Since the beginning, the church has participated in a gospel transaction between the particularities of local cultures and the universal message of Christ. This is called inculturation. At its most basic level, inculturation is understood as the “Word becoming flesh” in and through the life of the local Christian community—the Word becomes living and real in a particular context, a particular people and a particular place. This has always been at the heart of the Christian movement.
Inculturation recognizes that in every culture there are life-giving elements that are a gift from God. The gospel celebrates these, affirming and strengthening their presence in Christian identity. It is perhaps easiest to see this in the pre-Christian traditions that have become a celebrated part of Christian practice: many Christmas traditions and the observance of Lent are examples. The living Word of God—present in creation, alive in the proclamation of the gospel—appears to seek inculturation at all times and all places, permeating every aspect of human life. We should always look for the ways that this is happening in our local context and community.
The other side of inculturation is the challenge that the gospel brings to local cultures. Though the gospel affirms aspects of culture, it confronts others with the radical truth of God. For example, local traditions of hospitality might be adopted into the life of a Christian community; local prejudice may be confronted. In all cases, the gospel’s message and power operate to the glory of God and the benefit of the people.
Inculturation allows insight and participation into the grace and love of God within a unique context. Life is sanctified and celebrated. It is in this process that people, inside and outside of the churches, clearly witness the teaching and proclamation of Jesus. Though it is something people do, we believe inculturation is the grace-filled work of the Spirit. It is something that we should expect, something that we have all, at one time or another, witnessed in the life of the church.
But inculturation was stunted in the Western churches’ outreach to Indigenous Peoples. Instead of inculturation, Indigenous culture was condemned in total, allowing only a foreign culture to carry the message of the gospel. The gospel was heard, but the attempt to limit the gospel’s impact to those who aggressively adopted Western culture was, and remains, a severe stumbling block.
Today, we are the blessed witnesses of the restart of inculturation among Indigenous Peoples. It is an exciting time. It will offer new avenues of healing and new insights into the the way of Jesus. It may even cause a renewal of interest in inculturation in the larger church.