“If I become a Christian, do I have to wear white when I get married?” That was question number one. It was followed by another pointed question. “Do you eat beef?” My Hindu friends were interested in Jesus. When I shared my testimony with them, they were touched by His love and kindness. But cultural issues like these were at the forefront of their minds. They could not consider Jesus’ invitation to follow Him until they answered these questions. I needed to understand the bridges and the barriers in their culture if I was going to effectively share Christ with them.
If you are attempting to launch a Disciple Making Movement among the least, last, and lost, it is likely you will be reaching across cultures.
This is true whether you are working in the USA, Europe, Africa, Asia or anywhere really. Taking time to understand the religion, culture, and worldview of those you are sharing Christ with must be a part of your plan. Evangelism and discipleship efforts without cultural adaptation are less likely to bear fruit. They almost never end up being reproducible.
4 Key Cultural Areas to Learn About
Your research may be formal. Or it can take the form of simply asking your friends curious questions. There are several key areas to learn about. The following is not a complete list, but it will get you started.
A. Spiritual Life
Answers to these questions will help you better understand how to share the message of the gospel. Curious questions are also great “bridges.” After you hear what they believe, you can easily share. Use scripture, or share a Bible story that explains the issue. In the course of a DBS scripture list or story set, many of these things will also surface. Having a good understanding of their beliefs (before you do those studies) will help greatly.
- What do they believe about God? Jesus? (for example, Muslims believe him to be a prophet)
- What do they believe about the afterlife?
- What do they believe about the spirit world? Angels? Demons? Etc.
- What kinds of things do good or “holy” people normally do in their culture?
- Do they have a concept of sin? What kinds of things are considered sin, bad or evil?
- How does “salvation” or forgiveness work in their culture? If they do wrong (sin), how can they overcome that?
B. Decision Making
The majority of Western cultures are individualistic cultures. The idea of making a “personal decision” to follow Christ is very natural for people from the West.
In many cultures, that is simply not how anything important gets decided.
They are much more community-oriented in their decision making. Understanding this helps you know how much you need to include the entire family when you invite someone to become a follower of Jesus.
For example, it may be normal for the whole family to discuss and consult with the elders before making a decision about a son’s marriage. Wouldn’t it also be important to follow the same process in such a major decision as becoming a Jesus follower?
In such cases, you may want to share the message of Jesus not only with the individual but through them with the entire family. Especially focus on the key family influencers.
If they give their blessing to that individual in their desire to follow Christ, the likelihood of them being able to walk this new way is much higher. Instead of reaching just one person, you can reach the entire family.
- Are they able to make individual decisions? Or do they generally consult with other family members on big life decisions? If so, who? At what age can they make their own decisions?
- What status in decision making does marriage provide? In some cultures, before marriage, they are not considered able to make decisions. They must consult parents and gain approval.
- What is the process of decision making in their culture? Who initiates it? Discusses it? Who makes the final decision? How does this normally happen?
C. Important Events and Festivals
Understanding what the important cultural events help you learn about their rhythm of life. This will be important as you think about how to multiply disciples among them. Some of the festivals or events may only be cultural.
It is easy for those who believe to continue to participate in them. These are great things for you to also join in with! Others have strong religious significance. They will need to decide how much they can join those or find ways to redeem them.
- What are the most important festivals in a normal year? When are they celebrated? How long do they last? Who hosts these or where are they celebrated? What is the meaning of the festival (what does it commemorate)? Are there special foods they eat at that time?
- Find out what a normal engagement and wedding ceremony is like. Who does the ceremony? Do they have arranged marriages or can they choose who they will marry themselves? Who pays for the wedding? Do they have a dowry system?
- Find out what normally happens when someone dies. Are they buried? Cremated? Who does the rituals? Who pays for things? (For example, in most Hindu cultures, the responsibility to light the funeral pyre falls to the eldest son.)
D. Cultural Bridges and Barriers
The concept of redemptive analogies was described by the late Don Richardson in his classic missions book, The Peace Child. He takes it further in a second book Eternity in Their Hearts.
As you learn more about the culture of the people you are trying to reach, ask the Holy Spirit to lead you. He can show you things which will unlock understanding of gospel truth. God has already placed keys within the culture to bring revelation and understanding for the people you are reaching.
- Are there any customs or ceremonies they do which could be used to explain the gospel? (For example, do they offer blood sacrifice for sin or protection)
- Are there any barriers in the culture that would make it difficult for them to follow Jesus in the way you do?
For example, for a Hindu, eating of beef is a big barrier. If a Hindu believes that to become a Christian they must be willing to eat beef, this could cause significant and unnecessary distress. Another example for Muslims is the concept of Jesus as the Son of God. You may want to move slowly in explaining this concept or using this term as most Muslims find it very confusing.
Ask One Key Culture Question Today
If you are reaching out cross culturally, don’t be paralyzed by all the research that needs to be done.
Just begin. Take the posture of a learner. Over time, if you keep asking questions and listening to your new friends, you will discover more and more about them. Keep a notebook where you write down key insights or questions you would like to ask in more detail at a later time.
Be aware that if you focus on youth, they may know less about their culture and religion. Don’t be deceived into thinking that means it doesn’t matter.
If it isn’t important now, it will when they move into adulthood. Through the youth, reach into the families and ask these questions of their parents or relatives. This will show honor and build trust.
What is one question you can ask a friend or contact today? Something that will take you one step closer in understanding how to present the gospel in a way they can easily understand?
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