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Common Missional Definitions of Culture

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series

"Toward a Biblical Understanding of Culture"

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Likely the most influential early evangelical definition of culture comes from Lesslie Newbigin who claims that culture is “the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another.”1 Darrell Guder cites this definition early in his influential Missional Church,2 thus revealing its impact upon later missional thinking in the Gospel and Our Culture Network and beyond. Other later definitions reflect similar thinking. For example, Alan Hirsch says, “Culture is a complex jungle of ideas, history, language, religious views, economic systems, political issues, and the like.”3 Kathy Black defines culture as “the sum attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is transmitted through language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art forms from one generation to the next.”4

Important to recognize is that none of these definitions draws its understanding of culture directly from Scripture but rather assumes the validity of the contemporary idea of culture on its own merits. Furthermore, beyond these few definitions, other missional authors seem to assume the idea of culture without even defining it. This reveals that missional authors utilize the prevailing contemporary notion of culture by default in their emphases upon incarnation and contextualization. This in itself is not necessarily problematic, but in order to understand what missional proponents mean by “culture,” this requires further research into what led to the development of the idea as it exists today. We’ll turn to that subject next week.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983), 5. []
  2. Darrell Guder, Missional Church: a Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), 9. []
  3. Alan Hirsch and Debra Hirsch, Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010), 25. []
  4. Kathy Black, Culturally-Conscious Worship (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), 8. []