Editor’s note: We’re pulling this post from the archives to answer a key recurring question: Does Christianity destroy culture? Are you importing Western culture when you bring the Gospel? We weigh in.
If you’ve ever stood in the middle of African worship, it’s…well, it’s pretty hard to stand still.
Gotta admit. At a refugee-center staff retreat, I started as a mild observer. I marveled at the literal full-bodied movement and vocalization: music that took over my heart, my body. I was, um, really dancing (don’t necessarily try to picture it…) to worship for the first time. Moisture leaked from the corners of my eyes.
Perhaps you can see what I’m talking about:
After a rousing snippet of this kind of worship in staff devotions the week before, I’d told the teachers, this is just a sliver of what the African church offers the world. Every culture has its own strengths, its own vibrant display of the image of God.
And when Jesus comes, I will have watched so many cultures become the truest version of themselves.
“Whose religion is Christianity?”
A remarkable Tim Keller podcast on culture (“Culture” on this list) mentions a book, Whose Religion Is Christianity? written by an African. And this is what I love: The man confronts the opinion that those who bring Christianity to Africa are destroying African culture.
As one who finds Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible a formidable cautionary tale, this intrigues me–and somehow the answer becomes very important to my service. My life.
The author, Lamin Sanneh, counters that this argument is really saying Christianity is for some cultures, but not for all. (I ask you–doesn’t this feel more culturally grabby?)
Africa, for one, has always known that there are powerful spiritual forces in the world, the author says (via Keller, via me, at any rate. My apologies to both).
The businessman, then, who comes in and says that there are no spiritual forces, that it’s a bunch of bunk, is practicing a manner of cultural totalitarianism.
But Christianity didn’t just acknowledge those forces. It gave them true, real hope and power for those spiritual forces. (This, in fact, I have seen, in light of the child sacrifice that still causes bodies to wash up on the banks of the Nile, and from the numerous haunting stories of friends.)
As Sanneh challenged, Christianity revives cultures to be their fullest form of themselves–as it did for my own ancestors, and as it does for me. Christianity makes Africa truly African.
Can Christianity Destroy Culture?
But hasn’t Christianity gone amiss in the past? Aren’t we all aware of stories where missionaries have conflated their religion with culture?
Absolutely. Each of us is unquestionably a product of our times–and in the past, colonialism, racism, economic gain, and cultural appropriation have been entangled with Christianity. Because they’ve come transported in the human heart right along with the saving news of Jesus Christ.
You, too, will bring your culture entwined with your Christianity. Christianity is brought by people, who bring culture with them; there is no such thing as a person washed clean of culture.
You will not understand all the ways your culture affects your expectations of believers, your sense of right and wrong, how you worship, how you see God.
(I was surprised to find my own emerge when leading a series of discussions on Christian dating. African friends questioned some of what I now know to be purity culture–and they were right.)
Seeking to minimize cultural domination alongside the Gospel? Try steps like these.
- Be thoroughly trained in cross-cultural awareness and cross-cultural methods of sharing the Gospel. (See this recent post on why and how to be trained before going overseas.)
- Understand your own culture as intimately as possible, to differentiate between your culture and what the Bible explicitly says. (Courses like Perspectives on the World Christian Movement help! So do books like American Ways.)
- Some denominations have more distinct cultures than others. An outsider would need to learn terminology, ways of dressing, roles for women and men, certain foods, certain rituals, ways to worship (and ways you definitely don’t worship), insider ways everyone else in the church “just knows”, etc. How much would a person need to learn about your denomination in order to feel comfortable? If your church has a more involved inner culture, anticipate that more of that is intertwined with your Christianity than you realize. Which are explicitly biblical? Which aren’t?
- In cross-cultural discipleship, encourage believers more toward their own biblical discovery even more than your own teaching and doctrine. You’ll remember Acts 17:11: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” When those you’re discipling ask questions, challenge yourself to answer with Scripture more than doctrines that insist “that’s just how things have always been done.”
Christianity: Never Borrowed
Oliver, my closest Ugandan friend, would often sing a well-loved hymn around my house—in Luganda.
Not being able to resist a tune I love with so much rich history, and yet being painfully elementary in my Luganda, I’d join in English. We cheerily sang alongside each other. At the end, she always smiled and said something like, “Who taught you that?”
Like it was her song to begin with. Which always made me laugh.
It makes me grateful, at those moments and also when drove down the road past the churches, for all the global workers who came before me. The ones who brought their coffins with them, and said goodbye to their families without the balm of even spotty FaceTime or British Airways or typhoid shots. Those who didn’t know how they would die, but knew they would die here, and would likely die young.
They came into these rainforests before paved roads or any roads at all. Their white faces were the first some tribes had ever glimpsed.
No, they didn’t do it all right. They brought their sin with them, just like any other global workers. But they did give their lives to bring Jesus to Africa.
So though those hymns Oliver happily sings in her wavering, airy alto may be an evidence of European culture, they remind me of the powerful work God is doing there just as anywhere else.
Christianity is not “borrowed” in Africa any more than it is in my culture. And though at times the Ugandan church is limping through troublesome theology or the sizeable restraints of poverty, I have gotten a good peek at why it is so beautiful in God’s sight.
For centuries before Oliver and me, He has been breathing new life into peoples whom He had loved and not forgotten. He was doing it even when the rest of the world didn’t know their names, or only wanted what they could get. I love that God loves and has loved Africa, and continues to bring her to stunning, vivid life.
The videoed Swahili praise song above is translated something like, I’ve searched the world to see if there was anyone like our God, and found there is no one like Him.
Don’t miss this Kenyan pastor’s take: in africa, does christianity destroy culture?
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.
Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.
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