Are you knee deep or neck deep in culture (and why does it matter?)

When Pete and I first moved to Mexico, we were a family of three.  Our toddler son was social and verbal— in English.  One Sunday morning when he was close to two we visited a church in our city.  

Will was put in a Sunday School class of kids his age.  I hung around to make sure he was okay.  

I saw my blond-haired, blue eyed Anglo son surrounded by dark skinned, dark haired, dark eyed kids.  As I watched, the whole group drifted away from Will, till he was sitting and playing alone.

This was a social kid.  This was a verbal kid.  But he was out of the circle. 

I would have been heart-broken for him, but he was completely unfazed and oblivious to the drifting away, which was in no way malicious.   

The cold hard fact was that he didn’t fit in. He didn’t know Spanish yet.  He didn’t know the games yet.  He didn’t know the social rules and norms.   

As the years passed and he learned Spanish, he earned a place in the middle of the crowd, regardless of his appearance.  

Most global nomads can relate to the experience of not fitting in to a group. 

Living as a foreigner in another country, it’s almost expected that you won’t fit in. But when it happens in your passport country, sometimes you can be blindsided.   

When we live in foreigners in another culture, on many levels, we live on the fringes of that culture. 

When we were in Mexico, we operated somewhat outside of the Mexican economic system, because we received foreign funds. 

We operated outside of the educational system, because our kids went to a school for ex-pats. 

We operated outside of the political system, because we couldn’t vote or get involved in politics. 

As evangelicals, we operated outside of the prevailing religious system in country full of not just Catholics, but Guadalupanos. The adoration of the Virgin of Guadalupe permeated the culture. 

Even though we lived largely outside those systems, they still influenced our lives.  

We celebrated Mexican Independence Day with friends and neighbors.  

Fluctuations of the exchange rate affected our buying power. 

We kept our kids home from the Mexican pre-school on the Day of the Dead. 

Political demonstrations that blocked streets kept us from going where we wanted to go.  

In our home, we created our own culture that reflected not only what we were surrounded with, but the values, attitudes and beliefs we brought with us. 

At church, we also influenced the creation of culture in our role as leaders. 

In returning to our passport country we have integrated back into culture in some aspects.

In other ways we haven’t. 

We can vote. 

Our income is solely in dollars that are generated locally. 

But, we send our kids to Christian schools. 

We speak Spanish at church.  

As evangelicals, we watch the predominate culture become more secularlized. 

In our home, we create our own culture that reflects not only what we are surrounded with, but the values, attitudes and beliefs that we internalized while living in Mexico. 

At church, we influence the creation of culture in our role as leaders.  

A hermit chooses to essentially live outside of culture. 

A family on a self-contained farm can also be that way, or they can choose to engage the culture.  

Subcultures also exist.  A church can form a community that is counter cultural.  

The Amish live in a subculture that is on the fringe of mainstream culture.

Foreigners living in another country find a natural affinity to other foreigners and can form a community of ex-pats that create a subculture. 

A military base that includes houses, offices, schools and shops would be an example.  Or a missionary compound.  

Or a group of foreigners who establish a school for their children based on their home country’s norms.  

Our God-given drive for belonging, community and connection is affected by the culture that we live in and the subcultures that we choose to associate with. 

Why does is matter if we’re fully immersed in culture or just dipping our toes in? 

For a couple of reasons. 

First of all, for self-awareness.  A fish swimming in water doesn’t understand water.  Without stopping to pay attention to the culture we operate in, we are unaware of the influence in has on us. 

Secondly, awareness is the first step to influencing our culture.  What is within your circle of influence?  Your family, your church, the committees and boards you serve on?  

What about your neighborhood?  Your community?  Your alma mater?  Your workplace? Your social media networks?

When you stop to think about it, there are many spheres you can influence.  

Maybe it’s time to be more intentional about impacting the culture surrounding us. 

Maybe the solution to the problem is to realize that you can choose culture, you can choose subcultures and you can influence culture.  

I disagree with anthropologists who want to preserve culture at all costs. 

The fact is, not all culture is amoral.  Some of it is downright evil.  

Female genital mutilation is cultural.  So is widow burning and temple sex slaves.  To make a blanket statement that all culture should be preserved is outrageous.

I think it’s a good thing to destroy that part of culture.  I think we can create something better in it’s place.

Some cultural traditions can be redeemed.  Halloween, for example.  

Other aspects of culture are good and helpful.  They should be preserved. 

I love the new trend of gender reveal for expecting parents.  I think it’s great for pro-life thinking to start thinking of babies as boys or girls.  It’s also great for a society to embrace what is female and what is male. That’s gotten pretty messed up lately. 

Culture is fluid. It can also be amazingly permanent. 


Maybe you don’t think of yourself as an influencer of culture. Maybe it’s times to start.

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4 thoughts on “Are you knee deep or neck deep in culture (and why does it matter?)

  1. Timothy Walter Blycker

    Great article, not only for missionaries and MK’s, but for all believers who want to make an impact on our generation! Well written, Beth!!!!!

    Reply
  2. Debbie in Puebla

    I just came across this Beth! Good thoughts. I saved it to use as I work with those headed into ministry at a seminary in Guatemala (starting next year), although of course it applies to all of us. Blessings!!

    Reply

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