What is culture?

by Elicio Marquez, Major –

What is culture? According to Charles Kraft it is a “complex, integrated coping mechanism”; according to Philip Block it is “what makes you a stranger when you’re away from home”; and according to Bob Sjogren it is “what makes us ‘us’ and them ‘them’.”

How did Jesus handle cultural differences—the “us” vs. “them” dynamic?

Jesus, in fact, actively involved himself with multicultural opportunities. In the Scriptures, three sections in the New Testament address the issue of cross-cultural ministry as they narrate a dialogue between Jesus and someone of another culture: a Syrophoenician in Mark 7:24-30, a Canaanite in the much-redacted parallel in Matthew 15:1-28, and a Samaritan in John 4:4-42.

The well-known passage of John 4:4-12 provides a detailed example of Jesus involving himself in ministry across cultural barriers. Here Jesus reaches out across many divides to engage in conversation that would result in transformation—transformation not of just one individual but of a community.

The key principals for engaging in multicultural and cross-cultural ministry are highlighted here. The first principle is that of intentionality. John 4:4 reads, “Now [Jesus] had to go through Samaria.” It is important to note that the “had to go through” was not a geographical necessity. While it is true that the shortest route from Jerusalem to Galilee was through Samaritan territory, it is also true that many Jews would not travel that way because they regarded any contact with Samaritans as defiling. Jesus, however, intentionally broke from common Jewish practice. In multicultural ministry, we are also required to take intentional steps out of our cultural comfort zones.

While traveling through Samaria, Jesus crossed social barriers when he stopped at a well and asked an openly immoral Samaritan woman to draw him a drink (v. 7). In our multicultural ministry we will need to cross barriers in order to make others feel welcomed.

The third principle, which we see in this portion of Scripture, is that of expecting transformation. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman transformed her and her community. As we engage in multicultural ministry, we may well see transformation take place—transformation of individuals, communities and even our own congregations and corps.

The last principle that I would like to mention is that as we engage in multicultural ministry we must use God’s resources. The transformation that occurred in Samaria required God’s resources; nothing else would have transformed the woman at the well. As we engage in ministry, we too must rely on these same provisions from God. Jesus gave his disciples instructions and a promise just before his ascension into Heaven, and this promise is given to us, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised….You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus envisioned disciples and a church that would minister across all barriers. He commissions his disciples to engage in various areas of ministry as his witnesses: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of earth. Jerusalem is equivalent to those in our towns or neighborhoods who are culturally like us. Judea is equivalent to people who are culturally like us but who live in the communities surrounding our Jerusalem. Samaria is that area or individuals who live around or near us but are culturally, ethnically, or religiously different from us. Ministry to the ends of the earth is self- explanatory, involving going to distant parts of the globe as cross-cultural witnesses of Christ.

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