Culture is like an iceberg, and that affects your ministry

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Culture runs deep.

In fact, culture runs deeper than most ever realize. When we think about culture, we typically think about dress and food, dancing and art, language and festivals. To be certain, these are all cultural activities. Culture is not less than these things; however, it is driven by much deeper issues.

At the risk of wearing out an already-tired metaphor, culture is like an iceberg.

Culture has explicit and implicit aspects. The explicit aspects are the things we see (clothing, food, arts, dance, etc.) and the implicit things are those that lie under the surface (worldview, faith, relational understanding, conflict resolution, understanding of money, parenting, etc.). Simply put, culture is far more implicit than explicit, but why am I bringing this up?

The implicit foundations of culture are a big deal if a local church (or an individual believer) is attempting to reach a diverse community. Many local churches, and even more individual believers, recognize the cultural diversity that now exists in their communities. This means good questions are being asked about how a church can minister in a setting of diversity. However, without a proper understanding of culture, all that is addressed are the visible, shallow aspects of explicit culture.

In other words, a church may feel that it is genuinely doing cross-cultural ministry if it changes some of these tangible, outward expressions of culture. Yet, hanging flags from a bunch of countries in your sanctuary is a very shallow expression of culture. Adding an African drum periodically in worship is only slightly better. These techniques only address the parts of culture on the surface, they do not reach deep down into the foundation of a cultural worldview.

To an outsider, changing only surface pieces of culture often passes over their deep concerns to provide a token symbol. Someone from a developing country who now resides in America may see that a church has placed their flag in its auditorium, or that the church tried to include a worship song in their language, and still be dumbfounded that the church chooses to use its money the way it does.

Strive for real understanding

If we want to reach the diverse people group communities around our churches, then we must strive for real understanding. In short, we have to get to know our new neighbors. I mean really know them. We must move past the things we can notice on the surface, and develop relationships that allow them to tell us about their deep culture. We must find out about their worldview, how their faith informs their life, how their family structures work and what role relationships play in their decision making. The list goes on.

In missions circles, we throw around the term “contextualization.” That is really what has to happen. Whether we realize it or not, we exist in our culture. It is the whole fish-in-water example. A fish doesn’t notice the water, just like you don’t think about the air around you. Deep culture works that way, and we assume so many pieces of culture without noticing. This means we communicate things in a way that our culture understands, because that is how we understand them.

Just as we exist in a culture, so do our new neighbors. This means that the ways we are used to communicating, ministering, and sharing the gospel (which are easily understood by people like us) may not make much sense to people who are not like us.

“Go and tell,” instead of “come and see”

Many times the solution is not attempting to account for all ways that your church, its gathering, and all of your programs speak to a myriad of cultures. Instead, a reorientation on the locus of ministry can allow for good cultural engagement. Most churches operate with a “come and see” mode of ministry. We feel our ultimate job is to get new people to move into our sphere of influence, most notably our church worship space. We use it to hold meetings, programs, trainings, fellowships, and the list continues. However, instead of trying to get your international neighbors to enter your space, which is rather unfamiliar to them, try to meet them in their space. By going to them, meeting them in their restaurants, shops, markets, apartment complexes, then they are on “safe” grounds. In addition, by operating in this space, you learn firsthand about the deep pieces of their culture. By using a “go and tell” approach to ministry, you are more likely to know how to communicate the gospel effectively, you will meet more people from their community, and your ministry works toward multiplication and not addition.

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