During my college years I traveled extensively, as a result I experienced a variety of cultures. The hospitality of Egypt, with cups full of Maghrebi, mint tea heavily laden with sugar; or the extended Italian meals that feature aperitivo, first and second Piatti, followed by a strong digestivo. I danced with Malawians at the celebration of a wedding, listening to the steady rhythm of a musical heritage built on drumbeat. I was captivated by history and fables woven seamlessly together in the dim lighting of an Irish pub. I have celebrated my own inherited culture over meals of the strange fish and potato heavy food of Norway, and listened to my grandmother reciting nursery rhymes in German. Though varied, these cultures are all cultivated by the same basic elements: food, music, and story.
In these cross-cultural experiences I also had the delight of worshiping alongside brothers and sisters in Christ. It was there I saw the thread of a common culture that superseded any national boundaries. I listened to Arabic hymns, shared the Lord’s supper alongside my Malawian brothers and sisters, and heard the word of God preached in Italian. I found more in common with brothers and sisters across the world than with those who do not know Christ within my own neighborhood.
Why is this? How could I stand in a church in Cairo, without a word spoken in English, and feel just as at home as when I stand in my church in North Carolina? How could I listen to hymns sung in a tongue I did not comprehend and yet understand the tone of worship beneath them? It is because we in the church have a shared cultural identity. We too have all three elements of culture: food, music, and story. Our food is the blood and body of Christ. Our music is the psalms, as well as hymns, new and old. Our story is the unfolding plan of redemptive history, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ, our Savior. We are truly a city set on a hill (Matthew 5:14). We are a new people. We are a new nation with its own unique culture. We are Zion. This new national heritage supersedes the disparate backgrounds of its multicultural members. In Christ we are truly citizens of a different kingdom. This new culture in Christ ties us to centuries of Christians before us and is indifferent to borders or ethnicities, and it will exist into eternity. We ought to treasure it above all else, and joyfully cultivate it and pass it on with more zeal than our genetic heritage.
Does this mean that our past cultures disappear? Is my individual cultural heritage absorbed and eradicated as I put on the new cultural identity of the church? Certainly not. But it ought to be rightly ordered, well beneath my new citizenship in Zion. This is the beautiful truth that Peter helps us understand:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:9-10
Often when we think of the church’s culture, we think of our more recent history in the west. Western civilization owes much to the extension of the church’s cultural heritage; our hospitals, schools, concern for the disenfranchised, and ethical foundation exist because of the church’s obedience to Christ and resulting influence. Yet, while the western world has produced a powerful expression of church culture, the essential components have existed long before. Our church culture predates western civilization. We hail back to ancestry from the beginning of time. We are Adam’s descendants, the man who walked with God. We tell the story of his fall, and the subsequent epic of God’s rescue. We are the offspring of Eve, the mother of all living, and like our mother we know enmity with the wicked one. We have Abraham as our father, and are his heirs by faith (Romans 4:16). We are of the line of the noble and courageous midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who feared God and so defied Pharaoh, refusing to murder babies at their birth. We sing Moses’ song, and Mary’s Magnificat. We pray King David’s prayers through the Psalms as we too toil and struggle in our walk with God. We call the martyr Stephen our brother–marveling at his steadfastness and love for his enemies as they stoned him to death. We sympathize with Peter’s rashness and failures, yet aim to follow his lead in repentance and fearlessly following Christ. We share kinship with Titus’ mother and grandmother, women, who through their faith and mothering care, helped prepare him for the pastorate.
Perpetua is our sister and we seek to emulate her courage in facing the Roman arena where she was torn apart by wild beasts for her refusal to denounce Christ. We stand in the tradition of Augustine, intellectually brightening our faith and countering the claims of culture; and Marguerite de Navarre who leveraged her position to protect persecuted Christians and paved the way for religious liberty in France. Ours is a legacy that follows the Englishman, Hudson Taylor, in his faithful founding of the China Inland Mission; and Pandita Ramabai, our sister in Christ who sought to share the gospel in her home country, India, and abolish the dehumanizing caste system. We recite creeds and confessions written by brothers long dead (but now alive again with Christ). We sing songs written centuries before us, and we add to our musical legacy with hymns and songs of our own. Our cultural food is the Bread of Life himself, the meal we share in remembrance of him.
We, as God’s people, have a fully developed, time-honored culture that exists in our food, music and story. And we are known by this cultural identity. As we cultivate and impart this culture to the next generation it ought to do what every living and thriving culture does: spread and extend into all facets of life.
Our culture ought to invoke work that is centered in humble service, that has its eyes set on the kingdom to come. It ought to expose a love that is rooted in the One who loved us first, compelling a deep love for one another that extends beyond ethnic or familial bonds, recognizing the brothers and sisters of the faith as our eternal family. It ought to lead to a death that is resolved in its submission to the authority of God, following a life lived in service to others, and at peace with any circumstance, including profound suffering or persecution. As Christ said, we will be known for our love for one another (John 13:35). Our heritage, our loyalty, our love must be for Christ’s church before all else.
This is our culture. It is the culture of every individual who makes up the community of the church, whether Cree or Malawian, Palestinian or Norwegian, Chinese or Mexican, British or Russian, Indonesian or Brazilian. The church’s ability to retain her distinctive culture, otherworldly in its single-minded kingdom aims, and united across national and ethnic lines in its devotion to the King of kings, will breathe life into the world around us simply by doing what the church is called to do: obeying and worshiping our God. As we sing songs new and old, continually tell the story of our redemption, and regularly remember Christ in the bread and cup, we will flourish and grow. We will be a city set on a hill, a light that cannot be extinguished.