Why bother learning the culture?

Andy Harker and Jonny Burgess

Why is learning about local culture so important to our mission partners?

Andy Harker writes, ‘I remember being in a bible study in The Gambia looking at Colossians 1:15. The African brothers there had no problem understanding the significance of Jesus being the ‘firstborn’ - in African cultures the role of the firstborn is understood well. Just as the firstborn in a house is next to the father and has all the rights, authority and status of the father (particularly when the father is away), so Jesus is next to the Father. The Father has delegated to Jesus all the functions and power of the Father. When a Kenyan brother was preaching on the parable of the two sons (Luke 15) he showed me something that I had never seen about the elder brother: it is shocking that he doesn’t go looking for the younger son. Traditionally a responsibility of the firstborn is to look after his younger siblings. He should keep watch over them, care for them and keep them in line. When the younger son goes off into a life of recklessness it is the job of the firstborn - not the father - to run after his brother and plead with him to come back. The elder brother's hatred towards his younger brother did not start when he came home and a party wasthrown for him, it started much earlier, when he failed to search for him. The self-righteous Pharisees (who are the target of the parable) are at fault not only for their failure to welcome sinners but their failure to go out looking for sinners.

'Similarly, my African brothers have helped me understand Mark 7:27 so much better: "And he said to her, 'Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.'" In Kenya I see a dead dog lying in the road almost every time I go to the office. Africa is full of stray dogs. In most African cultures, for a person to be compared to a dog is an extremely insulting and shameful thing. The distinction between animals and humans is much sharper than in the West, where pets are part of the family. Also, dogs are a particularly dirty and ignoble animal. So when a Kenyan brother preached Mark 7 it came home very powerfully what it means for us to be a dead dog – pathetic, despised, dirty, base, in the lowest place. And yet – the wonder of the gospel – we who are not entitled to anything are invited to eat at the king’s table and share the children’s bread.'

Jonny Burgess adds, 'When preparing to preach Romans 6:19-23, one might think, “My friends tend to disregard Christianity as they think it’s horribly restricting of our freedom. So I’ll use Romans 6 to show how actually slavery to God is a wonderfully good thing, enabling us to flourish as we were truly designed to – in obedience to God and beautiful righteousness.” However, this does not work in West Africa. The common perception of Christianity in The Gambia is that it’s shamefully unrestricted. Tour buses full of drunken, sunburnt, fornicating tourists come every year from the ‘Christian’ West, and that is what Gambians think Christianity means. So if you began a sermon in The Gambia saying, “The world around us considers Christianity to be oppressive and restrictive… Well, the Bible actually says something quite different…” – your hearers would likely switch off. Teaching Romans 6:19-23 in The Gambia needs approaching from the very opposite angle: “The world around us considers Christianity to have no moral limits, and to be an excuse for all kinds of shameful practices. Actually, Christians are slaves to God and to righteousness. We are no longer slaves to sin! Our lives should display the beauty of a convicted and glad obedience to God.” Understanding the culture is essential to being able to teach the Bible faithfully and usefully in a foreign context.'