Culture in connection with Bible classes is still a relatively new conversation. The word culture actually has a rather neutral definition. Culture is the “customs, arts, social institutions and achievements of a particular nation, people or other social group.”
Cultures go beyond just nationality and ethnicity. They can come from religions, schools, clubs, interests, neighborhoods, hobbies and any number of other groups of people. Basically any time there is a group of people that spend a lot of time together, you will find aspects of culture.
There are three main types of cultures Bible classes for kids and teens need to address on a regular basis:
- The cultures of the Bible. There are more of these than you may realize. Egyptian, Midianite, Hittite, Amorite, Philistine, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Jewish are just a few of the many cultures found in the Bible. Understanding aspects of these cultures can help your Bible students better understand the Bible lessons that include them.
- The cultures of your area. The cultures of an area impact how your Bible students view their world. One would think this would be based on a nation, but even cities and neighborhoods can have unique cultures impacting students. They need to learn how to apply what they are learning from the Bible to the cultures they encounter on a regular basis.
- The cultures of our world. Our world is smaller than ever. Many of your Bible students will visit other countries and continents in their life time. Some may even live in another country for a period of time. Your Bible students need to learn how to be empathetic, find commonalities and develop a passion for serving and sharing their faith with people from any and every culture. It begins with exposing them to other cultures and helping them develop godly behaviors and attitudes around people who may appear very different from them. In some areas, certain groups have isolated themselves from other groups giving young people a skewed view of other cultures. Unfortunately, this skew is often negative and fosters attitudes and behaviors that don’t accurately reflect God’s love. The beginning of loving others is often learning everything we can about them.
As you begin addressing various cultures with Bible students, there are a few areas you need to navigate carefully.
- Assigning value to an entire cultural group rather than specific attitudes and behaviors. Yes, some cultures may be more godly in general than others. It’s important though to help students realize that even within a culture that is primarily ungodly, there can be exceptions and hope for change. In fact, the Bible is full of examples. People who were godly in spite of those around them being ungodly. Nations who repented of ungodliness and sin and turned to following God. Sweeping generalizations are dangerous. It’s important to teach Bible students to engage each individual like Jesus did with the prostitutes and tax collectors.
- Encouraging sympathy instead of empathy. Sympathy can have an underlying attitude of superiority. Empathy looks for commonalities and helps your Bible students realize they may have as much to learn from people in other cultures as they have to teach them.
- Focusing on differences instead of similarities. Cultural differences can be interesting and fun. If you only stress the differences though, your students will begin to believe they have nothing in common with them and create an emotional distance between themselves and others.
- Portraying the folk aspects of culture as every day culture. Those cute children from other cultures wearing different clothes from your Bible students are usually wearing costumes. People haven’t worn those costumes daily any more than children in the U.S. currently wear clothing from Revolutionary War times. While it’s interesting to learn about the folk culture of other countries, chances are those kids wear clothes and listen to music that is very similar to what your students use.
- Overcompensating for the errors of others. There have been artists in the past who depicted Jesus as having pale skin, light hair and blue eyes. Some modern artists have attempted to compensate by depicting Jesus as being black. Neither artist is probably correct. Jesus most likely closely resembled men from the Middle East today. It’s important to represent cultures accurately and not share them in ways that are still inaccurate based on an attempt to somehow compensate for errors in the past. Chances are your students aren’t aware of those errors any way.
- Being overly critical of Christians, churches or Christianity because of your personal past experiences. We know Christians are people who still sin. As a result, the church and its people don’t always resemble God’s perfect plan for His people. Your Bible students are young and have little life experience. They probably haven’t experienced what you did decades ago. Even if they have, you don’t need to add to their negative experience. If you aren’t careful, you can encourage them to withdraw from God entirely. These conversations need to have as much grace, forgiveness and mercy as they do criticism of Christian culture. Chances are we aren’t doing things perfectly either. We may just be modeling to them the ways they will in turn treat us when they see the impact of our mistakes.
Addressing culture in Bible class isn’t easy, but it’s essential. In the next post, we will share some of our favorite resources for the multi-cultural Bible class.