Culture Change and Biblical Values

I have been involved in discussions relating to different aspects of missiology where there is a tension between “accepting what is” in terms of some kind of shift in the broader culture that impacts the understandings or practices of the church in that culture and advocating for a view that is no longer popular but is either closer to a biblical value or better facilitates the practice of a biblical value.

On the pragmatic side, the argument is that since “the ship has already sailed”, definitions and practices have changed, there is no sense trying to fight it, so “accept what is” and try to move forward in a positive direction from that point. Certainly, in some circumstances that is good advice and no doubt the best tactic.

But the question I have wrestled with is, what happens when there is a culture shift that actually disables us from doing and being something that is central to a biblical theme? To “accept what is” can mean in some cases to lose the ability to live out what it means to be the people of God. Notice that this is something different than the position of “I don’t like change so therefore I refuse to change!” This is not about nostalgia for the past; what I am talking about here is something that threatens the loss of biblical truth or biblical practice.

Let me give an illustration…I attended a training on preparing online learning and at one point in the discussion the characteristics of “digital natives” came up. We were told that they connect well with others via social media and so on, but are less skilled in face-to face-interaction. I raised a question for those of us involved in training the next generation of cross-cultural workers:  “What does this mean for training when trainees lack interpersonal skills and prefer digitally facilitated communications while the over 2 billion people who have least access to the Gospel still live in societies where interpersonal relationships are critical?” In this case a “culture change” in the way people communicate and develop relationships has the potential to actually disable us from doing what the Bible mandates us to do. Christian demographers remind us that some 86% of the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist worlds do not have a single relationship with a Christian. Taking the Good News into such environments requires much more than digitally facilitated communications. Certainly these can be helpful tools, but what happens when in this case a technological change creates a culture change so that digital communication is not simply a tool but now a way of life?

There are no easy answers here….but I found it interesting in reading a book by Seyla Benhabib recently looking at notions of culture and the politics of identity and diversity that she voiced a very similar concern to my own but related to the practice of democracy.

“We are facing the genuine risk that the worldwide movement of peoples and commodities, news and information will create a permanent flow of individuals without commitments, industries without liabilities, news without public conscience, and the dissemination of information without a sense of boundaries and discretion. In this ‘global civilization,’ persons will shrink into an e-mail address in space, and their political and cultural lives will proliferate extensively into the electronic universe, while their temporal attachments will be short-lived, shifting and superficial. Democratic citizenship, internet utopias of global democracy notwithstanding, is incompatible with these trends. Democratic citizenship requires commitment; commitment requires accountability and a deepening of attachments”  Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 182-83.

I think what fascinated me about this is that Benhabib does not even remotely explore the “accept what is” option. Without commitment, accountability and deepening of attachments she is saying you can’t have real democratic citizenship, yet global trends are pushing people away from those very things.

If democratic citizenship requires certain things on the part of those who will participate, I think it is safe to say that there are also requirements for us to be communities of faith that walk in obedience to God’s mission and to be cross-cultural workers that align ourselves with God’s redemptive plan for every tribe, people and nation.

For Christians involved in global mission, what are the ramifications of this for our discipleship? While change may be inexorable, what do we do when a change comes that hinders us from participating in God’s global mission?

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