Inculturation refers to the process by which the gospel message and Christian faith become part of a culture. It involves presenting the unchanging message of the gospel in culturally relevant terms, rather than imposing a foreign culture. The goal is to enable people to embrace the faith as their own, within their own cultural context. Inculturation recognizes the value of culture and seeks to purify and elevate culture through the light of the gospel. It is an important concept in missiology (the theology of mission).
Biblical basis for inculturation
The biblical basis for inculturation can be seen in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, God worked with the Israelites within their cultural context to reveal himself. For example, he used culturally familiar symbols like the tabernacle and temple to show his presence among them. God also used the Israelite festivals and customs to teach spiritual truths. At times he purified their culture, such as removing pagan gods and practices. Yet he started with their context to unveil himself.
In the New Testament, Jesus embodied inculturation in the incarnation. As John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus took on Jewish culture and customs, like synagogue worship, while revealing God’s truth in ways people could grasp. The apostle Paul modeled inculturation as well. In Acts 17, he built bridges with the Athenians by using their altar to the unknown god and quoting their poets. He presented the gospel with cultural understanding. Paul also said he became “all things to all people” to win them to Christ (1 Cor 9:19-23).
Therefore, throughout Scripture, God reveals himself in culturally relevant ways so people can embrace the unchanging gospel. The concepts and methods may differ across cultures, but the essential message remains the same. Inculturation is not changing the gospel, but allowing the gospel to change cultures.
Reasons for inculturation
There are several important reasons why inculturation is vital in the mission of the church:
- Inculturation upholds the value of culture. Since God created cultures, there are positive elements that should be appreciated and redeemed, not simply rejected.
- Inculturation makes the gospel understandable. Presenting the gospel in ways that connect with a culture helps people grasp the meaning better than foreign concepts.
- Inculturation allows people to accept the faith as their own. When people worship and express Christianity in culturally relevant ways, they take fuller ownership of the faith.
- Inculturation enables disciple making in community. The gospel can permeate relationships and social structures when presented contextually.
- Inculturation plants indigenous churches. Churches that reflect local culture tend to thrive more than foreign-seeming ones.
In summary, inculturation gives people access to the gospel in ways that resonate with their culture. This facilitates wholehearted acceptance, practice and sharing of the faith within communities.
Biblical examples of inculturation
As noted earlier, Jesus’ incarnation was the supreme example of inculturation. By becoming a first-century Jew, Jesus bridged the gap between divinity and humanity through cultural identification. The Gospels also record examples of Jesus using culturally relevant stories and images to convey spiritual truths, like mustard seeds, wineskins, and oil lamps (Matt 13:31-33; Mark 2:21-22; Matt 25:1-13).
In the early church, the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 made an important decision regarding inculturation. They decided Gentile believers did not need to adopt Jewish cultural practices like circumcision to become Christians, recognizing that the gospel transcends cultures (Acts 15:19-21). Yet the apostles still ensured the Gentiles were taught biblical morality.
Paul also demonstrated inculturation throughout his missionary journeys. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, he summed up this approach: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel.” Examples of Paul’s cultural flexibility include:
- Using Greek poetry and philosophy to find common ground with the Athenians (Acts 17:22-31)
- Avoiding circumcision for Titus to reach the Gentiles (Gal 2:3)
- Taking a Nazirite vow to connect with Jews (Acts 18:18)
- Including examples of Greek athletics in his letters about the Christian life (1 Cor 9:24-27)
In these ways, Paul adapted his cultural methods to better communicate the unchanging truth of the gospel.
Aspects of culture relevant to inculturation
Inculturation involves presenting the gospel in forms that align with various aspects of a local culture. Some key aspects include:
- Language – Using heart language and indigenous expressions
- Symbols – Finding correlating symbols, images and art forms
- Rituals – Translating liturgy into meaningful activities
- Ceremonies – Adopting appropriate cultural rituals
- Relationships – Respecting family, social and authority structures
- Worldview – Interacting meaningfully with cultural perspectives
- Stories – Using genre and themes that resonate
- Music – Utilizing local instruments, melodies and lyrics
- Architecture – Incorporating appropriate styles and materials
- Dress – Allowing contextualized clothing where possible
This demonstrates the holistic nature of culture that inculturation aims to engage. Every cultural domain is a potential bridge for communicating and practicing the gospel in contextual ways.
Principles for balanced inculturation
Inculturation is an art that requires wisdom and discernment. Here are some principles to guide the process:
- Be deeply knowledgeable of the local culture before contextualizing the gospel.
- Start with biblical foundations and work outward to culture, rather than the reverse.
- Distinguish between central truths and cultural forms. Adapt forms but not the essence.
- Build on positive cultural values that align with biblical principles.
- Critique aspects of culture in light of Scripture, and offer transformation through the gospel.
- Evaluate contextual expressions against historical church practice and teaching.
- Recognize that all cultures have limitations and need ongoing reformation.
- Aim for new believers to remain in their communities, not withdraw into Christian subculture.
- Involve local leaders throughout the process to ensure appropriateness.
With careful attention to these guidelines, the gospel can take root deeply in diverse cultures as Christianity has done through the centuries. The biblical message remains unchanged even as cultural forms adapt.
Cautions regarding inculturation
While proper inculturation is necessary for the spread of Christianity, there are some cautions to be aware of:
- The risk of syncretism – Blending of gospel with incompatible cultural elements
- The risk of over-contextualization – Allowing culture to dictate Christianity rather than the reverse
- The risk of inculturation becoming too localized if not connected to the broader church.
- The risk of validating all cultural practices rather than allowing the gospel to transform culture.
- The risk of disruption in communities if inculturation is done hastily or insensitively.
Therefore, inculturation should be an ongoing process done with wisdom, testing, and accountability to Scripture and the historical church. It requires striking a sensitive balance between gospel and culture.
Relationship between inculturation and contextualization
Inculturation and contextualization are closely related and sometimes used interchangeably. However, some differentiate them in two main ways:
- Contextualization is broader – It refers to communicating and applying the gospel in any given context or situation.
- Inculturation focuses specifically on culture – It looks at how the gospel engages an existing culture.
So inculturation can be seen as a particular form of contextualization – relating the gospel to culture. Contextualization may also involve adapting the gospel to subcultures, classes, education levels, or generational groups. Ultimately, both terms refer to making the unchanging gospel understandable and relevant in diverse human contexts.
Relationship between inculturation and indigenization
Indigenization also overlaps with inculturation but has a more specific meaning. Indigenization refers to enabling local churches to govern and support themselves rather than depending on foreign resources and control. Key aspects of indigenization include:
- Self-theologizing – Local leaders study Scripture in context.
- Self-governing – Churches led by local elders, not foreign missionaries.
- Self-supporting – Locally funded through giving and business.
- Self-propagating – Outreach done by community members.
So indigenization is the process of churches becoming rooted in their culture and community. Inculturation is the larger process of the gospel interacting with culture. The two concepts work closely together – inculturation enables indigenization which further develops the church in that culture.
Relationship between inculturation and contextual theology
Contextual theology develops from the process of inculturation. As believers in various cultures interpret and apply the Bible contextually, new theological perspectives emerge from their engagement of Scripture with their own realities. Contextual theology reflects on questions like:
- How does our culture condition our reading of Scripture?
- What cultural issues should we address in light of biblical principles?
- How can we express our faith in theologically sound yet culturally relevant ways?
So contextual theology is the refined theological reflection that arises from inculturation. It enables deeper engagement between the gospel and culture over time. Some examples of contextual theology include liberation theology, feminist theology, black theology, and Dalit theology.
Examples of inculturation throughout church history
Inculturation has been practiced throughout the history of the Christian church as it has spread globally. Some examples include:
- Europe – Adaptation of pagan festivals into Christian calendar. Use of Greek philosophy to explain theology.
- Africa – Blending indigenous music, art, and narrative into Christian expression.
- Asia – Adoption of ancestor veneration practices in Christian worship.
- Americas – Absorption of cultural symbols like corn and the mockingbird as Christian motifs.
- Pacific Islands – Incorporation of communal culture into church structure.
There have also been significant contextual adaptations regarding technology, language, architecture, clothing and rituals over the centuries. This demonstrates that Christianity does not require one uniform cultural expression. The gospel takes root in diverse cultures through inculturation.
Case studies in inculturation
Examining different cultural case studies helps illustrate the process of inculturation in practice:
Early Jesuit missionaries like Matteo Ricci immersed themselves in Chinese culture. Ricci adopted the robes of a Confucian scholar, mastered the language, and built on common values to explain the gospel. This pioneering work of inculturation laid foundations for Christianity to spread in China. Unfortunately later Catholic missionaries prohibited Chinese converts from practicing ancestral rites out of syncretism concerns, undermining inculturation.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is a prime example of indigenous inculturation. The church incorporated Jewish elements like the divine Ark of the Covenant along with longstanding Christian rituals. Ethiopian Christian art uses unique symbolic motifs. Worship involves singing, dancing, and drumming reflecting African traditions. This cultural integration allowed Ethiopian Christianity to flourish.
Roberto de Nobili, an early Jesuit missionary to India, radically inculturated himself by adopting the lifestyle of a Hindu holy man. He lived ascetically, wore saffron robes, and studied Sanskrit. De Nobili presented the gospel using Hindu concepts and terminology. This pioneering approach, though controversial at the time, helped establish Christianity in India that respected local culture.
In Oceania, indigenous cultures have been integrated into Christianity while remaining distinct. For example, the M??ori people of New Zealand have blended their traditional Haka dance into church services. Pacific Island churches fuse local and Western music.community relationships are prioritized. Oral storytelling conveys theology. These contextual expressions have helped Oceanic cultures embrace Christianity.
These examples demonstrate that despite inevitable missteps, progress has been made over history in inculturating the gospel in diverse contexts through respectful cultural engagement. Ongoing inculturation remains important for contemporary missions.
Inculturation among today’s unreached people groups
Inculturation is still a crucial need for spreading the gospel among today’s unreached people groups (UPGs). These groups have little or no access to the Christian message. Effective inculturation will require:
- Deep cultural understanding – Investing time to learn values, customs and worldviews.
- Building relationships – Gaining trust and demonstrating care for needs.
- Discerning cultural redemption – Affirming all that aligns with the gospel.
- Patient Bible translation – Conveying Scripture in heart languages.
- Indigenous leadership – Empowering cultural insiders to lead.
- Holistic ministry – Serving spiritual and physical needs.
Skillful inculturation will allow the gospel to positively engage these cultures, rather than be seen as a foreign imposition. Each UPG will require nuanced contextualization to open hearts to the gospel.
Inculturation is vital for sharing Christ with Muslim peoples in ways that are meaningful rather than offensive. Examples include utilizing the concept of Isa Al-Masih (Jesus the Messiah), the practice of spiritual pilgrimage, and forms of folk Islam to convey biblical truths.
Connecting Hindu peoples with Jesus may involve finding redemptive parallels in concepts like Namaste greetings seeing divinity within people and yoga poses pointing heavenward. Dance, colors, and vegetarian cuisine can be natural bridges. Building on common values of community, hospitality and harmony is wise.
To effectively share the gospel with Buddhists, Christians must appreciate the worldview differences regarding karma, enlightenment, and nirvana. Practices like meditation can be starting points. Concepts of suffering and the eightfold path could lead to Jesus as the ultimate source of salvation. A gentle, dialogical approach is often suitable.
In tribal contexts, old practices like blood covenants and sacrifices may be transformed and fulfilled in Christ and the cross. Reverence for ancestors can evolve into the biblical communion of saints. The use of turned into worship songs and teachings. Affirming social solidarity and morality paves the way for the gospel.
Each culture requires the gospel communicated in understandable ways. When people follow Christ out of cultural relevance rather than imposition, Christianity takes deepest root.
Inculturation is a vital part of the church’s mission to make disciples of all peoples. Rather than impose a foreign faith, inculturation enables people to follow Christ through cultural bridges. It upholds the value of culture while allowing the gospel to refine and fulfill it. Skillful contextualization across languages, rituals, worldviews and customs allows Christianity to thrive in diverse soils. When people worship Christ out of their heart culture, the church grows in vibrant, indigenous ways for God’s glory among all nations.