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Journal

Understanding Basic Cultural Differences

Mark Junkans

Cultural Comparison Chart

click on chart above for full size

Here in the West, and especially in our major cities, we are dealing with cultures of three basic types.  I know this is an over-generalization, but it's helpful to at least categorize for a frame of reference.  We must also realize that 70% of all Christians alive today are in pre-modern cultures.  Look at churches planted out of each of these cultures and you will begin to see why they worship, evangelize, disicple and fellowship the way they do.  One of the challenges for the Body of Christ, and especially an individual congregation, is how to relate to and minister to people from various culture types.  If the church desires to reach whole communities, we must be ready to speak the heart and culture language of those we are trying to reach.

Socio Cultural Map

Click on chart above for full sizeThis chart shows the relationship between the physical/economic environment in which a culture exists and the importance of group authority versus individuality of a particular culture.  When a culture is formed in an environment of scarcity, survival needs guide the way people live and interact with each other.  In cultures where there are plenty of resources, fulfillment becomes paramount.  In the church, these differences drastically affect people's behavior and determine what they value and are attracted to.  Felt-needs differ greatly based on the culture's tendency towards survival or fulfillment.  Why some people flock to receive anything that is free regardless of their economic level is largely based on their cultural history in this matter.  For example, individuals who grew up during the Great Depression here in the West usually have a hard time throwing things away.  Those who have survived civil wars and periods of great poverty in their country tend to live with a much shorter planning horizon in financial and material issues because, in their minds, all that they have can be lost in a second anyway.

The vertical line indicates authority and direction based on the group versus the individual.  With exceptions, Western cultures tend to emphasize the importance of the individual whereas Eastern cultures tend to emphasize the importance of the group. In the church, this makes a big difference in the expectations of how evangelism, leadership, dicsipleship and worship take place.  Why do some individuals refuse to commit to something or never tell you no?  It's because in their culture, they don't easily make individual decisions.  Many times, we in the West mistake this for lack of responsibility or integrity.  This issue alone is probably the biggest frustration for Western leaders.  They don't realize that most decisions are made either in a group setting, or only in conjunction with that person's authority figure.

Ingelhart-Welzel Map

This Map created by Ingelhart charts countries and cultures based on  their types of authority and the importance they place on survival vs well-being.

What do you do with this information?

First of all and without stereotyping (there are always exceptions), look at the different cultural groups within your community and begin to learn something about their history.  Try to understand where they derrive authority, how familiar they are to scarcity, how much importance do they place on traditions, etc.  As you learn to notice these nuances and differences, please realize that they greatly affect how someone reacts to certain situations and opportunities.  Of course, there are also many other components peculiar to each culture and sub-culture.  Spirtuality, relationships, time, directness of communication, self-expression, music and more all differ.  What can you do to navigate this complexity of differring values?

Love and Time.

Show love to people regardless of how they respond to you.  Give the relationship time, because only over time will someone or some community see your heart and accept that you truly care about them and their community.  We tend to give up if we don't see immediate results so that we can search for more low-hanging fruit.  Resist this temptation and remain persistant in your posture of a learner and a lover of the community.

For a good website that goes into more detail about cultural values, click here to view the World Value Survey website.