cultures around them (such as having several wives). This can be confusing to those without discernment.
Another part of this challenge is knowing how to overcome the barriers that keep people groups suspicious or antagonist toward one another. I have an aversion to a certain people group that will do things like chop and burn the cupboards in their homes to keep warm in the winter rather than go outside and bring in firewood. I was raised with an entirely opposite work ethic.
Paul has some words that challenge me to think through some of the differences I have with others who do not live like I live . . .
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19–23)
One particular Christian worker felt God’s calling to become a missionary. He said he would go anywhere God sent him except to a certain country. This was a place he felt he could not serve because of the differences in their way of life compared to his. Yet this is where God sent him. Eventually he learned to love the people and was able to share his life with them and appreciate their life-style. In doing that, he ‘earned’ their ears and was able to share Christ with them.
Had that culture included cannibalism, he must challenge them about the love of God and what they were doing to other people. However, if they wore minimal clothing for comfort in extreme heat, I could not challenge or change them because that is not an issue challenged by God’s Word.
This makes me think of the people who burn their cupboards. Biblically, we are to care for our possessions, but biblically ‘things’ are not as important as human life. One component of that ‘cultural’ issue could be laziness, but these people might not have the resources needed to collect firewood, like axes, or warm clothes. I’d have to drop my initial reactions and get closer to understand them. God wants me to care about others enough to examine their ideas, but also to be open to understanding why they do what they do. As Paul said, the sake of the gospel is the issue, not what I think people should wear, or eat, or work at, or do.
Jesus is my example. He came to a sin-torn world, a culture filled with rebellion and abuses. He became one of us, and was not so much concerned about external things as the human spirit and our eternal destiny. I need to remember this — no matter where I am or what kind of people God puts me with.