Know Your Culture: 6 Keys to Good Cultural Exegesis

The kisses freaked me out. In Spain, men greet women with two kisses—one on each cheek. The postal worker, the neighbor, the random stranger who helped me find a taxi, kiss-kiss. Hello, kiss-kiss. Goodbye, kiss-kiss.

Having just arrived in the country, I was not prepared for this unexpected invasion of my personal space. When I met my language instructor, I remember recoiling as she leaned in for the kisses. Looking back, I must have offended her when I countered her kisses with a firm handshake, but she was gracious and seemed to understand. I was an outsider in need of cultural insight in order to relate well to others in this culture.

“Here I was, in a country I had never visited, surrounded by things I did not understand. How could I relate to these people when I had no idea what was going on?”

My first week living in Spain was a whirlwind. Here I was, in a country I had never visited, surrounded by things I did not understand. Beyond the ceremony of kisses, I didn’t understand why businesses closed for a good two hours in the middle of each day. I was confused to see people get up from very angry sounding conversations over coffee, then smile, kiss-kiss, and leave as though they were the best of friends. How could I relate to these people when I had no idea what was going on?

Cultural Exegesis

As God’s sent people, we make disciples of those around us. In order to do this, we must have a deep knowledge of God’s Word. But we must also be students of local culture so we can “translate” the gospel into culture. In the missions world, we refer to this study of culture for the sake of mission as “cultural exegesis.”

In Acts 17, we see Paul the apostle practice this skill again and again. As Paul entered the great city of Athens, the Bible says he “was troubled when he saw the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshiped God and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:16–17 HCSB). The insight Paul gained through observation of Athenian culture informed his approach to mission—how and where he related to people and how he shared the gospel with them.

In verse 22 of that same passage, we read that Paul engaged the people of Athens by interpreting what he had learned about his audience in light of the gospel. “I see that you are extremely religious in every respect. . . . Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” Paul proclaimed the gospel by addressing the idolatry he had observed in the city, and his message was clear to all who heard.

Students of Culture

Whether you’re headed to a foreign country on a mission trip or settled into your own hometown, studying culture will help you share the gospel in ways people can understand.

The problem is that culture isn’t designed to be studied. It’s designed to be consumed. All around us, people passively expose themselves to art, media, and social messaging that does not glorify God. As God’s sent people, we approach culture differently. We study the things that influence people in order to communicate how creation is meant to glorify the Creator rather than creation. This is a missionary skill all of God’s people must learn and practice.

“Whether you are in a foreign country or in your own hometown, studying culture will help you share the gospel in ways people can understand.”

Six Tips for Learning a Culture

Just as Paul did in Athens, we need to gain cultural insight that informs how we relate to people and how we share the good news of the gospel. Of course, this is easier said than done. Here are six tips to help you gain cultural insight through observation:

  1. Pray, then watch.
    Culture is a powerful (and dangerous!) thing. We must approach it with great care. Be sure to spend lots of time in prayer before you venture out to study culture. Ask God to allow you to see things from his perspective. Ask him to reveal biases and sin in your own life that may hinder you ability to understand and relate to people.
  2. Go in community.
    In order to support his people as we experience the real danger of living in the world, God has organized his people into churches. Our spiritual community provides help, encouragement, and accountability as we wade into culture to make disciples. Whether you’re sharing the gospel with people on the street or conducting online demographics research, never do it alone.
  3. Observe humbly.
    Watching people for an afternoon doesn’t mean you understand them. Try to avoid assumptions as you go to a public place and watch people go about their business. Take note of what you see: How do people carry themselves? How do they relate to one another? What seems to be important to them? What obvious signs of sin/idolatry can you see?
  4. Ask questions.
    In order to understand people, we need to talk to them. Ask them about what they believe and why. People tend to enjoy being asked about themselves, so a few open-ended questions can yield some great discussion. When you combine what people say with what you observe them doing, you can really get a good sense of who they are.
  5. Take notes.
    Studying something as complex and dynamic as culture can be overwhelming. Use a notebook, laptop, or mobile device to record your observations. Sometimes, it isn’t until you review your notes later that you start to see connections, opportunities, and challenges for gospel ministry. Sharing your notes can be a great way to collaborate with others in the study of culture.
  6. Join wisely.
    The saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” only partially applies to God’s people on mission. We must take great care not to participate in sin, which would undermine our great message. But we should adapt to the cultures in which we find ourselves. Things like using local language, removing our shoes at the door to someone’s home (or kissing anyone we’re introduced to!) will pave the way for gospel conversations that point people to Jesus.

Caleb Crider is instructional design leader at IMB. He is a coauthor of Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. You can find him on Twitter @CalebCrider.