The Lord is My Swineherd: Culture, the Gospel, and Short-term Missions
We’re excited to have Coby Cagle as one of our NYWC speakers. This blog post is a great start to the conversations he’ll be navigating in his seminar: Drive By Missions: You’re Killin’ Us! Check out more information HERE.
When I was in seminary I had a classmate who was a missionary to a people group who did not have a Bible in their language. As he was learning the language he realized that the group had no word for sheep. While the word “sheep” is not integral to having a robust Trinitarian theology, think about how many times the word or a derivative of the word is used to describe humanity and God’s relationship with humanity.
Here are a few significant examples:
- The Lord is my shepherd… (Psalm 23:1)
- I am the good shepherd… (John 10:11)
- And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory… (1 Peter 5:4)
- He had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd… (Mark 6:34)
I asked, “What did you decide to do?” He said, “We changed every sheep reference to an animal that was integral to their livelihood, a pig.”
The Lord is my swineherd, I shall not want...
It has a different ring to it, doesn’t it?
What my friend realized was that his cultural way of expressing the gospel did not make sense to the people group with whom he was working. While God’s truth is timeless, the way we communicate the truth must flow through and be embodied by culture.
God Uses Culture to Communicate the Gospel
In the incarnation, the all-powerful, self-sufficient, creator God entered into space and time to communicate his redemptive love in ways that humans could understand. God even chose a certain ethnic group to teach the world what it meant to be in relationship with Yahweh. The message was never intended to stay within the chosen ethnic group. In the Old Testament, God’s covenant with Abraham specifically stated that Abraham’s people were blessed to be a blessing. But some early Christians didn’t get it. One of the first arguments in the church had to do with whether or not Christians had to first become Jewish before they could become real Christians (Acts 15). Remember, Christianity started as a Jewish sect. Paul uses his letter to the Galatians to argue that Gentile Christians do not have to adopt Jewish customs to be welcomed into the family of God.
Culture is a beautiful part of being human. The food that reminds us of home, the beats that make us move and the stories that bring us to tears are all examples of God’s gift of culture. Culture is key to connecting with God. Imagine a worship service without culture. There would be no art, no worship music, and no language. Culture is a gift from our creator.
The problem is that many of us do not recognize how our own cultural lenses shape the way we read, interpret, and teach scripture. This is especially problematic when we engage in cross-cultural missions.
At best, without an awareness of our cultural biases and without a healthy posture of missions, the message that we are sharing will not be understood. At worst, we could end up damaging ourselves and those we are trying to help by unintentionally perpetuating cultural imperialism. Conservatives do it. Liberals do it. Sadly, I’ve done it. Remember, this very misunderstanding fueled all sorts of atrocities in our past and continues to fuel them in our present. Entire people groups have been nearly annihilated in the name of Christ because Christians confused Christianity with their own culture.
Tips for a Healthier Mission Trip
As you approach your next short-term mission trip there are some things you can do to help ensure that you approach this trip with a healthy purpose and a healthy posture.
- Remember the way you worship, study Scripture, and pray is shaped by your culture.
- Remember that your culture does not have the corner on biblical truth nor are your cultural values always in-sync with the Gospel.
- Consider the ways your culture embodies and teaches the Gospel that are unique to your people.
- Spend time with leaders in the community you will be serving. Go as a learner and a listener.
- Look for ways to partner with organizations led by leaders who were raised in the community or who have a long-term commitment to the community.
- Ask permission to bring a group into their community. If they say no, don’t come.
- Take time to learn what the Triune God is doing in the context of the people with whom we will be working.
- If the mission trip has a service component insure that the group with whom you are working not only identifies the need but also is the primary source for the solution.
- Be prepared to be shaped by how other cultures present and embody the Gospel.
- Invite your students and their parents into the process of cultural awareness.
I realize this takes a lot of work, but it is necessary. If you do not take time to listen and learn from the group with whom you will be working, you may preach a “gospel” that is only good news for people who look and act like you. And, in the words of my friend Aaron Cho:
“If the gospel is not good news for all people, it is not good news.”
Looking to learn more about culture, race, faith, and healthy missiology? Check out these books:
- When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
- The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Captivity by Soong Chan Rah
- Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Christian Practices by Frank Viola & George Barna
- Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland
- The Heart of Racial Justice by Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson
- Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
- America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis
Raised in Houston, Texas, Coby Cagle is the assistant pastor of youth and college ministry at Quest Church in Seattle, Washington. Coby is a 13-year youth ministry veteran with degrees from Rhodes College and George Fox Evangelical Seminary. When he isn’t challenging seventh graders to one-on-one, he enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring with his wife and two children.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.