One of the things I’ve learned on frequent short-term mission trips around the world is how different cultures are, and how important it is to know and respect those differences if you’re going to minister effectively.
Cultures are different, and that’s something to celebrate. My favorite example of that is eating a meal at someone’s house. Here in the US, we were all trained as children that when someone has you over for a meal, you eat everything on your plate. Why? Because turning away food means you don’t like it, and it’s rude to say that to the person who has prepared that food for you.
In China, though, you must not eat everything on your plate. Why? Because eating it all says that your host didn’t give you enough—and that’s rude too. You should leave a little bit, and if he offers more, say, “I am very satisfied, thank you.”
Isn’t that cool? Two different cultures have attached opposite meanings to the very same action, and both meanings make perfect sense. Cultures, consisting of humans made in the image of God, are reflecting God in their creativity—even when they don’t recognize him as God. Yes, that’s cool.
Something else to notice is that cultures develop their convictions for very surprising and sometimes trivial reasons. Let me give you an example.
Back in the early 20th century, houses had porches. The main reason was that in the summertime, when it got hot, it would often be warmer inside the house in the evening than it was outside. Families would sit on the porch in the cool of the day, enjoying the breeze and escaping the stuffy heat inside.
As a consequence of that, people sitting on the porch saw their neighbors and the people walking by, and since they were just sitting around, it was common for the others to step up onto the porch and engage in conversation.
Then something big happened.
Now there was no need to sit out on the porch in the summertime; it was more comfortable indoors. And furthermore, with TV to watch (it had been around since 1939, but it became ubiquitous in American homes in the 60s), there was no time to talk to the neighbors and the passersby, or so we thought.
And so we quit dropping by one another’s homes.
Seriously. When some stranger knocks on your door, what’s driving your thinking? Getting rid of said person as quickly and efficiently as possible.
And as a result of that, what we used to call “door-to-door visitation” is largely ineffective today. I know of churches that still engage in it aggressively, but I know of none that can claim any significant amount of response—I’m thinking particularly of evangelized church members—for all their efforts.
So most American evangelicals don’t spend time with cold-call evangelism. The preferred approach today—for those who evangelize, and shame on those who don’t—is “relational” evangelism, forming relationships with neighbors or co-workers or retail workers with the goal of living and speaking grace and gospel in a way that woos them to Christ.
Are these Christians weak on evangelism? Not if they’re really doing what they say they are. But what about Acts 20.20? Doesn’t that verse say we’re supposed to go door to door? No, it doesn’t. It might say that Paul did, but he was living in a culture different from ours, and those differences matter.
Now, let me moderate that just a bit.
The porch illustration I’ve given here is specific to American culture—and modern, suburban American culture at that. The US has always been a mix of cultures; even in pre-colonial days the Oneida were different from the Cherokee, who were different from the Apache, who were different from the Tlingit. In the Colonies, Massachusetts was very different from Georgia. We even had a civil war as a result of sectionalism and the cultural divide that sectionalism represented. And today, all four corners of the country—I’ve lived in all of them—differ from the middle.
Today door-to-door visitation works in some places in America, and in even more places around the world.
Know your culture. Appreciate its strengths. Address its weaknesses. Represent Christ in it with wisdom and grace—and strategic smarts.
And again, don’t sweat the small stuff.