My family moved overseas when I was 13 years old. It's kind of an awkward time to move to another country. It's the time in our culture where we are trying to figure out who we are going to become and what's important to us. It's the time when we learn how to relate to other people outside of our families. It's the time when we're trying to form an identity that's separate from our parents.
So, at 13, I picked up and moved to the fine country of Singapore. It's very different than the United States. The biggest difference I saw that goes to the core of how we relate to one another is that, in the United States, we are primarily individuals. In Asia, you are primarily part of a bigger community--you are defined based on your relationship to your family, then the greater community, and then your nation. When making decisions, the family and the community are given greater care than the individual's desires. There were other things I noticed--like the fact that all the light switches were upside down, or that communication is much more indirect so that no individual is ever blamed for anything. So "the glass got broken" rather than "Henry broke the glass."
I was a pretty observant kid, so I spent a lot of time watching how people interacted and trying to figure it out. Although I didn't find the language to describe the differences in culture until my college sociology class, I definitely noticed. I remember thinking about their governmental system and realizing that democracy was not the only way to go. I mean, they had a pretty successful country, and they don't have the same form of government as we do.
It was about that time when I realized a couple of things: (1) Culture affects everything we see and understand about what is around us; (2) There are good and bad things about every culture; (3) I could actually choose my own values and way of life based on something other than my culture, namely, what I believed was biblical or that flows out of the character of God.
I began to critically evaluate the teen magazines coming from the US and the messages they sent about what I was supposed to care about (clothes, boys, appearance, etc). I began to think about what I actually wanted my life to look like and the values I wanted to use to measure my choices. And I chose. Because of my life experience, I was able to have a much more proactive role in my own personal development than I probably would have if we'd lived in the US all my life.
Those three principles have a huge effect on where I'm at today and why I'm doing and talking about what I am. There's a whole lot of momentum in the Christian world right now to reject what the modern church sees as the cultural imperfections of the post-modern, post-Christian culture. There even seems to be the expectation that, for people to truly come to faith in God, they have to leave behind their postmodern culture and go back to a rational, modern way of living and believing.
But every culture has positives and negatives. There is a concern for social justice and the environment that exists in today's culture that did not exist when I was growing up. Reading the stories of the Bible, those two things seem to be pretty important to God. There's also an inherent distrust in material possessions that I'm not sure existed before. Where we're at now is not all bad.
And what I learned from living overseas is that cultural changes are difficult. They take a long time. They go to the core of people's beliefs about life and their own identities. I think that all culture should be challenged and evaluated in light of the character of God. But practically speaking, to some extent we have to work within the context that we're in. And that's really what my heart is. My heart is to ask the question "how do we reach and communicate the heart of the gospel within today's culture?" God can change culture - but he's only going to be able to do that as people's hearts who are within that culture are changed and conformed to his image.
Within the month, Second Story, a fictional story about that question will be released by Da[w]bar House Press. It'll be available on Amazon and hopefully through some local bookstores. I really want to spark conversation about how we can effectively communicate the gospel to people today, right now, in this culture. More information about the book is available on my website.