Cow Dung“That looks cool.”
“The handprint ornamentation on that home.”
“Ornamentation? That’s cow dung stuck to the house to dry for fuel.”
“No way!”


We sometimes miss the obvious. Cross-cultural encounters get us into worlds that fill all of our senses with things unfamiliar. Our tendency is to evaluate things from our own experiences, so it is easy to completely misread a situation that is perfectly obvious to those within the culture.

IcebergCulture is sometimes compared to an iceberg. It has a visible structure above the waterline, but the true mass of the iceberg is hidden below. The visible structure includes things like language, food, customs and attire. This visible structure can easily adapt to other cultures. The invisible structure, which contains deeply held values, attitudes, ethics, morals, relational norms, perceptions and beliefs, is born of out of cultural experience and is inseparable from identity. It does not change easily.

David W. Augsburger, in Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures, describes three such cultural structures. The first is found in societies that emphasize guilt and innocence. In such structures the individual stands alone in responsibility for his actions. In guilt culture you either accept responsibility or declare innocence when accused. The second is found in societies that emphasize shame and honor. In shame culture the individual sees himself within a larger community context and will do what is required to protect the honor of his circle. Accusation itself is a point of shame whether you are guilty or innocent. The third is found where fear and power are used as means by which one group of people controls another. Fear culture arises when injustice is visited on people in arbitrary ways. People in this structure place a very high value on courage. Such people tend to be protective of one another against those who are in power. Accusation results in a reactive circling of the wagons regardless of whether the accused is guilty or innocent.

When we form a community together we bring all of our structures into the room. The dynamics of such a cultural mix have some obvious risks. Guilt culture people violate both shame and fear cultures with their insistence on individual responsibility. Fear culture violates guilt culture by protecting those for whom individual justice should be dealt. Shame culture violates fear culture by keeping injustice under cover, not willing to expose anyone to shame even where class inequality exists.

The Fall has left us with a host of identity issues that arise from guilt, fear and shame. The enemy has his opposing view of identity – it is relationally broken. The immediate result of listening to his version of identity and self-concern in the Garden was fear, shame and guilt. For those reasons, building a multiethnic church in the mixed culture of America is challenging. From a worldly perspective, the cultural divides are great and would argue against such a church. But Jesus is at work. He has removed our guilt. He has covered our shame. And He has conquered fear and death. He is at work reconciling the world to Himself.

While there are a myriad of divisions in our nation, I believe that racial tension is a flashpoint. Inequality, rooted in slavery and its legacy racism, has created a problem between white and black America that erupts from time to time in violence as people who feel marginalized by the dominant culture react to injustice. I don’t propose to sort out all of the forces that are at play, but I can make three observations. First, race is a very real division in our nation and is deeply felt by descendants of slaves. Second, whites are mostly oblivious to the sense of marginalization and deep hurt that African-Americans experience. Third, sin surrounds the issue on all sides.

In the larger national scheme, whether we are talking about people who live in poor urban neighborhoods or new immigrants from around the world, our nation is in disunity. We are not building a common culture, but a divided one where each culture must compete for its place in the sinful power structures that variously reward or punish people who are striving to gain social and socio-economic traction. From a national perspective it is fairly easy to observe the inequities, but understanding root causes and holistic responses has evaded our national consciousness.

I propose that the very things described by the guilt, shame and fear cultures have been at work in creating brokenness in each collective cultural identity. It is sin (Genesis 3:7-13). It needn’t be so. The work of the Holy Spirit unites us to Jesus Christ and creates living water into which our icebergs are set to float. Consider many icebergs floating in the ocean of the church where the sin effects of each culture are being sanctified in ways that innocence is presumed, honor is bestowed and courage is restored. Charles Marsh imagines such a church in Beloved Community,

“So our social standing, our economic background, our education, our race—none of this matters to God because he looks at us as his dear children reconciled by the blood of Jesus.”

God’s reconciling work breaks down the barriers that our cultures construct. Distinctives are not at risk, but bring breadth and depth to the collective community. In redeemed culture we find a common culture. When the church is at its Trinitarian best, it represents a unity that defies the prevailing culture, which asks, “Why do they love one another?” Because we are family.

This is an edited version of a post that appears at

About marknicklas

Mark Nicklas is a husband, father, son and follower of Jesus Christ. He is a pastor at Beaverton Foursquare Church and an adjunct professor at Multnomah University, where he earned his doctorate in Cultural Engagement. Like Jacob wrestled with God at Jabbok, this site is a place for talking about the identity of the church with respect to the cultures we live in. You are invited to share the journey.
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