Myth: The Cultural Context Should Dictate the Ministry Strategy

Church Leadership

by Joel Comiskey

2012, the following article is from Comiskey’s book Myths and Truths of the Cell Church.

Myth: The Cultural Context Should Dictate the Ministry Strategy

The theory of church growth promotes that pastors and leaders must first understand the culture and then create strategies that will help the church grow in that particular culture. According to this view, understanding culture and then creating strategies based on that culture, is the key to church growth.

Cultural sensitivity, of course, is good and right. Paul also promoted cultural relevance when he said,

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).

Is it possible to take cultural relevance too far? Should methods that work to grow the church become the determining factor about what church strategy a pastor or church should adopt? Because it works, people assume that it much be blessed of God. This is not always the case.

Truth: The Bible Critiques What Is Good and Bad in Each Culture

Being accountable to other believers, living out the Christian life, and then inviting non-Christians to join is simply biblical. When we win people to Jesus, we must win them into the biblical, one-another lifestyle. It’s not a question of whether this ministry “works” in a western context. Rather, the question should be, “Is it right?”

Cell church cuts across the grain of individualism. It challenges the church to live a New Testament lifestyle of community. It shouts loudly that Sunday attendance is only half of the equation. Lifestyle change takes place in an accountability structure where people are growing in relationship with one another.

Writing the book, Relational Disciple, was very hard for me. I was biased against what I considered an over-emphasis on community in the small group movement in the western church in general and in North America more specifically. I had dedicated much of my earlier writing to cell evangelism and multiplication and became convinced that the “community emphasis” of many small group ministries was an excuse not to reach out.

Yet, as I struggled through the writing of that book, I realized that I didn’t have the option of accepting or rejecting community. Scripture simply didn’t give me that option. The Bible, in other words, is chalked full of references to community. Jesus repeatedly told his disciples to love one another and that the unbelieving world would come to faith in him through their unity (John 13).

The one-anothers are woven throughout scripture and there are more than fifty Bible references that teach believers to serve, wait, care, give, and in general, practice community. I had to submit to the Bible’s clear teaching, even if it went against my pre-conceived notions.

God began to show me that all cultures have good and bad points. Some cultural traits are in accordance with scripture, while other aspects need to be corrected by scripture.

For example, in some cultures, bribery is common. Some might say, “To make it in our culture, we have to bribe.” One pastor in Russia told me that police set up check points and will take away your license unless you produce a bribe. I felt sorry for this pastor and have no idea how awful it would be to live in a culture like this.

Regardless of the cultural norms, however, scripture teaches that bribery is wrong. Many verses speak against it. Thus, we can say confidently that this aspect of culture needs to change to conform to scripture and not the other way around. It doesn’t matter if everyone is doing it. It’s simply wrong.

I consider myself part of the North American culture, even though some people consider Californians as part of a different planet. Some traits of North American culture, such as diligence and adherence to the rule of the law are clearly scriptural and backed by many verses in the Bible. Other North American traits, such as individualism, need to be critiqued by the clear teaching of scripture.

Most in North America don’t give their individualist tendencies a second thought. But are they scriptural? Scripture is clear when it talks about community, the one-anothers of scripture, walking in unity, hospitality, and many other New Testament norms. Joseph H. Hellerman, professor at Talbot Seminary, wrote a book called When the Church Was a Family. His conclusion is that the New Testament culture was group oriented, and that God instructs us to live like a family.

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.