Culture or Leadership?

Leaders Should Not Be Afraid to Challenge Cultural Practices That Violate Scripture

In order to defend any number of practices, some Christians resort to the statement, “It’s a cultural thing with them.” My question is, is it cultural or a lack of leadership, or perhaps both? Now, for an example:

Several years ago, my wife and I visited some missionaries in Central America. We spent two days with two different missionaries in the same city and attended services in both of their churches. The first missionary tried to prepare us by telling us that the people of this country are very emotional and do not mind showing it in the services. He said it was a cultural thing. I could accept that and had no problem with it.

He described them exactly right: the people did a little shouting, hand raising, and hanky waving. Their service had a very relaxed style. If someone wanted to sing, they just walked up and started singing, and the guitarist picked right up on it. Someone formed an ensemble, and one mother with her baby on her shoulder walked up and participated in it. We felt like we had attended a pep rally, but we were blessed (as much as we could understand).

The next day, we went across town to the next missionary couple and spent the day with them. Before we went to the service that night, the missionary began to prepare us for what to expect because of their culture. I almost stopped him to let him know that we already knew what the people were like because of the explanation and demonstration the night before, but I didn’t.

Sure enough, the people were exactly like he said: emotionless! Their service was formal, with everything being thought out beforehand. All the men had on coats and ties, the music was exact and reverential, and it was very quiet with no, “Amens.” Were we ever surprised!

What made the difference? These were the same people, in the same country, and the same city, but they were entirely different. Now, for one additional observation on our part: in the “emotional” service, the one who was the most emotional and waved his hanky more than anyone else was the missionary. In the second service, the best dressed and most stately of them all was the missionary.

Do you know what made the difference? Leadership. Neither one of the above was cultural or sinful, but was a result of different styles of leadership. I am reminded of the time I went into Washington, D. C. and started the Northeast Baptist Temple in 1977. After a couple of months, one of the dear ladies attending our services came up to me and said, “Pastor, we are not used to singing ‘Amazing Grace’ that way.” She soon learned to, and liked it!

My point is that we should be careful about what we so quickly set aside as cultural. Just because something is cultural doesn’t mean we can’t seek to change or improve it if need be (i.e. drinking alcohol, dress, music, polygamy, greed, pride, debt, etc.).

“Culture” and “conviction” are not the same and shouldn’t be treated as such. I believe often times missionaries accept anything cultural as sacrosanct and believe it should not be dealt with for the fear it might sound “American.” Even pastors in the United States sometimes give up their convictions because of a changing culture.

Pastors need to be careful about so quickly changing things they have (or should have) always stood for. Just because our culture is drifting in a certain direction doesn’t mean we have to! If something cultural violates Scripture, then leaders should have the courage to take a stand, identifying with the Bible and the Lord.

When the Apostle Paul saw a people out of sync with Scripture and given to idolatry (culture), the Bible says that while he was waiting in Athens, “His spirit was stirred in him” (Acts 17:16).

Good leadership, dependent upon the power of God, can accomplish the will of God. Let’s stop making excuses for not doing things right. If God has put you in a position of leadership, lead!

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