“Culture is an integrated system of beliefs, of values, of customs, and of institutions… which binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security, and continuity” (The Willowbank Report on Gospel and Culture). Culture is something that forms a big part of our identity: it affects the way we think, our behaviour, and our actions. Different places come with different cultures, and hence, people from different parts of the world behave differently. For example, the Japanese are well-known to be a polite people: it is a part of their culture. Thailand is known as the land of a thousand smiles: its people are known to have a happy disposition.
We are generally proud of our culture. It is something we grew up with, and forms a part of our identity. We are proud of our Singaporean culture e.g. being a food paradise; multiracial; Singlish; honesty & diligence. Even in the church, our culture cannot be avoided. From the moment we enter the church building on Sunday, we see culture at play: a simple handshake. In contrast, the early Christians greeted one another with a holy kiss, which was part of their culture (cf. Romans 16:16).
Because people cherish their cultures so much, we must take culture into account when preaching the gospel. The apostle Paul was always sensitive to the culture of his audience. When preaching to the Jews, Paul commended them for their zeal, even though it was not unto righteousness (Romans 10:1-2). On Mars Hill, when preaching to the idolatrous Athenians, Paul commended them for being very religious, though they did not worship the right God (Acts 17:22). Also, he was familiar with the culture of the people and often quoted from the poets of the people (cf. Acts 17:28). For the sake of the gospel, Paul would even seek to blend in with the culture of others (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). If preaching to a Jew, Paul would act like a Jew – e.g. refraining from pork – so that he could win over the soul to Christ.
However, it is possible that there are elements of our culture which are not so good. In Titus 1:12-13, Paul had some negative things to say about the culture of those who lived on the island of Crete: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Paul might seem harsh; we usually avoid saying bad things about the culture of others because it can be quite offensive. Paul probably knew that, and hence he made it clear that he was quoting from one of the Cretan’s own prophets i.e. Epimenides. However, Paul said that “this witness is true,” that Cretans were indeed a people who were untruthful, cruel, and lazy gluttons (Note: this does not mean that every single Cretan was like that, but on a whole, it was true for the Cretan population).
We also need to access our own culture honestly, because there might be elements of our culture which are not good also. We can probably identify some things about our own Singaporean culture which are less-than-ideal e.g. being kiasu, working too hard, complaining. Knowing that the culture is such, rebuke may be required and necessary; concerning the Cretans, Paul instructed to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.” If the culture is such, there is the high likelihood that Christians are affected or guilty of it. The church may therefore need to place extra emphasis in addressing the unhealthy parts of our culture.
Instead of having the Cretan culture, we need instead to have the Christian culture. Despite our various cultures, we are first and foremost, citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:20). Therefore, no matter which culture we are from, our conduct must be different from the world (Philippians 2:15), and it must be a conduct that is according to the gospel (Philippians 1:27).
This does not mean that we have to forsake our own culture entirely. However, if there are parts of our culture that are at odds with the gospel, we have to avoid them. For example, Singaporeans are a hardworking people; however, that does not mean it is entirely excusable for us to miss out on the work/activities of the church, because we know we must seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). Just because Singaporeans like to complain, that does not mean it is excusable for us to do so: Christians have been commanded not to murmur or dispute (Philippians 2:14).
As much as we have to be sensitive to the culture of the people around us, at the end of the day, we must realize that we are meant to be different at the core. We are God’s chosen people (1 Peter 2:9). May our Christian light so shine that we may lead others to Christ (Matthew 5:16).