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Culture and the Cell Church

Winter 2015

by Joel Comiskey

God so loved the world that he gave his only son. He loved the world so much that he became a baby, learned Aramaic, fit into a particular culture, and related to people on their level.

Missionaries do the same thing. They move to an area, learn the language, the customs, and then attempt to share the good news in a way that relates to that culture. Paul promoted cultural sensitivity in 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 when he talked about becoming all things to all people.

But there are also cultural traits that contradict Scripture. Bribery is a common one. Other cultures show favoritism to those born in a particular caste, while sidelining many to a less fortunate fate. Some cultures mistreat women. Others promote individualism.

While in seminary, I was taught that the way to grow a church is to find the methodology that works in a particular culture. According to this view, all cultures are amoral (neither good or bad), and it’s just a matter of finding those methods that work in the particular culture to grow the church.

But do we start with culture or Scripture when determining our strategies? Is it possible to take cultural relevance too far? Yes, I believe so.

Scripture or theology should be the foundation behind our strategies. It’s not a question of whether the methodology works. Rather, the question is whether it is right. For example, in the North American culture, "individualism" is the norm. It might "work better" in growing the church to promote anonymity, tasks, and large events in order to protect people’s space. This strategy might gather more people, but is it right?

Scripture is clear when it talks about community, the one-anothers of scripture, walking in unity, hospitality, and many other New Testament truths. The biblical norm is not individualism but mutual ministry and a group oriented lifestyle. Becoming relationally oriented is painful to individualists. We want to do our own thing. Yet, scripture, not culture, must determine who we are and what we do.

In the New Testament, the house church setting was the main focus of growth and discipleship for the early believers. God blessed the gathering of those house churches together to make them more effective. He developed gifted leaders to serve the individual house churches and to instruct them publicly. Cell churhces follow this same pattern.

In other words, we do cell church because it’s based on the Bible, not because it works or is necessarily the culturally relevant thing to do. In fact, cell church ministry often critiques culture. Yes, we need to be sensitive to culture-like Paul and Jesus, but our strategies must be first and foremost based on Scripture, not culture.