Christians relate to culture in various ways, from (1) those who criticize culture as evil and needing to be renounced for a “heavenly culture,” to (2) those who embrace culture uncritically. Jesus doesn’t fit either of these extremes.
The problem with the first group is that it tends to see all cultures (except their own) as evil, thus equating their own cultural preferences with “appropriate Christian lifestyle.” This was a major problem during the Christian missionary efforts that overlapped with Western colonialism, as missionaries failed to separate their own cultures from Christianity in their own minds. This led many to advocate changes of indigenous cultural beliefs and practices that were not in conflict with Jesus’ message. Being British or German and being Christian seemed like the same thing. Consequently, many were on a mission to do away with every cultural element and replace it with “Christianity.”
Amy Carmichael (1867-1951), an Irish Christian who served 55 years as a missionary to India (without a furlough!), was an exception among her fellow British missionaries who wore western clothes and felt that part of their mission was to convert Indians to adopt European cultural practices. Carmichael was criticized for taking on the habit of wearing Indian dress. She not only adopted Indian clothing, but learned the local language, ate Indian food, lived among the Indian people and adopted many of their traditions.
While she was very affirming of Indian culture, Carmichael was confronted with the reality that Hindu temple young girls were dedicated to the “gods” and forced into prostitution to earn money for Hindu priests. This led her to found Dohnavur Fellowship, which became a sanctuary for over one thousand children who would otherwise have faced a bleak future. In Carmichael’s experience as a missionary to India, we find an excellent model of how Jesus related to culture.
Jesus participated fully in the cultural life of his family and village. He learned Aramaic (the local language), dressed like a Galilean, learned the carpenter’s trade (Mk 6:3), attended a wedding in Cana (Jn 2:1-2), ate “the daily food of the fisher folk about the Sea of Galilee (The Desire of Ages, p. 367) and accepted invitations to eat with Pharisees (Lk. 7:36; 11:37; 14:1) and tax collectors (Matt 9:10; Lk 19:1-7). The fact that God redeems humanity as members of particular people groups (Rev 7:9) illustrates his affirmation of human culture.
While Jesus affirmed human culture, he was also a critic of many Roman, Greek and Jewish cultural norms of his day. For example, he challenged cultural power structures that oppressed the poor and weak (Matt 20:25-26). Jesus was not shy when it came to critiquing cultural practices, even among religious Jews, if they were contrary to the principles of God’s kingdom (Lk 14:7-11). “If Jesus the missionary to Nazareth would become Jesus the missionary to London, Lagos, Lima, Manila, or any other city, he would both affirm and critique the cultures there.” The missionary that follows Jesus’ example will see widow-burning in India, cannibalism in the Pacific Islands, and voodoo in Africa as unbiblical traditional practices that need to be critiqued. The missionary that follows Jesus’ example will also see much in the culture of those places that should be affirmed and adopted.
While most people reading this article may never be called to serve as missionaries to a foreign country, we are all called to minister to the youth of our churches in some way. Youth ministry has been appropriately compared with a mission to a foreign country. Those called have to learn new vocabulary, customs and ways of thinking.
Applying Jesus’ example of relating to culture to youth ministry, here’s what we learn: (1) In order to make a difference in a young person’s life, I have to come close to them, participate in their lives and walk along side them; (2) Not every cultural practice/preference different from mine is necessarily wrong/contrary to Christian values; (3) Because every culture (including my own) falls short of God’s ideal and needs to be transformed by the Gospel, I should be ready to humbly and critically differentiate the good things in youth culture from those that should abandoned.