Cultural Connections

As we continue to consider “What characterizes our movement?” from The Navigators Vision Statement, we come to another characteristic: living in a culturally relevant and sensitive way.
“Every generation faces a changed culture, different social problems and challenges, new patterns of work, evolving economic and political conditions,” Eugene Peterson says in The Leadership Ellipse: Shaping How We Lead by Who We Are. “Much of what a Christian community in each generation does is learn together how this is done in its particular circumstances.”
Yet I have found that if you explore the idea of making the gospel relevant to our culture, you find a lot of controversy. There is a fear that as we live in a culturally relevant and sensitive way, we will somehow lose our biblical distinctive as Christ’s representatives in this world.
Of course, that danger is real. Paul writes about this when he urges Jesus’ followers in Rome not to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2). And yet, as we follow Jesus, we see that His very entrance into human history connected with the culture. Two of the four Gospels begin with the genealogy of Christ. Luke begins the line of Jesus with Adam, establishing the humanity of Jesus while Matthew begins with Abraham, highlighting the Jewishness of Jesus. When people called Jesus “Rabbi,” they were recognizing that He was relevant to their culture.
When the gospel jumped to the Gentiles, it created a crisis in the early church that necessitated the council at Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. The council decided that the Gentiles would not have to assimilate to the Jewish culture, and the gospel took root and produced fruit in many nations and cultures. Most of the epistles were written to help these new believers apply the teachings of Jesus to their time, place, and culture. This is the essence of true discipleship even to the present day.
The United States has become a nation rich in cultural and ethnic diversity. About 29 percent of the population are minorities, and projections indicate this will increase to 50 percent by the year 2050. In 2014 there were more than 20 million children under five years old living in the United States, and 50.2 percent of them were minorities. We live in an environment unique in the history of the world, revealing the need for new levels of cultural relevance and sensitivity. We need to learn not just to be sensitive to our own culture, but to those living around us.
How do we live cultural relevance and sensitivity? We do so by building relationships with the people who surround us. In his first epistle, Peter addresses his readers as “exiles of the dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1, ESV). Later in the letter, he exhorts these exiles in this way, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV). Peter believed that even as exiles who were dispersed in a variety of cultures, the followers of Christ needed to be so connected to the people around them that those people would ask them to give a reason for the hope that was reflected in their lives. Cultural relevance and sensitivity helps us live lives that promote such questions.
Cultural relevance does not mean bending the message of the gospel to fit our time and place. Instead, it means understanding and respecting the differences in the people around us, so that we can communicate eternal truths in a way meaningful to them.
As our generation of believers tries to reach a new, increasingly multicultural society, we must learn together how to listen, speak, and relate to people from, literally, a world of backgrounds and experiences. We must first come as learners before we aspire to be leaders.
For Your Consideration:
Is there a particular group or culture God is leading you to learn more about? What might be some initial steps you can take to begin engaging? Here are some suggestions:

  • Are there parts of your town where this particular group lives or gets together? Why not go for a walk or dine there?
  • Does this group have a cultural fair or festival you could attend? How else might you enjoy what these communities offer?
  • What books or articles might help you? While it’s great to read about a particular ethnic group, it’s even better to read the writings of people from that group. Why not take a trip to the library?

Al Engler is the director of Nav Neighbors. To contact him or to learn more about his ministry, click here.

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of articles unpacking the Navigator vision. The series begins with Unpacking Our Vision: An Introduction and continues with "Joining Hands."