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A balanced response to cultures

The myriad of cultures in the world is a gift from God reflecting His beauty and diversity. Engaging complex cultures should not frighten or discourage us. Yet no culture is above the teaching of the Bible. Cultures change constantly; Scripture does not. We should never allow the ‘culture card’ to be a negotiating tool exempting one cultural group from international standards or agreements. Cultural clichés are no excuse for double standards in a global organisation.

At the same time, every culture deserves respect and understanding. No single culture is better than another; failing to acknowledge this accounts for many of the problems in our world. We are too quick to label people and end up using stereotypes that block us from seeing someone made in the image of God. People become targets and commodities when lumped together in the name of missiology. I have met well-meaning missionaries whose goal was to change others’ culture in the name of progress rather than infusing their hosts’ cultural worldview with Biblical truth. This type of thinking needs to change. Every culture makes assumptions about other cultures that are often false or distorted. We accept that every culture should be respected, but we can fail to recognise that all cultures – including our own – are fundamentally broken before God. We can share this common brokenness rather than strive for superiority.

Heaven is ready for all the cultures of this world: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9, NIV). In the meantime, our task as Jesus followers is to engage with other cultures for the sake of the gospel.

Love covers all

In OM, we are so accustomed to people from dozens of different cultures living and working together that cultural boundaries fade. They are only re-activated when someone offends another’s culture. It might involve a sense of humour, an unwitting hand gesture, or whatever. If a foreigner makes a cultural mistake, we have an obligation to correct them, but in private. The Chinese see burping as a compliment to the chef but, when I once did so, naively, on the ship, my table mates were deeply offended.

However, when we offend, do our sincere apologies create an opportunity for growth in the offended party? We have no right to go around insulting others, but the world we operate in does so. Equipping our people must include teaching them to handle insult and offense in a godly way. If we want our people to be durable and flexible in foreign fields, we should not overly shield them. Rather, they need to learn to face cultural offense with grace and determination. One way is to train ourselves to find the good in other cultures and to learn from them, especially in areas where another’s cultural practice might be an improvement on ours!

Discerning human nature and culture comes with maturity and experience. Ideally, we will learn to recognise the difference, which is useful in team situations. If a person is acting out of line, is it a matter of personal character or their culture? Both require a suitable response.

Release your cultural baggage into heaven’s culture and follow its rules of grace. Look to Jesus and how He dealt with offense: He confronted wrongdoing as needed, He rebuked His errant disciples in private; He never belittled anyone for their ethnicity.

Let us set an example in being gracious to other cultures without needing to apologise for our own. Learn to lighten up, because the journey ahead may be long!
 

Thank you for your prayers and support of all OM ministries worldwide.

Lawrence Tong

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