Alongsider Briefings: Reflections of a Life Lived with God

Live Like a Culture Detective

Dinner at the Mowry home is a time for Peggy and me to catch up on our days. It was during a dinner conversation that Peggy jolted me with these words: “I’m going to resign my teaching position and find a job in a corporate setting. I want to live as a light among unbelievers rather than stay in the safety of a Christian school.”

I was surprised. I knew how much Peggy enjoyed teaching in a Christian school. She loved the relationships with her fellow teachers and children, as well as the freedom to speak and teach from a biblical point of view. As the same time, I was thrilled that she wanted to take a radical step of obedience and live out Jesus’ mission in a fresh way, leaving a Christian culture of comfort and familiarity to work in an unfamiliar setting.

Peggy entered a completely different culture when she walked through the doors of the corporate officer building on a bright Monday morning. What did she find behind those doors? She faced competition instead of comradery. Office memos replaced personal communication. A supervisor’s demands for productivity replaced a principle’s shepherding nature. Conversations were sprinkled with expletives instead of spiritual encouragement.

This simple act put her in a new context, a new culture. Peggy needed to be a culture detective to spot the clues necessary to work, live, and succeed in this new culture. These clues would give her the cultural wisdom necessary to relate, contribute, and influence.

Peggy hadn’t realized how easily she swam in a Christian culture until she was immersed in a high-octane corporate world. She was now swimming in a new pond. Moving to a new culture didn’t require relocating to another country, learning a foreign language, or relating to unfamiliar people. Peggy merely drove to a different part of the city, met a new group of people, and did a different job.

Everyday leaders and disciplemakers live and lead in a variety of cultures. Most leaders choose to invest in one culture or context to live, work, or minister. No matter how small or large a culture is, it is challenging and changing. Understanding a culture empowers us to wisely do the Great Commission; it requires us growing in cultural wisdom.

When the word culture is mentioned, several images may come to mind. For some people, their first thought is of the culture they inherited from their ethnic or national background, which is typically a positive association. For a few, a culture is descriptive of someone who has a wide range of experience (i.e., a cultured person). Some people view culture as a threat, referring to the secular environment that exists outside the church — “It’s easy to be conformed to our culture rather than to Jesus.”

Trying to define culture is like taking a drink from a fire hose. Most of us want a clear, simple definition of culture, like taking a smaller drink of water. Here’s my definition of culture: A culture is a group of people who share a common language, values, story, and practices.

Culture can be what I call a macroculture — the “big” culture of a nation (a French culture), an ethnic group (African American culture), or a regional area (southern culture). Some would call this a “dominant” culture — the cultural reality where one ethnicity or race sets the norms for others.

It is within these macro cultures that most of us swim daily. We’re so used to this culture that we don’t notice how familiar it is until we leave it. This happens every time we visit another country or venture into an ethnic enclave different from our own. This is the type of culture in which missionaries place themselves and learn how to ministry cross-culturally.

Everyday leaders and disciplemakers mostly live, lead, and minister in microcultures — workplaces, neighborhoods, churches, or families. The definition of a microculture is still the same — “a group of people who share a common language, values, story, and practices” — but micro cultures can be as small as a family or a company where we work.

Without an understanding of our particular cultures, we will fail to connect and communicate with others. Understanding our cultures happens as we grow in cultural wisdom by practicing the art of being culture detectives. What do I mean by cultural wisdom?

Cultural wisdom is more than cultural awareness or sensitivity. It’s this and more. Cultural wisdom gives us the ability to wisely relate to, understand, and adapt to culturally diverse situations and a variety of people. Cultural wisdom is applying God’s wisdom to a particular context to live and influence for the Kingdom. This was the challenge Peggy faced as she moved from the familiarity of a Christian culture to a corporate culture. She needed to be a culture detective.

What is a “culture detective?” In my up-coming book, The Ways of the Leader, I explore how the Scriptures teach the importance of understanding the contexts — the culture — of where we live, work, play, or worship. You will discover how the literary figure of Sherlock Holmes exemplifies the work of a culture detective. I will unlock the three character qualities of a culture detective and the three skills needed to grow in cultural wisdom. You will also learn a simple process to understand your current life and ministry culture.

Peggy needed cultural wisdom to influence her new workplace. Collecting clues gave her insight into the shared life of people in her work setting. Can you identify with Peggy? Are you in need of some cultural wisdom? Learning how to be a culture detective will help you understand and practice cultural wisdom so that you can live, lead, and minister in your current context.

Was there a happy ending for Peggy? Yes, she grew in cultural wisdom learning how to adapt, communicate, and relate to a culture different from what she was accustomed to. The Lord gave her opportunities to invite some co-workers to read the Bible with her. A discussion in the Gospel of Mark has changed one friend’s life.

This blog was adapted from Bill’s up-coming book: The Ways of the Leader: Four Practices to Bring People Together and Break New Ground. It will be released October 17.

You can pre-order the book at Bill’s website: Go to the “books” tab and learn how to receive a 30 percent discount on the book.

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