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Culture is an amazing thing; wherever you are in the world it can be completely different. Living in Southeast Asia, we are about as far removed from our Western culture as we can possibly be, so it was an adjustment for our family when we moved here. Without knowing or understanding the culture of the people around us, we stuck out like a sore thumb. It was essential that we dove into their lives and language so that we could start to relate to them and begin to fit in.
When our tribal friends helped us build our houses out of the same jungle materials they would have used for their own homes, or saw us walking around barefoot along the muddy trail, or sat with us participating in a village feast—they slowly began to accept us as part of the community. It was embracing the culture that secured the love and trust of our tribal friends.
We had to determine how to relate to the tribal culture while not accepting sinful lifestyles so we can effectively proclaim the gospel. Although there are different perspectives on how to accomplish this, here is a snapshot of our personal journey with this issue as we seek to honor God. Each member of our family contributed and joined in the cultural experience.
My dad quickly noticed the tribal custom for men to grow out their beards and keep dreadlocks tucked up inside a woven hairnet, so he began growing out his hair to take on the look of a “big man.”
My mom was keen to spend as much time as she could with the tribal ladies, working in their gardens, learning how to weave a net bag, even wearing their traditional grass skirts just like her friends.
For us boys it was easy. It was just natural for us to adjust to the life of tribal kids, running around on the mountain side, painting our faces with soot, owning our own prized bows and arrows, and weighing ourselves down with multiple necklaces and arm bands.
Despite the fun, living cross culturally also has its challenges at times. Just like any other culture we had to be critical and decide what was okay to participate in and what wasn’t. Although a lot of culture can be good and healthy there are also sinful aspects.
The tribal people are animists and worship the evil spirits. We watched how they sacrificed animals and appeased the spirits by chopping off their children’s fingers. When someone was ill, a shaman would be summoned to barter with the evil spirits to cure the person. When we would fall sick with malaria or some kind of other illness, the tribe noticed how we never called on the spirits or made sacrifices. Being immersed in a culture that was dependent on the power of the spirits made our resistance to that aspect very strange to them.
As Christians we had to tread carefully in the culture, sifting out the sinful aspects of culture that set us apart from their worldview. Apparently they noticed this.
It was evident when they asked us questions about the way we acted. A friend asked my dad, “Mike, why don’t you beat your wife like we do?” It wasn’t uncommon for men to beat their wives on a weekly basis. The relationships we observed between husband and wife were definitely not the way God had intended. The tribal people saw that something about my parents and their loving relationship was completely different from them. Cultural confrontations like this portrayed Christ-like attitudes that were in contrast to the sinful practices of the culture we were living in.
The challenges we face in Southeast Asia are no different from what Christians are facing all over the world. The challenge is to stand on God’s Word no matter what cultural oppositions threaten to overtake us. It is important to be involved in some cultural aspects of the people we live with because it opens the door for acceptance and approval in a community that will lead to relationships with people. But how far do we go?
Today the increasingly sinful culture can envelop our lives, and we need to be able to distinguish what is right and what is wrong. It is always uncomfortable going against the flow of the cultural norm. Following the norm in a culture can be the popular thing to do, and it’s hard to break away from our nature to want to fit in. However, certain aspects of the culture are founded on ungodly principles or characteristics that we as Christians should decide not to participate in.
In any culture, just as we found with the tribal culture, standing on God’s Word without compromise can make an impact and a stark difference among a sinful people and change the lives of those around us who are observing.
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