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Custom and Culture: How it Relates to Your Gospel Message

Posted By: Eric Helmick on June 17, 20


In the heart of the Pacific Ocean, on the island of Tana, in the village of White Sands, there is a people group known as NiVan, short for Ni-Vanuatu. They are a proud, fighting group of men and women. Their history is steeped in rich custom and culture.

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These people of Tana hold to the belief that the Garden of Eden, Ark of Noah, salt pillar of Lot's wife, and tomb of Christ all exist in different preserved locations on their island. Now, though that may not prohibit you as a missionary from sharing the Gospel, it does pose some interesting dilemmas.

In his book, Eternity in Their Hearts, Don Richardson uncovers the idea that other ethnic groups have a variety of religious practices which a missionary can use to preach the gospel, if only they are willing to study the culture enough to find the key. Let's dig in to finding those hidden keys and unlock the treasures of custom and culture.

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1) Know Where You Are Going Spiritually

If you're taking a road trip you use Google Maps to get you to the exact destination point. Plan your mission trip in the same manner, but instead pinpoint the exact spiritual destination. Where are these people spiritually and how did they get there?

A good place to start is The Joshua Project. This will provide basic data such as population, largest religion, evangelical growth rate, ministries, languages and links to additional data about a specific people group and region.

Isaiah54.org has the philosophy that "through spiritual mapping we can discover the hindrances to the Gospel message in an area, and then, through sustained intercession, we remove them." They also provide a list of key questions when spiritual mapping your city, area or nation to which you'll be serving as a missionary.

It goes without saying, but your spiritual mapping should be heavily bathed in prayer as you will most likely be uncovering decades if not centuries of spiritual warfare.

2) What Part of the Gospel is Threatened by Custom and Culture?

This is a tough one, because without a doubt there are going to be customs and cultural differences that are going to make your work in that area very difficult in regards to sharing the Gospel.

In the days of King David, it seems that the idea of having multiple wives and even concubines was an accepted practice. Today in western society, not so much. But there are cultures today that still practice the idea of a man having multiple wives, or multiple extramarital relationships. Bringing in a Gospel message which challenges that idea is a threat and so is the messenger.

So how do you get around the elephant standing in the middle of the room and share the Gospel? Start with the second commandment. Assuming of course you've already fulfilled the first commandment, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart..." (Matthew 22:37) which you probably have if you've been called to missions!

The second commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." (Matthew 22:39)

If you're faced with insurmountable customs which seem to thwart the very existence of God, then you really must start by simply loving the people you've been called to. You're not condoning their customs, cultural experience or sin, in fact just the opposite. Because it's most likely their list of spiritually dark displays will be easily countered with love, kindness and servanthood.

Once you've earned their trust you can begin to draw correlation to what they do and why they believe it is all right. Over time, truth will reveal itself and will win. But it takes time.

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3) What Customs and Cultures Provide a Launching Pad for Your Ministry?

Ahhh, this is a much easier and pleasant aspect of your ministry to consider. Why? Because the possibilities are endless.

Ingrid Schlueter, a mother of six, grandma of 5, and blogger at The Hope Blog, says, "the most effective way to help your child become a learner is by fostering curiosity." The same goes for adults, and people groups! In other words, what do you know about the Gospel that will provide hope, inspiration, fun, dialogue and ultimately transformation?

  1. Sing! Every culture sings and probably dances too! Teach Christian songs built on the foundations of the Gospel. Over time, the melody and words will transform their minds and hearts.
  2. Art. Every culture has some element of art whether it be sketching, painting, carving or stacking stones, these are unique ways to tell stories. Begin simply by telling about the Creator's own skills of building a world of wonder that surrounds us all.
  3. Skills. My wife and I teach typing classes to the people of our village. But instead of having them type gibberish, we have them type scripture and inspiring stories that reach the core of their heart.

4) Ultimate Goal of your Mission?

You and your mission were called for a specific purpose. The barriers of custom and culture can detour your ministry plans for months if not years if you are not prepared. But you also have to remember that for many people in the world, their lives move at a much slower pace than you might be used to. Things which distract you, probably aren't a bother to them. Time is your enemy; time is most likely their friend. The rain will cause delays, but it also grows the crops of the people you've been called to serve.

As you lay out the goals of your mission, consider a few deep seeded goals for your team and yourself that though up front might not look like goals, in the end will serve your long term needs profoundly.

You could start with simple ones. Love, Joy, Peace, Longsuffering, Gentleness, Goodness, Faith. (Galatians 5:22)

5) Back to Basics.

Where is the Ark of Noah? Where is the Garden of Eden? Where is Christ's tomb? While scripture doesn't point at it existing on the island of Tana in the middle of the Pacific, I'm fairly certain it doesn't matter where those things are as they relate to the Gospel.

In Romans 10:9, Paul wrote, "if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved."

There's no mention of the existence or whereabouts of the Ark of Noah or the Garden of Eden. The best way to deliver your Gospel message to a culture richly steeped in custom, maybe even darkness or sin, is to shine a light. That light is you. Christ in you.

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