Jesus commanded us to make disciples. He told no one to fill buildings with converts. One who wishes to answer the call to make disciples needs to gain understanding of how culture impacts thoughts and actions. In this essay we will examine how understanding culture is essential for disciple-making.*
I was on Budapest bus number 134 which was unusually crowded for a summer Saturday afternoon in 2010. There were many tennis enthusiasts aboard on their way to a tournament at a tennis club on the Danube. I sat alone reading and was surprised to hear English being spoken, and much too loudly for a typical Hungarian conversation, which is usually just above a whisper. Glancing to my right at the commotion, was a local man, in his late 20s, who was acting as a guide for a couple who, based on their accents, were from a Spanish speaking country. They were discussing the match they were going to see. I also noticed that the Hungarian fellow was sniffling from a cold or perhaps an allergy, and from his mannerisms it was clear that he was growing rather self-conscious. Sniffling can be offensive among Hungarians, especially older folks, so I reached into my backpack and handed him a small package of tissues. Had we been in the United States, this might not have been so well received, indeed the young man may have been embarrassed by such a gesture. But, in Hungary, for an older person like myself, to offer a tissue to a younger person would likely be seen as a kindness. Thinking me a local, he thanked me in Hungarian. He then used the gesture as an example of Hungarians kindness in conversation with his friends..
How was I aware of such a cultural nuance? Years ago I was taught about this and many other differences between Hungarians and Americans. I learned not to sniffle from those who had come before me. I passed it on to those I trained as a warning against confirming what so many Europeans (including Hungarians) believe, that Americans are rude. Why? Because American culture is far more relaxed and is the result of a national and cultural melting pot. Hungarian culture, too, is changing (relaxing is the way some describe it), particularly among the young. One can see this in politics and by behavior on public transportation that change is rapid. Change in culture is normal.
Numerous scholars affiliated with the Lausanne movement met in Bermuda to collaborate on ‘Gospel and Culture.’ Their final work was ‘The Willowbank Report,’ in it they agreed that: “Cultures are never static; there is a continuous process of change.” Thus, for one to serve Christ well in a culture other than her own, one should become a student of that culture.
*This is part one of a series of posts that are the fruit of some work I am doing toward a doctorate in cross cultural ministry.