Cultural Assumptions

I learned something recently — it’s easy to make cultural assumptions.  The way this shows up in my life is that I assume my cultural norms are the cultural norms for everyone.

And assuming my cultural understanding is everyone else’s cultural understanding is a serious stumbling block to following Jesus actively in the real world.

Why?  What’s wrong with thinking one’s cultural norms are the cultural norms?

In order to answer this question, I want to tell you a story…


MEC Retreat

Me teaching at a college and young adult retreat.


A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of leading a retreat for college and young adults.  I really had a blast!  They coordinator of the retreat asked me to lead the group through a series on the seven churches from the first few chapters of the book of Revelation (the last book in the New Testament).

This was exciting for me because I had already done some work on the seven churches before, meaning that I could pull out my old notes and update them.  This is always a fun process for me.  It’s interesting to see how my thinking has changed and grown over the years.

But another reason why teaching this group was going to be exciting was the fact that everyone in the group was Egyptian or Palestinian.  I have several friends from Egypt (two of whom helped me score this opportunity!), so I felt ready to go!

I met with one of my Egyptian friends prior to the retreat and he gave me some helpful insights on the group and where they were coming from.  He reminded me that since the revolution in Egypt in 2011, many Egyptians, especially Egyptian Christians, have come to the United States.  In Southern California many of them find one another at the church that birthed this college and young adult group.  Therefore, according to my friend, their experience of the church, the gospel, and Jesus himself was very different from what I was used to.

I heard him but apparently his advice did not sink in for me…


Cultural Oops!

During one of the teaching sessions I was making a case I make often: Christians are perceived as judgmental and this is something that we need to make efforts to change.  Around the room I was receiving some nods of agreement and a few incredulous looks.  I shook off the latter and latched onto the former…I love affirmation after all!

Later, during the same session, I made the point again that Christians tend to be judgmental and Laura, one of the young women at the retreat, slid her hand up in the air.

“Can I respond?”

“Of course,” I answered.

“Well, in Egypt Christians are often hired to do jobs that require honesty, like a cashier.  In fact, among Muslims in Egypt, Christians are known for being honest, moral, and good people.”

“Hmm…,” was all that I could muster up to reply.

“So it may not be fair to assume that all Christians are judgmental.”

“You’re right Laura.  That was a mistake on my part.  I’m sorry…”


The First Moral of the Story

Why is it a problem to assume that one’s cultural norms are the cultural norms?

Because in so doing we can unintentionally and easily belittle and insult other people.  And, trust me, it is truly difficult to share and embody the good news of Jesus and his kingdom while being belittling and insulting!

What can we do to prevent committing a cultural faux-pas like I did?

Well, there are many things we can do:

  1. Learn about the cultural diversity around us.  Even if we live somewhere that seems to be more or less mono-cultural, every family has its own culture and the same sort of mistakes can happen at that level as well!  However, by educating ourselves about the people with whom we regularly come into contact, we may be little less likely to flub it up too bad from a cultural perspective.
  2. Beef up our filters.  If you’re like me and you talk as part of your daily and weekly routines, then it is likely that your filter needs to be changed!  Here’s what I mean: I can just talk and talk and talk without thinking much.  It’s in times like these that I find myself making the most cultural mistakes.
  3. Spend some time learning our cultural quotient and then to do something with this knowledge we gained.  We need to know our CQ — our cultural quotient.  There are some “official” ways of looking into this, but  an unofficial way would be to ask a trusted group of friends who you feel are more culturally savvy than you to give you an honest assessment of where you are.  Then the question is this: What will you do with this information?  What will I?


The Second Moral of the Story

Think about what Laura said to correct me — Christians in Egypt have a reputation for being honest and trustworthy.  But Christians in America, by and large, have a reputation for being judgmental.  What’s up with this?

The first way to think about it may be that people in America are giving us a bad rap and that we really aren’t all that judgmental.  But I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we know this isn’t true.  We make snide comments about the behaviors of our friends, family, and coworkers who are far from God, as if we do everything right.  We go on the warpath sometimes looking for ways to judge our national, state, and local political leaders.  And we give social media updates bemoaning the ungodly behavior of those crazy people in Hollywood.

We Christians are judgmental in America, by and large.

So a second way of thinking about it may be that Christians in Egypt are simply less judgmental than we are or that they are simply better known for things that they do well.  Either way, something must be different about them.  What is it?

Well, they worship the same Jesus American Christians do, they read the same Bible, they have similar community times, they pray in similar ways, etc., etc.  So what’s different?

Their context, that’s what’s different.  Here in America we believe (erroneously) that we live in a Christian nation and that everyone should abide by our rules, expectations, and assumptions.  But we don’t live in a Christian nation and many millions of Americans don’t even have a clue what our rules, expectations, and assumptions are!  The truth is that America is not a Christian nation and pretending like it is has done deep, deep damage to our credibility among those who are far from God.

Egypt is different, however.  Upwards of 90% of Egyptians are Muslim.  Egypt is clearly marked by an abiding presence of Islam.  And it is in that context (and an uncomfortable and scary context at times) that Christians in Egypt stand out.  Their kindness, generosity, joy, and honesty are obvious to many people.


So Laura was right — and the lessons we should learn from her are to do our best to be culturally aware and that those of us who follow Jesus in America need to work hard to become known for good things about us instead of bad things.


What do you think?  What can we learn from Laura’s insight?  Let me know in the comments below!