Culture's Role in Gospel Communication


Foolish is the evangelist, missionary, or church planter who overlooks or brushes aside the role of culture upon gospel communication. Just as Jesus entered into a specific community and taught his gospel through the context of the culture in which he physically walked, today’s gospel communicator should share the gospel in cultural context. This requires an understanding of the aspects of culture upon a community and the opportunities or obstacles they may present. No two cultures or communities are alike. Therefore, in an attempt to understand culture’s role on gospel communication, this post will examine the question by analyzing one specific culture (and its subcultures).

Often, studies of cross-cultural evangelism address the complex ME-3 issues, that is, evangelism that involves communicating the gospel to an entirely different language and culture.1 However, in our zeal to reach the world, the American church has neglected many nearby American communities. McRaney says, “The church in America is failing to impact the pool of people who do not claim to possess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”2 Could this failure be due to the poor communication of the gospel within the subtle cultural differences between neighbors? Utah is a prime example. According to the Association of Religious Data Archives, in 2000, only 7.8% of the population of Utah held a Trinitarian belief of the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, that is, the God of the Bible.3 If you include the believe that the Bible is comprised of 66 books, this number drops to 3.2%. This compares to a national average of 44.9% over the same period.4 If Utah were its own nation, the number of Christians5 per capita would rank below China (8.2%),6 and the United Arab Emirates (12.6%).7

Utah is highly populated by Mormons, more appropriately called ‘Latter-day Saints’ (LDS). In 2000, 66.8% were officially members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and those with similar cultural backgrounds belonging to cults and offshoots of the LDS church (such as the FLDS and other polygamists groups) as well as the non-Christian ex-Mormons were likely counted as “unclaimed” or unchurched.8 Through the community’s history, the LDS church’s doctrines, and development of LDS people in Utah, this specific culture is unlike any other in the United States and offers a good case study for evangelism in a subtle, cross-cultural environment. By dealing with specific examples rather than abstract ideas, one should be able to glean principles of cultural understanding and gospel communication that may be applied to other subtle cultural differences.

Every person on earth exists within a culture and understands the world through a lens tinted or shaped by one particular culture or another. Dyrness defines culture as, “the total pattern of a people’s behavior.”9 In his use of the word ‘total,’ Dyrness leaves no aspect of communication outside of culture’s reach. “Culture,” continues Dyrness, “includes all behavior that is learned and transmitted by the symbols (rites, artifacts, language, etc) of a particular group and that grows out of certain ideas or assumptions that we call a worldview.”10 Rowe offers a detailed definition of culture, suggesting that culture is structured, writing, “Culture is not random but orderly, it occurs in sets of patterns.”11 Rowe further states that culture is social, meaning it happens in groups.12 “The basic aspects of culture,” according to Rowe, “seem invariably to include, in some form, beliefs, values, and behaviors (or customs).”13 And arguing what he feels is most important of culture, Rowe quotes the Willowbank Report’s definition, stating, “culture gives the people group ‘a sense of identity, dignity, security, and continuity.’”14

Culture is not entirely based on geographical area, as is often stereotyped, but adopted as a way of identification within a collection of people. As evangelists, missionaries, and church planters prepare to enter a culture that is drastically different than their own—like Russia, Swaziland, or China for example—they might reasonably focus on the great cultural differences. However, when the gospel communicator is entering an area with a similar culture, potentially a bordering state, the subtlety of cultural differences becomes more apparent. In arguing the role of government in cultural management, Kymlicka suggest that in any given society where freedom of expression is allowed, there is actually a marketplace of cultures. As individuals unconsciously select a subculture, the overarching culture of the community shifts, ebbs, and flows toward what the majority of individuals see as preferable cultural option.15 The Willowbank Report also suggests that more than one culture can exist in a geographic area but warns that rather than a grocery-style marketplace for the selection of culture, subcultures may actually war against one another. The report states, “Culture implies a measure of homogeneity. But if the unit is larger than the clan or small tribe, a culture will include within itself a number of subcultures, and subcultures of subcultures, within which a wide variety of diversity is possible. If the variations go beyond a certain limit, a counterculture will have come into being, and this may prove a destructive process.”16

Finally, Hesselgrave articulates that culture has layers. “At the core is worldview.”17 The closest layer to the core is the layer of values, specifically the value system of the community. “Then comes the institutional layer—education, law, marriage, and so forth,” writes Hesselgrave.18 The outer layer, as Hesselgrave explains, is the observable layer made up of artifacts and behaviors.19 Based on this definition, the core, that is, the worldview forms the curvature of all the other layers. Like an onion, the layers tightly hug the center; they are shaped by the inner most parts. Therefore, if one is seeking to communicate the gospel within the context of culture, one must address the core, the worldview.

Examining Utah, specifically the large LDS community, it is easy to see the outer layer. Sunday morning means the man puts on a white shirt and tie, maybe a suit jacket; his boys mirror his look. The women wear dresses. In the summer, they may walk to church because it is just around the corner. Many avoid the coffee pot at work. During the commute on the bus or train, many LDS faithful use the time to read the Book of Mormon, sometimes the Doctrine in Covenants, rarely the Bible. There are large families and high expectations that all the children will be baptized at age eight and the men will go on a two-year mission for their church when they turn nineteen. The Mormon has duties in the church and those who are considered worthy do regular work in LDS Temples. “Temple Square, the biggest tourist attraction in Salt Lake City,” writes Rowe, “not only serves as the symbolic center of the LDS Church (its equivalent of the Vatican or the worship center in Mecca) but also sits at the center of the city street system.”20 (The streets are number in all four directions according to their distance from the Temple with the Temple itself serving as 0. This patter is replicated in many other Utah cities, only the Stake Center often serves as ground zero.) July 24th is a holiday celebrated with more enthusiasm than the 4th of July. Ice cream is consumed in epic proportions, most boys are boy scouts, and tattoos and piercing are not as vogue as they are in the rest of the country. The local news often reports that Utah tops the charts for the most breast augmentation, prescription drug abuse, and depressed homemakers; but even if these statistics are not true, few Utahans seem to doubt the claims.21

Often, welling-meaning missionaries come to Utah for a short-term mission trip and evangelize to the observable outer layer with little success. But while a gospel communicator can discuss these aspects of life in Utah, gospel communication that addresses these layers does not reach the core of the culture. To get to the core, one must understand the Mormon worldview.

To some, the title of his section may seem almost silly, but to LDS members in and around Utah, there is a clear understanding that the Mormon living in Utah is somehow different than the Mormon living elsewhere. It has nothing to do with religious practice or doctrine. Instead, it is due to culture. Because there is a dominant community of people holding to an extremely similar worldview, the layers are able to grow large without influence from warring subcultures. Essentially, the zeal and expressive nature of the cultural majority is enjoyed more openly than by Utah-Mormons than those distant Mormons who might otherwise not fit as well within the layers of another cultural onion.

The core of the Utah-Mormon culture has to do with the blending of LDS doctrine and LDS history. This hybrid shapes the worldview. To effectively communicate the gospel in the culture of the Utah-Mormon culture, one does not necessarily have to master every tenant of Mormon doctrine or every significant Mormon event of the past two hundred years. One must simply understand the driving force behind the Mormon worldview. However, too often evangelistic materials will attempt to show Mormon doctrine in contrast with the Bible. McKeever and Johnson for example, write, “Many have sought a resource that compares the teaching of Mormon leaders, both past and present, with those of the Bible. We believe this book you hold in your hands [Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints] will meet this need.”22 McKeever and Johnson then offer eight pages of LDS history followed by nearly 300 pages of excellent theological comparisons. But regardless of the theological quality, the communication is still lost without an understanding of the culture. The gospel communicator is too often dismissed as “Bible bashing” as Rowe identifies it.23 To summarize Rowe, the Bible bash is the engaging in a comparative theological discussion. However, what a Christian might see as conversation, the Mormon sees as hostile attack. Why?

There are a number of reasons for the Mormon’s uneasiness with gospel communication. First, the in their early history, Mormons endured difficult persecution at the hands of Bible-believing Christians.24 This persecution left a “profound feeling of ‘We are a persecuted people’ in the bones of Latter-day Saints.”25 Consequently, there is still sensitivity in this area. Rowe warns, “Conversations that include any element of questioning by a non-Mormon, disparaging remarks, jokes that slight them—almost always these will be perceived as a form of attack on them for their faith, as just one more persecution, whether intended or not.”26 The second reason for the uneasiness has to do with the Mormon’s understanding of the Bible. While the LDS canon includes the Bible, it is not a trusted document. The 8th statement of the LDS Articles of Faith reads, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the world of God.”27 In addition, McConkie taught that the present day Christian is likely to be of the “Church of the Devil,” and this church has corrupted the Bible. He writes, “this church took away from the gospel of the Lamb many covenants and many plain and precious parts; that it perverted the right ways of the Lord; that it deleted many teachings from the Bible; that it was ‘the mother of harlots.”28 McConkie draws his support from the Mormon book of First Nephi 13:24-42, a passage contained within the Book of Mormon. So one should be able to see the root of the uneasiness a Mormon feels when a Christian tries to argue against Mormonism with the Bible. This is one example of getting to the core of the culture.

Cutting through the various layers of culture—in order to reach the core—is not often an easy task in Utah. An examination of the doctrine is a useful start, as well as a review of LDS history; but it is not always so easy. A question must be asked: ‘Why?’ and the evangelists, missionary, or church planter must continually ask this question of the Mormon culture, removing layer after layer. At times, the Mormon will not even know the answer.

Utah’s fascination with bees serves as a good example. Beehives emblazon the highway signs. Salt Lake City’s baseball team is named the ‘Bees.’ Brigham Young, the 2nd LDS leader and man who brought the Mormons to Utah named his home the ‘Beehive House’ and the doorknobs of the Salt Lake Temple are shaped like hives. The original name of the territory was ‘Deseret,’ derived from the Book of Mormon (Ether 2:3), meaning, “honey bee.”29 Of the two daily newspapers, the LDS owned one is titled the ‘Deseret News.’ There is a beehive depicted on the state flag. So the observant gospel communicator should ask, “Why?” Simply asking a Utahan will usually yield some kind of answer about Utahans being an industrious people. Rowe observes that Utahans value a solid work ethic. He writes, “LDS folks become from childhood very responsible, entrepreneurial, industrious people. They seize opportunities and do not fear hard work, both in Church life and in the marketplace.”30 At this point, a value of the Utah culture has been identified—a strong work ethic. But a value is not at the core, it only closely wraps around it. The next question then is “Why is this a value of this culture?” Digging a little deeper, two answers surface and they are from the worldview ingredients of LDS history and doctrine. Turning to an LDS teaching guide titled, “Brigham Young: Building the Kingdom by Righteous Works,” which is still in use today, one learns that Young selected they symbol of the bee and the beehive to remind the pioneers and settlers that they would have to work hard in order to survive the harsh conditions. This lesson also asks question about God’s and “our own work,” with the answer being “To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” 31 And as one starts to understand the LDS religion, one will see that there are many works required in an effort to obtain righteousness. On this doctrine, McConkie writes, “By believing the truths of salvation, repenting of his sins, and being baptized in water and of the Spirit, the seeker after salvation places himself on the strait an narrow path which leads to eternal live. (2 Ne. 31.) Thereafter his progress up the path is achieved by the performance of good works.”32 From an obsession with beehives to insight to a worldview issue, questioning helps remove the more shallow layers of culture to get to the core. With this now in mind, the gospel communicator has a better understanding of one aspect of the Mormon’s worldview. And understanding the cultural aspect at its core will make the communicator far more effective in bring his or her message.

In looking at another example, one can observe that Mormons do not drink coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages, and they do not smoke. What is observed is behavior, an outer layer aspect of culture. Living in Utah, one will notice a strict regulation of alcoholic beverages and smoking. The grocery stores only sell beer under 3.2% ABV. Higher gravity beer, wine, and spirits must be purchased in state owned and operated liquor stores, which are few. The question is “why?” It could be that as one works though the question, he or she learns that health is a value driven by some aspect of the Mormon worldview. However, health is not the case this time. As it turns out, Doctrine and Covenants 89 prohibits, the use of tobacco and the drinking of hot drinks, wine, and strong drink. The promise of this passage is that one will find wisdom and greater physical health. But there is more behind D & C 89. McConkie outlines that this passage requires LDS members to “abstain from tea, coffee, tobacco, and liquor.”33 He further states, “Abstinence from these four things has been accepted by the Church as a measuring rod to determine in part the personal worthiness of church members. When decisions are made relative to the granting of temple recommends or approving brethren for church positions or ordinations, inquiry is made relative to these four items.”34 A recommend is required to enter the Temple. Temple ceremonies are required for a family to be married and together for eternity—one of the highest and most valuable aspects of Mormonism for its adherents. Being married in the temple and “sealed” to family for all eternity is also a requirement to enter the highest and most sought after level of heaven. In light of this doctrine, it is much easer to see the driving force behind the action of abstinence of coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol. (Incidentally, giving a full tithe is also required to obtain a Temple recommend.) Once again, the worldview aspect driving the other aspects of culture has to do with a works based religion. The Mormon is placed on a path but must work to reach salvation (or so he or she believes). In this case, coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol in-and-of-themselves are seen as an evil or sin with the ability to bar one from heaven, and therefore these items are heavily regulated with the Utah community.

While only a few specific aspects of the Utah-Mormon culture were examined here, the methodology should be apparent. The steps are to make observations and ask “Why?” The key is to continue to pull back layers until the worldview is reached. Once the worldview is understood, the gospel communicator can share the gospel message within the context of culture and with a clear understanding of the worldview held by the culture.

Once the evangelist, missionary, or church planter has asked the “Why?” question and pealed back the surface layers, it is time to communicate the gospel message to the Utah-Mormon culture. This culture is likely carries subtle differences from which the communicator was sent. What should this look like? While each instance of communication is going to be different depending upon aspects of the worldview, the personalities involved, and the work of the Holy Spirit, only basic guidelines will be offered here.

First, as already indicated, the “Bible bash” is ineffective. The gospel communicator will only run headlong into deeply held convictions shaped by worldview when he or she attempts to share the gospel message with a Utah-Mormon by demonstrating where Mormon doctrine is in disagreement with the Bible. “This problem occurs,” says Rowe, “when we view Mormons as two-dimensional information processors who simply need to have their bad information replaced by our good information.”35 Instead, the evangelist, missionary, and church planter should pray for opportunities to show the truthfulness and reliability of the Bible in positive manor and in consideration of the worldview that shapes the culture’s ideas of the Bible. And when these opportunities surface, the information should be shared to people, with layered culture, not ‘two-dimensional information processors.’

Once the brakes have been put on the typical American approach to evangelizing the Mormon culture, the second step in communicating the gospel in the cultural dominated by Mormonism, is to treat the effort as if one has entered into a cross-culture mission. Elmer’s cross-cultural servanthood model offers an excellent guide. Elmer teaches that first step is openness. “Openness with people of another culture,” writes Elmer, “requires that you are willing to step out of your comfort zone to initiate and sustain relationships in a context of cultural differences.”36 Too often missionaries and church planters come to Utah hoping to change the community but they greatly lack this openness. From openness, according to Elmer, grows acceptance. This is not an acceptance of the culture’s worldview or beliefs about God, but instead that the Mormon feels welcome and safe around the gospel communicator.37 Next comes trust. At some point after acceptance, the Mormon may start to trust the communicator and feel that the communicator actually values him or her as person.38 The next step is learning, and it is here where the evangelist, missionary, and church planter need to continually be asking “why?” It is at this stage that the gospel communicator begins to really peal back the layers to get to the core of the culture. And in doing the hard work of learning what shapes the culture, the communicator will achieve the next step of cross-culture servanthood—understanding. Of understanding Elmer writes, “You can’t understand another person until you have learned from them and, eventually, with them. A learning attitude signals humility and a willingness to identify with the people.”39 No longer will the Utah-Mormon be seen as an information processor with bad information; no longer will the subtleties of the culture seem so subtle. Now, the entire shape of the culture will make sense. Pathways will present themselves to communicate in a manner that is not offensive or abrasive to the culture. Bridges will begin to fall in place so the communicator can address the issues at the core and engage them with the gospel. This kind of gospel communication will actually bring transformation to the outer layers of the culture. And at this point, when an understanding is gained, true Christ-like servanthood will come naturally.

Achieving the first step is fast; it is just a matter of putting a halt to a communication method that actually does more harm to the Utah-Mormon culture than good. Yet, on any day of the week there are men and woman standing around Temple Square with signs and tracts. They shout Scripture and try to tell passersby that their top religious leader is a liar. Nobody stops to listen. Still, busloads of teenagers pour into Salt Lake ready to place DVD movies about the Bible verses the Book of Mormon on front doors, material that usually goes straight into the trash as anti-Mormon material from the “Church of the Devil.” These Christians come to communicate the gospel with good intentions, but they do not understand the second step of this communication; and therefore, they are much less effective in their effort to share the gospel. If they would take the time and do the hard work to understand the culture and it subtle differences, they would be able to share the gospel in a context within the culture, not against it.

For most evangelists, missionaries, and church planters, reaching into the Utah-Mormon culture for Christ means living with and among the people for long periods. It means working and playing along side Mormons. It is about getting to know Mormons and establishing trust and acceptance. It is about taking the time and doing the work to understand the Utah-Mormon culture. And it living among the people as servants, the gospel communicators begin to see just how the culture communicates in meaningful way. Part of the worldview (which has not been addressed in this post) is a strong respect for personal testimony and shared experience. As the cultural layers are pulled back, the communicator begins to see the significant of personal testimony and the ‘Mormonese’ in which it is shared. The gospel communicator begins to grow comfortable with this language just as a missionary in a foreign country does with the non-English language. Over time, the gospel communicator develops a healthy since of need to reach the core of the culture beyond the desire to count the numbers of souls saved, and than he or she prays for opportunities to communicate the message of life-changing hope and Truth deep into the center of the culture.

It is the desire of this author to share the gospel with the Utah-Mormon culture. I have lived in Utah for eleven years and am only now starting to develop the necessary understanding of the core of this culture, its worldview. Acceptance is just beginning to happen. Although Utah is one of the fifty states, and it looks like every other state with its corporate businesses and typical American bustle, just under the surface is a foreign subculture deeply in need of the transformation of gospel of Jesus.

The examination of the Utah-Mormon culture in this post only scratches the surface; entire volumes could and should be written on the topic. However, it is my hope that the methodology of understanding subculture differences was presented in such a way that they may be applied not only in Utah, but also in any other effort to communicating the gospel with people of similar cultures. While this post is not intended to be an exhaustive discussion on the matter, I hope it encourages readers to continue to study the methodology of effective cross-cultural and subcultural evangelism and servanthood. It is also my prayer that God will call more harvesters to Utah, a dry part of the vineyard, not to come for a week and ignorantly shout and the lost, but instead to live and work among them, understand them and be accepted by them, so that the gospel may be communicated to the very heart of the culture, so some may be saved.

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1  David Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2000), 28-29. 
2 Will McRaney, The Art of Personal Evangelism: Sharing Jesus in a Changing Culture (Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 5. 
3 Association of Religious Data Archives, “Utah: Denominational Groups, 2000,” [accessed July 7, 2010]. 
4 Association of Religious Data Archives, “United States: Denominational Groups, 2000,” [accessed July 7, 2010]. 
5 Although the LDS church argues that their faith is “Christian,” for the purposes of this post, the term “Christian” will apply to all faith structures that hold to a Trinitarian view of the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit and believe that Jesus is the exclusive Savior of the world. 
6 Association of Religious Data Archives, “China-Tibet,” [accessed July 8, 2010]. 
7 Association of Religious Data Archives, “United Arab Emirates,” [accessed July 8, 2010]. 
8 Association of Religious Data Archives, “Utah: Denominational Groups, 2000,” [accessed July 7, 2010]. 
9 Walter Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker reference library. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2001), 227. 
10 Elwell, 227. 
11 David Rowe, I [Love] Mormons: A New Way to Share Christ with Latter-Day Saints (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2005), 25. 
12 Rowe, 25. 
13 Rowe, 26. 
14 Rowe, 26. 
15 Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 244-252. 
16 Lausanne Occasional Paper 2. “The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture,” (Lausanne Committee for World Evangelication, 1978), 4/50. 
17 Hesselgrave, 145. 
18 Hesselgrave, 145. 
19 Hesselgrave, 145. 
20 Rowe, 30-31. 
21 This author’s observations of Utah’s culture come from personal observation living in and around Salt Lake City for eleven years. 
22 Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-Day Saints (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2000), 9. 
23 Rowe, 17-22. 
24 Rowe, 43-47. 
25 Rowe, 44. 
26 Rowe, 44. 
27 The Articles of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from History of the Church, Vol. 4, pp. 535-541, verse 8, (emphasis added). 
28 Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 138. 
29 The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Index (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981), 78. 
30 Rowe, 33. 
31 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Brigham Young: Building the Kingdom by Righteous Works,” Gospel Library Lessons, [accessed July 8, 2010]. 
32 McConkie, 328. 
33 McConkie, 845. 
34 McConkie, 845. 
35 Rowe, 80. 
36 Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2006), 151. 
37 Elmer, 151. 
38 Elmer, 151. 
39 Elmer, 150-151. 

*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.  
** Photo by user alh1 is registered under a Creative Commons license.