Culture: a constantly moving target

Updated: Apr 23, 2019

The only thing changing about change is that it is happening faster than ever. This new pace dramatically impacts our work as we strive to understand the cultures where we work. A CEO of a long-term ministry in Asia once said, “Imagine the change and advancement that occurred in western countries over the last century. In my country, that magnitude of change and advancement is happening, not over the course of a century, but in a period as brief as 12-15 years.”


Culture is not a static challenge; it is a dynamic process. Christian academics Michael Anthony and Warren Benson note, “Today’s discoveries make yesterday’s ‘facts’ obsolete. Therefore, tomorrow’s discoveries will do the same for many of the things that we hold as true today.” How do we contextualize ministry instruction tools, when every trip into some countries yields new and shifting insights?


What is contextualization and why is it important? “Contextualization is not implied compromise of the gospel message or the authority of God’s Word; it is simply communicating it in a way that will be understandable in a local language and cultural worldview,” says Don Graham of The International Mission Board. Moreover, authors Mike Barnett and Robin Marin write, “We must allow the uncompromised Word of God to confront each people group in such a way that the authority of the Bible is maintained while communicating in a way that people can understand it and own it for themselves.” This is critical. They go on to say that without contextualization, “the church runs the risk of being seen as a foreign enterprise with a foreign message.”


The work of contextualizing information is not easy, and not without cost in terms of both finances and time. Richard Morris, advisor with More than a Mile Deep, an Entrust ministry partner in Africa, describes contextualization as the willingness to take the “long walk” with the people of the other culture. Given the pace of change, then, what strategies are most helpful? Below are some approaches Entrust finds effective.


ENTER THE CULTURE AS LEARNERS.

Yes, we may be there to provide training, but we must strive to nurture a learning attitude so we are constantly educated as we teach. East-West Ministries, an organization closely tied to Entrust, finds this principle to be true in its church-planting efforts. When entering a new country, foreigners must be sensitive to the importance of observing the culture. What is done in the West is not necessarily best. We need to ask, “What is changing here and what challenges might those changes pose for the church?” This can provide insight into the future, assisting local ministries in anticipating issues that might arise with cultural change.


USE EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING METHODS.

Use instructional methods that are highly participatory, such as Entrust courses. Begin where learners are comfortable, then determine an appropriate tactic to move toward levels of interaction that will facilitate learning. After any experiential learning activity, be sure to debrief, with two goals. First, allow learners to reflect on what happened during a given learning activity and how that impacted the result. Second, encourage reflection about what might happen in the learners’ own ministry as similar dynamics arise. This gives participants and instructors alike insight into the culture and how to effectively train others within the culture.


REMEMBER THE VALUE OF THE INITIAL GENERATION OF LEARNERS.

These people will potentially become future instructors. This is powerful. They know and live the culture and understand the changes occurring within. As they are prepared to instruct, the importance of context, including change, can be emphasized and applied.


PROMOTE LOCAL, NATIONAL OWNERSHIP OF THE TEACHING MINISTRY.

This is best facilitated by engaging local leaders in the creation and contextualization of ministry tools/curriculum. They are the real-time experts, knowing the culture and what is changing where they live.


PLACE HEAVY FOCUS ON THE BIBLICAL CONTEXT.

Mary Dean, pastoral leader of women’s equipping at Stonebriar Community Church in Texas (and long-time Entrust Women-to-Women Ministry Training facilitator) says this was critical to Russian WWMT work. “Grounding things biblically was clearly important; honoring the Russian traditions of learning … but stretching the women to see the biblical framework motivated changes that would forever impact the preparation of disciple-making women in Russia.”


BE FLEXIBLE.

Richard Morris points out the rapid pace of change in African cultures: “It is a challenge to keep learning materials up to date with the cultures where they are used.” He suggests flexibly using local knowledge to respond to specific learning needs. Compose for your audience by interlacing curriculum with related local knowledge.


BE SENSITIVE TO LITERACY.

Dr. Nik Ripken, author and expert on the persecuted church, stated at Dallas Theological Seminary’s 2018 World Evangelism Conference that two billion people on earth do not know about the gospel, and 60%+ of those are oral learners. In this changing world, even in literate countries, research shows that more and more people prefer orality-type learning over reading. They prefer to learn via story, video or some other means of rapidly receiving and assimilating new information.


The goal is to reach the lost and to make disciples. Entrust’s approach is to make disciples by investing in local believers and leaders who understand the context and can carry out the mission in their communities. We have had the privilege of observing the Holy Spirit do amazing things in the great range of contexts/cultures in which each of our staff is blessed to minister.

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