DEFINING CULTURE

Written by: Mateo Palmitier

2013 was a year of great change for me. At 23 I was about to graduate from university & travel abroad for the first time in my life. That’s right, little 23 year old me had never ventured beyond the borders of America. (Well, there was a brief fishing trip to Canada when I was a child, but I’m from Michigan so it was like going to your next door neighbors.)

A few months prior to graduating, a friend approached me about joining her on a mission trip to England. Not the most conventional of mission trips, but we had a mission & it certainly was a trip, a trip that changed everything for me. What I didn’t know is that this seemingly simple, one time opportunity became an open door & invitation into a new lifestyle & season.

As soon as I set foot on international soil I instantly began dreaming about returning. I caught the bug. Not just the “travel” bug, but the “meeting new people” bug, the “experiencing new cultures” bug, the “bringing hope” bug.

Shortly after I returned to the states, the very missions group that sent me abroad invited me to journey abroad again, & just like that, without warning or agenda, I became a missionary. I spent the next several years returning to England time & time again. I found myself ministering in Scotland, Wales, Australia, Iceland, & all throughout the states. I was in shock! But I was also in training…  

One of the greatest lessons I learned over the past several years of travel & ministry is that of culture. Every place I set foot was unique. They felt different, worked different, & operated different. But at the same time, there was something familiar about them all as well. I saw broken things & beautiful things, things that inspired & things that made me miss home.

On one particular occasion I found myself ministering at a youth conference in England. It was the first night of the conference & I was responsible for emceeing while one of my English friends was scheduled to speak. I welcomed him to the stage, but before I turned the mic over I took a moment to honor him. I looked over the room & told them that they were in for a real treat & began to share the many things I admire about that evening’s speaker. It seemed like a simple enough thing to do; speak up & encourage someone you love. It was second nature really, & I didn’t think twice about it, but it was a different experience for my friend.

As I spoke I saw my friend fidget a little & tense up in a way that communicated he was kind of uncomfortable. So I wrapped it up & handed the platform over to him. As he took the mic he paused for a moment before saying, “Well, I don’t really know what do now. That wasn’t a very British thing to do was it?” The whole room chuckled out loud, & as they did my mind began to race.

What wasn’t a very British thing to do? Encourage someone? Verbally affirm a friend? Give honor where honor is due?

Later, after the session I caught up with my buddy to apologize in case I had left him feeling uncomfortable. He laughed it off & provided me further context for his remarks. He shared with me how in England they’re not great at encouragement, edification, or communicating feelings & appreciation in general. Rather, they excel in sarcasm & “taking the mickey out of someone.” (A British slang term that means to take someone down a few notches or to take the self-importance out of someone via subtle mockery & sarcasm. It runs rampant in their culture.) It was then & there that the Lord dropped a message into my spirit, & that message was one of culture.

You see, what I’ve learned over the years is that every culture, every country, every city, every church, every race, & demographic carries something distinct & unique about them. These unique qualities & traits range from varying communication styles to lifestyle habits to clothing choices, priorities, & values. Some are loud & some are quiet. Some are fast paced & some take the long way home. Some value hard work & others value rest. The thing about each of these cultures is that they’re all absolutely beautiful! There are things contained within each one that are so rich and wonderful. Things that we can all learn from & embrace. But the other thing about our cultures is that they’re all broken. There are beautiful things & wonderful things to be sure, but we also reside in a broken world, & because of our experiences with brokenness we have developed cultural habits & norms that are rooted in brokenness, & are lesser than what we were meant to be living in.

The thing is, I have no problem with things being inherently British or things being inherently American. I have no issue with things being European or Latin or Middle Eastern, if the things with which you are identifying are found to be kingdom principles, kingdom culture. I’m not at all opposed to the things that make you you, or me me, or us us, unless the things that define us aren’t how He would define us. When my friend told me that he didn’t know what to do with my encouragement it made me sad. Not because my nationality was superior to his, but because what was foreign to him & the rest of those at the conference was a kingdom concept. In 1 Corinthians 14:12 we are told to excel in gifts the build up the church. In Proverbs 18 we learn that the power of life & death are in the tongue, & in the book of James we learn about the importance of taming our tongue. The norm of my friend, his culture didn’t look like the kingdom, & anything that doesn’t look like the kingdom has some changing to do. My goal as a missionary was not & will not be to make things more American, but make things more kingdom.

In Matthew 6, Jesus takes the time to teach His disciples & those listening how to pray, & in this text He says a very particular phrase; “On earth as it is in heaven.” That is our mandate. That is our call. It’s not “on earth as it is in America” or on earth as it is “Europe.” It’s not even “on earth as it is in the church.” It’s “on earth as it is in heaven.” The task of a missionary, an itinerant minister, a motivational speaker, or a person of influence is not to build or change things to their liking or their preference, that is unless their liking and preference has come into alignment with the will and way of heaven.

A while back I moved from Nashville, TN to Chickamauga, GA to work with a local church in the area. I moved from the city to the country. I went from a place of prominence to a place of obscurity. Shortly after I arrived, I sat down in my senior leader’s office & we spoke more fully about my job description & what I would be doing in the church, for the church, & in the area. In brief he told me, “We brought you here to help change the culture.” That is a big responsibility. One I am humbled to have received, & one I do not take lightly. But I will miss the mark if what I try to do is recreate Nashville in Chickamauga. I will miss it if I try to recreate my previous church in my present church. The only place I am called to recreate is that of heaven. Now to be sure, there were things I learned in Nashville from the Nashvillian culture that are Kingdom things I am meant to embrace & carry, things such as dreaming big & living by faith as you pursue what God has put in your heart to do. But there is also something unique to Nashville that God has blessed & reserved for Nashville. Those things I leave in Nashville & instead ask God to reveal to me what unique things He has for this place, at this time, for these people.

So friends, my question for you is this, “What does your culture look like? Does it look like heaven or an altered version of it?” The first step to creating a kingdom culture is getting to know the kingdom. If you don’t know what the kingdom is like, then you’ll never be able to represent it & reproduce it on the earth. Get to know the kingdom if you want it on earth as it is in heaven.

But let me challenge you to take this one step further… Don’t just learn the kingdom, get to know the King. Here’s the thing: a kingdom is only as good as it’s King. Who sets the precedents of the kingdom? The King. Who sets the standards? The King. Who establishes the DNA & mandate of the kingdom? The King. The kingdom is good because the King is good. The kingdom is full of peace because the King is peaceful. The kingdom cannot be shaken because the King cannot be shaken. The kingdom is one of love because the King is love.

You will never be able to represent the King or establish His kingdom in full if you don’t know Him, if you don’t know what He’s like. So, your mission is this: Get to know the King & watch the kingdom manifest itself upon your life, your friends, your family, & your sphere of influence.

Like what you’ve read, or looking for more information, posts or connection? Give Mateo a follow on instagram at @mateopalmitier