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How Culture Shock Can Spread the Gospel

If you had been a missionary to Africa in the nineteenth century, you would have been traveling to “the Dark Continent” and “the White Man’s Graveyard.” That’s how people in the West viewed Africa—a vast, unexplored continent filled with as many question marks as people and wild animals. You might as well have been assigned to a planet in outer space.

But that’s where British medical missionary and explorer David Livingstone went and spent thirty years, beginning in 1841. Maps of Africa at that time had vast blank spaces on them. Rivers, if known, were unnamed in Western terms. There were no roads, no country borders, no landmarks—just trails, jungles, mountains, and plains that were home to people, animals, diseases, and customs almost wholly unknown to Westerners.

Livingstone was encouraged to go to Africa by a missionary to Bechuanaland Protectorate (modern Botswana) named Robert Moffat. There, Moffat said, he had seen “the smoke of a thousand villages, where no missionary had ever been.” His culture shock revealed the need. So Livingstone went—and spent three decades pulling the curtain back and letting the civilizing light of the Gospel shine on the Dark Continent.

The nineteenth century is often referred to as the Golden Age of Missions. Western missionaries—American and British primarily—began taking the Gospel into barely–known regions of the world. While Africa was perhaps the darkest and least–known of the continents, the culture shock for Western missionaries was serious wherever they went: Hudson Taylor to China, William Carey to India, Adoniram Judson to Burma, and others.

As radical as was the culture shock of those missionaries, there is one instance more dramatic than all those combined: when Jesus Christ left heaven and came to earth.

Their Culture Shock

Walther Eichrodt (d. 1978) was a Swiss theologian who was famous for his use of “irruption” to describe the way God came to earth: “That which binds together indivisibly the two realms of the Old and New Testaments… is the irruption of the kingdom of God into this world and its establishment here.”1

Just as David Livingstone entered darkest Africa from the outside, so Christ entered into the darkness of humanity from outside.

What is irruption? The best way to understand what irruption means is to think of its opposite: eruption. When a volcano erupts, it explodes from the inside. When something irrupts, it enters explosively from the outside. That’s what happened when Jesus came to earth and announced the explosive presence (irruption) of the kingdom of God. Just as David Livingstone entered darkest Africa from the outside, so Christ entered into the darkness of humanity from outside.

Philippians 2:5–11 is the classic text that describes the culture shock Christ experienced when He left heaven and came to earth: “But [Christ] made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (verse 7). Christ left the glory of heaven and the fellowship of the Trinity and journeyed to a planet made dark by sin. He became like—physically but not in His character—those He came to save. He left the throne room of God and became a slave. In short, Paul writes, “though He was rich… He became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Think of the culture shock Jesus experienced living in a fallen world. Even though He entered this world as a babe and was gradually “acclimatized” to human culture, He was never without the presence of the Spirit (John 3:34) and an awareness of His heaven–sent mission, even as a child (Luke 2:41–52). But He never got used to selfish ambition, lying, stealing, deceit, killing, sexual sin, profanity, sickness, demon possession—these things were an affront and an offense to His divine sensibilities. Yet His mission required that He live in the presence of cultural offense without becoming part of its practice.

Think of the culture shock Jesus experienced living in a fallen world.

Jesus discovered on earth what missionary Don Richardson found in New Guinea—everything was backward! In his 1974 book, Peace Child, Richardson told how the Sawi people applauded Judas and laughed at Jesus upon hearing the story of Judas’ betrayal. In their culture, trickery and deceit were high values, and Jesus was a fool who got duped for thirty pieces of silver.

If Don Richardson was shocked at such a reversal of values in New Guinea, imagine how shocked Jesus must have been to discover how dramatically humanity had reversed the values of heaven. No wonder He taught His disciples to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Our Culture Shock

Jesus experienced culture shock. Nineteenth–century missionaries experienced culture shock. And we are experiencing culture shock as well. It’s as if we have fallen down “Alice in Wonderland’s” rabbit hole, spinning and tumbling into an environment we don’t recognize and can’t understand.

But remember: This is not new! From the Garden of Eden forward, this world has been a strange and threatening place for those who seek to follow God. The current manifestations of sin in our world may be more modern, but there is nothing new under the sun of sin. Our challenge is the challenge of the ages for the people of God: Do not grow weary in well–doing (Galatians 6:9); do not become of the world while living in the world (Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 9:19–23; 1 John 2:15–17).

What can we learn about God and His purposes as we see chaos, immorality, and secularism rising all around us?

But there is another challenge: What can we learn about God and His purposes as we see chaos, immorality, and secularism rising all around us? Once we get acclimatized to our culture shock, how can we use it to our advantage? How can we make it a spiritual asset instead of a spiritual liability?

  1. We remember the need. Christ said He did not come to minister to those who are well but to those who are sick (Mark 2:17). Instead of being frustrated by “the sick,” we must see them as the reason for Christ coming to earth.
  2. We remember the beauty of Christ. Christ is everything like us in His humanity (Isaiah 53:2; Hebrews 5:8) and nothing like us in His deity (Hebrews 4:15). The corruption of the world reminds us of His perfection. He is, in His beauty, what we are destined to become (Romans 8:28–29).
  3. We remember the dangers of sin. We are warned about the dangers of thinking we are beyond sin (1 Corinthians 10:12). There, but for the grace of God, go we.
  4. We remember the truth of Scripture. John reminds us that “the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19) but that “the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
  5. We remember the solution. Mankind seeks solutions to manifold problems. But we remember, “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The best thing we can do for our world is to manifest Christ.
  6. We remember our priorities. “Fixing the world” is out of our hands. We are to focus on what we can do, not worry about what we can’t do. That means prayer, having biblical reasons for our hope, being salt and light, and sharing the Gospel.
  7. We remember the outcome. “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1). The Judge of all the earth will do right (Genesis 18:25).

In short, culture shock has a purpose: To remind us of the world’s need for Christ. When we go out into the world—mission trips, serving the needy, helping a troubled neighbor, praying for the world’s “hot spots”—we stay aware. By insulating ourselves from the “sick” in this world, not only can we not help them, but we lose sight of the power of the Great Physician and His ability to meet their needs as well as ours.

Don’t be shocked by what is happening in our world. It is normal; it is what happens when people refuse the grace of God. Instead, let your life be an echo of the words of Jesus, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Remember: You and I were part of the world’s chaos before we met Jesus (Ephesians 2:12). God has not turned His back on our chaotic world, and neither can we.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Turning Points devotional magazine.


1Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1961), 26.

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