For a couple of years I was the piano player for a small Hispanic church. The church grew, then reached a plateau. Every Sunday morning I'd worship in Spanish while my wife worshiped in English in another building nearby. I tried to do music in as Hispanic a style as I could, but no matter how hard I tried, I still sounded Anglo. Eventually, I concluded that I needed to start worshiping with my wife again. The Hispanic church, now stronger than when I came, was forced to develop its own musical style. It started growing again.
Almost all of us Christians like to worship in our own culture. That's why we have mostly-black churches and mostly-white churches, mostly-old churches and mostly-young churches. It's why we have churches made up of English-speaking Filipinos and churches of English-speaking Chinese. Islam teaches that the Quran cannot be translated into any language but Arabic. Christianity, by contrast, translates the Bible into as many languages and sub-languages as possible. That's part of the wonder of Christianity, and it's not some new add-on. On the Day of Pentecost, the day of the church's birth, Jews from a number of different countries heard the apostles praising God, and each person heard praise in his own language. The apostle Peter himself opened the door for the Gospel to go to Gentiles (to non-Jews).
Today, chuches in the USA and other similar countries face the twin dangers of ignoring the need for cultural flexibility or of trusting in their cultural flexibility instead of trusting in Jesus. Some churches won't bend on cultural issues, no matter what. They are sure that their kind of music, their kind of sermon, their kind of clothing, their kind of building, and their kind of church dinner are the only possible holy ways to serve God. They're sure that Peter, James and John must have been culturally just like their own church.
Other churches trust in their cleverness. They publicize their trendiness. They think that if they are "relevant" enough, flocks of people will come to them and will experience the true gospel. Often, flocks of people DO come, but it's often doubtful how much of the gospel they experience. Churches of this sort may be experts in strategy sessions, in facilities management, and in publicity. They may know much more about sociology and psychology than about the Lord. For them, the Bible may be only a jumping-off point to launch them into messages about whatever perceived needs their people have. They may talk more about success, about spirituality, about encouragement, and about marriage than they do about Jesus.
Either type of church is out of balance. Jesus must be the center--today, tomorrow, and 100 years from now. Yet we must also be flexible. Our culture isn't Jesus' culture. It's ours, and other people don't need to imitate it. They will have their own culture. Yet we and they must love each other in the Lord, recognizing one another as family in the Lord.
How can we avoid both errors? Here are some thoughts.
1. We can remind ourselves over and over that Jesus is the heart of the gospel.
2. We can ask the Lord to give us cultural sensitivity.
3. We can look humbly at our own culture, asking the Lord to reveal parts of it that don't please him.
4. We can notice where another culture is more obedient to the Lord than is our own culture. For example, I can respect and admire the family loyalty of the Hispanics, the organization of the Germans, the humor of the Irish, the self-discipline of the Koreans, and so on.
5. We can try to be sensitive to the cultural preferences of everyone in our own congregations, trying not to freeze out anyone culturally.
6. We can steadfastly refuse to act like the power of our message is in its acculturation. We can realize that cultural sensitivity is not the force behind our message, but that cultural insensitivity can hinder the Lord's ability to work through us.
7. We can enjoy our own cultures without looking down on the cultures of other people.
8. We can ask the Lord to send out missionaries who are sensitive to culture, but who are more sensitive to him.