A couple years ago I gave a preaching seminar at Andrews University as a part of their program on reaching Millennials. One of the challenges I spoke on was “colonization”—a term used (in this context) to denote the practice of forcing a cultural norm on another culture as though it was divinely inspired.

Afterward a Ph.D. student from Ghana came up to me and shared a testimony. He said an evangelist came to their country from the West and convinced them that appropriate Sabbath attire involved a suit and a tie. So when he showed up to a graduation wearing Ghanaian dress robes he was rebuked and told to go home and put on a shirt and tie. This man’s hope was to return to his country and try to help them find a more authentic cultural expression of their faith.

Churches often have some strange ideas about the concept of “culture.” Part of the problem could be that, as one sociologist states, “‘culture’” is the “second most complicated word in the English language, next to ‘nature.’”1

Another issue could be how we have interpreted Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Before His trial, Jesus prays for His followers. During the prayer He says, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world (v. 15-16, ESV).

Jesus asks that we remain in the world. Some of us would have preferred being taken out of the world—which is how many people interpret this.

Using verbal shorthand, we take Jesus’ phrase and turn it into: “Be in the world, not of it.” We further shorten it to “don’t be in the world” and then sometimes substitute “culture” for “world.” So we end up with phrases like: “We need to reach the culture,” “Avoid the culture,” “We don’t follow the culture,” etc.  

Those phrases are problematic for two reasons. First, by saying “the” culture we fall into the trap of thinking there is only one culture, when in fact we operate in many cultural spheres. For example, office culture is different from family culture (unless your family eats dinner in cubicles). Second, we reinforce the idea that the church is separate from culture, as if it were possible for Christians to be culture-free.

Scripture says Jesus “came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read” (Luke 4:16). Jesus was Jewish. Jesus celebrated Passover, went to synagogue, kept the Sabbath, read Hebrew and spoke Aramaic. He also crossed cultural barriers by speaking to a Samaritan woman, engaging the Roman tax system and connecting with a wide variety of cultural outcasts. Jesus operated in multiple cultural spheres, finding things to praise as well as critique, while calling His disciples to “Go make disciples of all nations…” (Matt. 28:19, emphasis added).

Our churches, expressions of faith in worship and even the foods we serve (or don’t serve) are all expressions of culture. If you or anyone you know speaks a known language on earth you are affected by culture. The belief that one can stand totally outside culture leads people to believe their cultural way of doing life is objectively right and can be forced on others. This practice of colonization, making Christians in our own cultural image (American, Millennial, rural, urban, etc.) versus trying to help cultivate unique expressions of faith among others can be seen in Babylon’s approach to their Hebrew captives (see Dan. 1:3-7).

However, in Rev. 7:9, John looks and sees a great multitude that no one could number; and it says John sees that this redeemed multitude comes from every tribe, every tongue, every nation—every culture—not just one. Heaven has diversity of culture, and so does the church. Instead of speaking of culture as a singular thing, or speaking in a way that makes it seem as though we are culture free, a better question might be: What is God doing within the cultures we inhabit? And then, How can I partner with God in reaching out to those around me?

1. Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (2013), p. 10.