Teaching with Culture in Mind
Asking people to describe their culture is like asking a fish to describe the water. Culture is such a part of daily life that we hardly notice it until we encounter someone with cultural differences. You may have never given your culture much thought. If so, having someone in your Bible study group from a different culture than yours may create frustration. Culture has surface level expressions, such as food, festivals, and traditions, as well as deeper levels consisting of values and beliefs. Culture influences what people think, how they behave, and what they believe. To make it even more complicated, individual differences between people create additional levels of cultural diversity. Culture even affects how a person interacts with Scripture and their expectations for your Bible study.
Some differences are obvious, such as language and skin color. Other distinctions are less apparent. Orientation toward time, for example, can be a surprisingly divisive issue when you are teaching people outside your own culture. Cultures fall roughly into two camps: time-oriented and event-oriented. Time-oriented individuals value punctuality; they see time as a commodity. They would consider being late to Bible study disrespectful. Event-oriented people have a more fluid approach toward time, focusing less on the actual clock and more on the gathering itself. Suppose you have a time-oriented German and an event-oriented Filipino in your Bible study group. The German arrives at the exact time for the Bible study to begin. She expects everyone else to be ready for the study at the same time and sees people who arrive late as being disrespectful. The Filipino takes the time he needs to get his family settled in their places before making his way to your Bible study group 15 or 20 minutes late. When he realizes that you have started without him, he feels like the group has been disrespectful to him, as if they didn’t care if he was present or not. These are cultural perspectives; neither the German or the Filipino are more or less spiritual because of their understanding of time. But, the difference can create difficulty in your group. Find ways to include and accept both practices in your Bible study group. Perhaps you could begin the session on time with a “soft beginning,” something that engages those who arrive early, but has a more direct beginning after everyone has had time to arrive. Discuss differences in cultural values to create deeper understanding and patience for one another.
A few years ago, I sat down to study the parable of the good shepherd (John 10) with brothers and sisters from a semi-nomadic people group. I quickly realized that I did not understand shepherding. These believers had a different understanding of this passage than I did. Their family members were shepherds! Culture shapes how we read the Bible. The original readers of the Word would have been clear on the cultural context in which it was written; they would have known the issues being addressed. Today, many readers are culturally far removed from biblical times; we easily miss the cultural clues. We may also read our own cultural ideas into the passage. As you teach your class, try to mine the cultural insights into the various passages of Scripture. As an American woman, I had an intellectual grasp of the John 10 passage but not an experiential one. My semi-nomadic friends resonated with Jesus’ role as our shepherd and had immediate insights into that passage that I had missed.
If you are fortunate enough to have people of different cultures in your Bible study group, celebrate those differences. Each individual brings a richness to your study. Approach them with a heart to learn. When you show value for how God reveals himself to different cultures, your class will develop a fuller understanding of who God is and how He moves among His people.