On Easter Sunday 1967, I worshiped at the Calvary Baptist Church in Bangkok, Thailand. The worship was typically Southern Baptist in design. The church was a beautiful colonial structure that would have fit in the downtown area of any county seat in the southeastern United States. It was a great time of worship. I was a first lieutenant in the U. S. Army on rest-and-recreation for a week in Thailand. It was a touch of home.
After the morning service, some other servicemen and I were invited to lunch at the home of an Army veterinarian and his wife. They were graduates of Auburn University, and we discovered mutual friends. Learning of my interest in Christian missions, the husband invited me to attend a service that afternoon held in a Thai home. Of course, the small, informal service was conducted in the Thai language. Some of the hymn tunes were familiar although the language was not. Other songs seemed more in keeping with the Thai culture. The message, of course, was in Thai. Although I did not understand a thing that was going on, it was a great worship experience.
As I now think back to that Easter Sunday over 40 years ago, I realize that I was being exposed to two very different cultural experiences. The worship at Calvary was Western and southern evangelical, attuned to the culture in which I had been nurtured. It was meant to appeal to people like me—expatriates who found themselves in a strange land and hungered for the things of home. The worship in the Thai home was still strongly influenced by Western Christianity but was moving toward being more culturally relevant to the Thai people.
I have been impressed in recent years how those who find themselves working in a culture different from the one in which they were nurtured have become more sensitive to cultural contextualization—presenting the gospel in terms that the people in their adopted homes can more readily understand.
As one friend noted, “I am trying to help my Christian friends learn how they can still be (citizens of a particular Asian country) and be Christ followers at the same time.” This is one of those countries where to be a citizen, you are assumed to be of a particular non-Christian faith. This individual was dealing with contextualization in a serious way.
So are we being sensitive to our culture? If you belong to a predominantly white Baptist church in the South, are you still doing things the way you were in 1967? If so, you are probably out of touch with the culture in which you live. Consider your context.
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.