Culture is Local—Really Local!

May 7, 2013

Culture is Local—Really Local!
Wayne Vanderwier

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Wayne Vanderwier

Culture is Local—Really Local!

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading the first of three posts on international biblical counseling. In addition to today’s post by Dr. Vanderwier, and in Part 2 you will hear from Karl Hood about biblical counselling (with two Ls) in Australia, and in Part 3 you will hear from Karen Gaul about biblical counselling (with two Ls) in Canada.

Cross-Cultural Callings

“God had an only son and He was a missionary. A poor, poor example of Him I am.
But in this work I now live. And in this work, I wish to die.”
(David Livingstone, 1813-1873; Missionary to Africa)

God has given Overseas Instruction in Counseling (OIC) the privilege of training biblical counseling trainers around the world. Our strategic objective – assisting in the initial creation and continuing development of national biblical counseling training and certifying organizations – is being realized in the Philippines, Australia, the CIS, Russia, various European nations, and in the Middle East. Both of our delivery systems, Leadership Training (Modular Programs) and Academic Training (Degree Programs) eventuate toward this same goal.

Because we’ve just returned from extended ministry with our Arab brothers and sisters, that part of the world is, today, especially on our hearts. In partnership with a well-respected, regionally-accredited, Christian academic institution (the largest in the Middle East), OIC currently directs graduate degree programs (Master of Biblical Counseling) in both Egypt and Lebanon. A similar program is scheduled to begin in Jordan in Fall, 2014.

“Why Do We Need This?”

One of the classes in our curriculum, a course just completed in Egypt, is “Cross-Cultural Counseling.” As it was approaching, one of our students said, “Why do we need this? We’re all Egyptians!” Without time for a technical answer – and knowing that this objection would eventually be answered in the course itself – I responded, “Is there any difference between living in Cairo and living in Upper Egypt?”

The answer? “Of course. That’s a whole different world!”

A comprehensive listing of biblical illustrations of cross-cultural ministry is too long to rehearse here. Some obvious examples would include these:

  • Abram was told to go to a foreign land that God would show him.
  • Joseph’s favor with his father resulted in him going from pit-dweller to prisoner to prince in a culture that was radically different from his own.
  • Moses was assigned the task of moving millions of God’s people from the known to the unknown.
  • Joshua later marched those millions into foreign territory to confront people who were different than them in some scary ways.
  • Daniel and his colleagues experienced cross-cultural education – and testing.
  • A few generations later Zerubbabel and others returned “home” to a place significantly changed by several generations of “others.”
  • Paul traveled his world to share the gospel, plant churches, and strengthen the believers.
  • And Jesus was, of course, the ultimate, cross-cultural missionary leaving the glories of heaven to live among fallen, wicked people.

In each of these cases people were called of God to represent Him among “strangers,” people whose languages and customs seemed peculiar.

How Local is “Local”?

If Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt are different worlds – and they are! – so are places much closer geographically. Lebanon is a small nation. But while southern Lebanon and northern Lebanon are not far apart, the former is controlled by terrorists while the latter was the site our recent three-day vacation. Safe, and beautiful!

I was raised in a farming community in W. Michigan. I attended an all-white high school. Because of a heritage of Dutch influence, people in my town were at least religious and moral, if not born-again. Gerald Ford was my congressman.

So imagine the culture shock I experienced (although, in truth, I didn’t know that was what I was experiencing) when, in 1981, I was called to pastor a church in Northwest Indiana. I was thrust into an urban, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic environment in which the economy was driven by the steel mills and unions. And our relocation covered barely more than 100 miles!

A different culture could be just blocks from where you are. It’s the place where people think, choose, and perhaps, speak differently. Decisions are made with different values that derive from different beliefs based on a different worldview.

So What?

If, as I’ve argued, culture is very local, what does that mean in our people-helping ministries?

  • It means that, even in America, even in your town, there are a variety of cultural perspectives.
  • It means we must be aware that these differences will impact our attempts to provide gracious soul care.
  • It means that we must carefully define our terms and ask those we’re helping to carefully define their terms.
  • It means that we must ask a hundred questions concerning background and perspectives, then ask a hundred more. You simply can’t have too much “cultural learning information.”
  • It means that one size doesn’t fit all, that personal ministry can’t be done in an assembly line.

Biblical counselors should never underestimate the “localness” and impact of culture.

Join the Conversation

Have you seen the “localness” of culture? How can biblical counselors understand local cultures better?


3 thoughts on “Culture is Local—Really Local!

  1. Thanks for you blog. I counsel in different locations and yes the culture is different, but even in just one location people come from different backgrounds and different denominations and so yes very different cultures.

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