What Does It Mean to Be the Church in Specific Cultures?

Wherever the Church is, regardless of cultural context, it has
the universal obligation to be true to Christ and his word.

The Church of Jesus Christ is that body of people in any given socio-cultural context who have committed their lives to Christ and who worship and follow him in obedient discipleship, faithfully receiving both word and sacrament, and witnessing of him not only by godly character and example but by practical and compassionate action. Where truest to itself, the Church is both salt and light in any given society—as salt arresting decay and as light dispelling darkness.

As such, the Church lives according to certain biblical universals which are worked out and applied within a diverse set of cultural particulars and variables according to any given context. The Church is thus in the world but not of it (John 17:14-18).

This also means that all Christians have a dual nationality and a double address. They are on the one hand in Christ and on the other hand in a specific locale. The apostle can thus write to the saints and faithful brethren “in Christ at Colosse” (Colossians 1:2). Their spiritual identity and locale was in Christ, while their physical locale and identity was derived from being contextually located at Colosse.

It is the interplay, interface and interaction between these two identities, the one spiritual and the other geographical, which creates the challenges relating to what it means to be the Church in specific cultures.

Universals of the Church
Of course, wherever the Church is, regardless of cultural context, it has the universal obligation to be true to Christ and his word, to be in spiritual togetherness with one another (e.g. Acts 2:44) and to be in prayer for the world and the culture of each context.

It will see itself obliged to proclaim the gospel to all who have not heard, to disciple those who have come to faith and to bring into reconciliation all who are alienated or divided from one another. It will stand as the symbol of hope and it will be the bearer of it. It will declare and show how people who are lost can be found. It will prophetically address societal issues in terms of justice and righteousness. It will care for the poor, marginalized and oppressed. It will uphold biblical family life and both affirm and demonstrate Christian marriage as monogamous and heterosexual. All these tasks and others the Church will seek to faithfully perform regardless of cultural context. These are the universals.

However, the Church does not dangle in thin air; its message and witness therefore must be culturally rooted and contextually applied.

Culture and Context
This is where the real challenges of relevant and meaningful witness come in.

On the one hand, the hard fact is that culture is absolutely critical because culture is all about how people live and behave in different situations, nations, tribes, races or contexts. On the other hand, the gospel is all about God addressing us from his perspective concerning how he wants us to live and behave in our various cultural contexts. For example, God has not called us to live in the first century or in the Middle Ages; he has called us to live in this new millennium in the context of a very secularised, Western and neo-pagan culture. We must therefore struggle to relate our faith to the contemporary scene and help Christians develop both a Christian critique of its presuppositions, values, standards and behaviours.

Therefore, we will not reshape the gospel in sympathy with the relativistic assumptions of most modern cultures. In fact, it is this set of assumptions we need to critique.

Defining culture further, one of my former colleagues in African Enterprise, Jonathan Wilson, made this observation:

“Culture is the totality of learned assumptions and behaviours associated with any distinct social grouping. We all belong to cultures. Cultures assume truths about life, principles of social interaction, priorities and values, and build structures and patterns of behaviour that give life to these beliefs and values. Therefore, all cultures are rooted in worldviews. Worldviews are those deeply, often unconsciously, held assumptions about why life is the way it is and how life works.”

And of course, all of life and behaviour are affected by our worldview.

Challenges for the Church
This is where the Church faces tremendous challenges in terms of knowing when to affirm various aspects of culture, critique them, outright condemn them and/or judge them. Because the Bible is our authority, we see it standing over culture rather than under it. This applies to ideology as well. In the apartheid era in South Africa, political ideology in certain sectors of the Church was placed over biblical principle and turned into a type of hermeneutic by which scripture was interpreted to justify racist and segregationist policies.

This underlines the necessity of our apologetics and mission being carried out “worldviewishly” in terms of challenging non-biblical worldviews and our prophetic witness operating contextually in terms of challenging, rebuking and seeking to change those cultural practices contrary to scripture. While we as human beings and the universe around us are God’s creation, culture is humanity’s creation and therefore manifests human fallenness in all its assorted dimensions. That is why our witness requires us to challenge culture.

For example, in South Africa where I live, there is a strong tendency within our society to say that anything that is African, black and cultural is good and okay. Therefore, the worship of ancestors, the consulting of witchdoctors or spiritist media, and even polygamy, become acceptable. Animal sacrifice as a means of placating offended ancestors is also becoming more rather than less acceptable. Even in the Church these practices are sometimes sanctioned. However, this kind of line is immediately found faulty as soon as one makes similar statements for white or Western culture. No African would agree that everything white, Western and culturally acceptable to whites is right and morally valid.

The Church does not dangle in thin air; its message and witness must be culturally rooted and contextually applied.

Clearly, we cannot start with personal, private or traditional feelings about what cultural practices or outlooks are morally acceptable. The criteria and principles by which we make these cultural judgments must be objectively located in biblical principle and in the authority of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

The Missionary Enterprise
But carrying this out successfully is not always easy, as the nineteenth century missionary enterprise will testify. British theologian Chris Wright helpfully asks questions along these lines in regards to early missionaries who made judgements about other cultures which were based not so much on essential Christian and gospel values as on their own cultural assumptions: “Were they mistaken in making judgements at all? Their judgements may have been faulty and laden with unexamined assumptions of Western superiority, but is it illegitimate to criticise any features of a culture on any grounds?”1 

Wright goes on to argue that it is not illegitimate, because we have in the Judeo-Christian scriptures an objective authority that judges culture:

“All culture is a human product and therefore manifests both the dignity of the image of God and the depravity of human fallenness. So while we may not be in a position to make judgements on other cultures, from the horizontal viewpoint of our own, …nevertheless the revelation of God in scripture and Christ gives us an elevation (which of course is neither of our own creation nor to our own credit) from which such a critique can be made.”2

The Civil War of Values in the West
The struggle of the Church to be the Church in specific cultures does not relate simply to places like Africa. It is very real and almost more overwhelming in the West where we have what James Dobson has called “a civil war of values.” James Davison Hunter thus wrote, “The cultural war emerges over fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority, over different ideas and beliefs about truth, the good, obligation to one another, the nature of community and so on. It is therefore cultural conflict at its deepest level.”3

Quite right. In fact, there is a struggle for domination between two different sets of ideas and moral assumptions.

On the one hand, there are those who view the universe atheistically and mechanistically as an accidental consequence of Impersonal Energy + Time + Chance. That view of the universe will generally produce behaviour and action in direct contradiction to everything the Christian stands for. On the other hand, there are those who see the universe and everything around us as the result of a creator’s hand and ultimately having a transcendent God as the author and explanation of everything. The Christian will go further and affirm that our own worldview involves understanding Jesus Christ as the incarnation of the living God and the Bible as his written and expressly declared word, will and self-revelation. The cultural, moral and spiritual clash between those holding these different worldviews is obviously going to be real and fierce.

The criteria and principles by which we make cultural judgments must be objectively located in biblical principle and in the authority of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

All of this places a tremendous responsibility and challenge upon Christians at this time.

As Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation approaches, programmers of the Congress will need to work diligently in helping all participants, not only those in Cape Town, but those hooked up by satellite and Internet feed around the world, to struggle with these issues of gospel contextualisation and cultural application. If we do not, we risk serious irrelevance. We cannot do our evangelism and mission in the twenty-first century as we have done it in past centuries or even decades. The situation is new. The contexts are profoundly challenging. Contemporary cultures are involved in massive and rapid change and by and large moving into greater and greater moral and spiritual lostness.

The Christian Church accordingly has a word for the world about our Lord Jesus Christ, his atoning death on the cross, his resurrection and his offer of eternal life and meaning to all who repent and believe. This is a matchless message that can meet the needs of humans everywhere. But we have to work on making it contextually relevant and culturally comprehensible. Being in the world but not of it, we will tackle its needs and challenges while not being seduced by its presuppositions, worldviews or moral behaviour.

The challenge, exciting and overwhelming, is before us all.


1. Taken from The Gospel in the Modern World—A Tribute to John Stott. 1991. Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 40.

2. Ibid.

3. Hunter, James Davidson. 1992. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books.

Michael Cassidy is the founder of African Enterprise. Author of a number of books, he has also played a key role as a Christian leader involved in reconciliation in South Africa.