Evangelicalism’s Cultural Captivity

Is truth dynamic or static? Does objective truth even matter anymore? Does a transcendent standard for interpreting reality still exist? Or is our relationship to reality so subjective that our “lived experience” is our only authoritative framework? Instead of living in a postmodern era of creative liberation, increasingly it seems that the globalized culture is plunging into a post-truth dark age. A problem with the popular culture’s disdain for objec­tive truth and suspicion of all external authority is that it influ­ences even how Christian scholarship seeks to answer society’s questions. To retain “influence” and “engage the culture” with a “brave prophetic voice,” some Christian leaders inevitably adapt their methods to appear accommodating and open-minded. Then, after they have surrendered authoritative proclamation for “robust conversation” and “winsome discourse,” their message slowly softens. They then find themselves neglecting or even abandoning core historical evangelical doctrines altogether. This is quickly becoming an obvious threat in the broader Christian world.

To the surprise of many, this tendency toward soft evangel­icalism and cultural captivity has been quite common on the mission field for decades. Methods of hyper-contextualization have so universally permeated missions training and agencies that many missionaries consider the historical Christian doctrines to be impractical cargo to be jettisoned in the name of efficiency, effectiveness, political correctness, social acceptability, and cul­tural sensitivity. Because of this tendency to over-contextualize and minimize doctrine, the true gospel as the Holy Spirit has illumined it throughout the ages can fade into the background of other expressions and emphases of culturally nuanced gospels. 

Preparation: Questions to Ask Your Target Culture

There are many questions to ask in pre-evangelism and in disci­pleship. For example, pre-evangelism questions should include topics such as these: creation (origins, ancestors, evidence of the curse, etc.), God (who, where, what, etc.), good/bad (examples, source, etc.), and death (where, why, what). The point is to create a tension in the unbeliever’s interpretation of reality and existence. We want them to doubt the source and authority of their belief and value system. Moreover, we need to ask them to define terms and explain what they mean. A useful concept to remember is that clarity is the enemy of error. Probing the person’s source, authority, and definition helps bring clarity to confusion and falsehood. Be sure to also ask these questions: What do you mean by that? Why do you believe that? How do you know? Who told you? How do they know?

We must expose that they don’t have all the answers and that even some of their answers are dissatisfying. But before immedi­ately providing a brief gospel explanation, it is wiser to delay it and tell them that the Bible answers these questions. Inform the person you will provide teaching on a later date (with other inter­ested locals) to explain what the Bible says about these questions. Consider these example questions in mind about the people in your target culture:

  1. What are their good, true, and beautiful cultural value sys­tems that seem to pattern the image of God? What are their virtues and vices? What is their conscious cultural orienta­tion? What could be other cultural values and orientations through which they view reality but might not consciously realize?
  2. How might you discern the transcendent themes they value most (honor, peace, freedom, strength, etc.)?
  3. What is the solution they seek in life? How does that reveal their perceived problem?
  4. What do they do to achieve that solution?
  5. When do they know they have done enough? How?
  6. Why do they believe this? Who or what is their authority?
  7. In what ways and to what extent can you teach them about mankind’s original sin problem in Adam and its effects on all cultural value systems?
  8. How can you help them see Christ as the Last Adam?
  9. How can you guide them to understand Christ’s great exchange on the cross?
  10. How can you help them understand repentance and faith alone in Jesus the Savior-King?

Listen for their “solutions” to repair and remedy what they perceive is not right in their lives. In so doing, you might be able to locate their solution (enough merit, enough loyalty, enough rit­ual, enough sincerity, etc.) to their perceived original problem (as they understand it according to their moral code). Listen for language of “enoughness.” Ask, “When do you know it’s enough?” Also, one way to identify the accepted idol of a culture is to probe what kind of speech and terminology they forbid. Every culture has blasphemy laws, and if you can discover what they consider blasphemous, you might be able to trace it to what they treasure most. They usually despise the words and ideas they forbid, so be careful not to unnecessarily give offense. The gospel is offensive, but we don’t want to be in our probing or behavior.

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, E.D. Burns, The Transcultural Gospel: Jesus is Enough for Sinners in Cultures of Shame, Fear, Bondage, and Weakness (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2021). You can order the book here.