How important is culture? Culture determines how you live your life. It determines the way you do church. It determines the way you work at your job or business. It determines the way you think and what you believe. Culture affects not only what you believe about God, but the architectural style of your church buildings and the order of your worship service. It determines why you wear a white dress for a wedding in America and why you wear a gold one, followed by a green one and a blue one and a red one at a wedding in Cambodia. It determines whether you worship with an organ, guitar or sitar.
The successes of a country are due to its culture. The work ethic of the Scandinavian farmers who settled the Midwest is well known. Dirt is just dirt no matter where you go, but the culture of Midwest farmers is what has made them the most productive farms in the world for over a hundred years. It is our American culture which promotes systems and efficiency which allowed us to bring about an industrial revolution in mass production and even systematizing the theology of Jesus.
The problems of a country are also due to culture as well. No one wants to hear this. Excessive drinking as a way to party are generations old. The result of drunkenness are well known. Tragedies happen every day where lives are lost to drunk drivers, spouse abuse is common and broken families as a result of alcohol. I have heard that nearly every police call is a result of either drugs or alcohol. These tragedies happen because drinking is such a dominant part of our culture. Just see how long the isles of beer and alcohol are at any store.
If you want to change a culture what do you need to do? This is the key issue. If you don’t have a philosophy to change culture, I promise you that you will never see a culture changed.
Let me explain where our philosophy has come from. I have been in ministry for more than twenty years. For most of that time I had a philosophy which was burned into me from my Baptist heritage which said, “Jesus is the answer for everything!” Amen! I do absolutely believe that, but it is not practical. I come across problems all the time which my Bible has no solution for, such as: breaking an axle in the jungle, “Christian organizations” promoting contraceptives and abortion as a program of the church, HIV/AIDS, community development and lack of electricity. See, the way I was taught, if you just plant enough churches and lead enough people to Christ, Jesus will just magically transform culture.
Let me assure you I have tried. My team and I have planted and trained leaders to plant churches all over the world. In Cambodia alone the churches we planted number in the thousands and the number of people who have professed Christ because of what we have done are nearly uncountable. I don’t say that in pride, I say that to tell you that if I have done that much. . . and still have to squint my eyes and tilt my head sideways to see transformation, then I think there is more to transforming culture. Do you know that more than 50% of Christians in Cambodia don’t have enough food to eat each day? Desperate poverty is a characteristic of the church in Cambodia. Did you also know that nearly 80% of Christians have abortions? Do you know that trafficking of children is just as much a problem in the church as outside the church and that there are even pastors who take part in trafficking girls because they make money for their ministry? Were they magically transformed when they became Christians? Apparently, not yet.
Now, after years in ministry, I am absolutely convinced there is more to changing culture than just evangelism and planting more churches.
A few years ago I heard a man by the name of Lance Wallnau who helped me understand how Christians need to effect the change of culture. He talks about a “seven mountain strategy.” The seven mountains are the mountains of society or the culture of a nation. These mountains effect most aspects of culture. The seven mountains are: Religion, Family, Education, Government, Media, Arts and Business.
Every culture understands and operates these mountains differently. You can’t simply expect every nation to operate the seven mountains the same way as America; that’s what colonialism tried. Sadly, while nations rejected colonialism in the last century, but the church still has not. Far too often what is promoted around the world in churches is not a “Biblical” model of a church, but an “American” or “Korean” model. They want the seven mountains of Cambodia to reflect their national culture or their denomination, not Christ. It is, after all, Christ that made us all unique and different people. Why should we expect other nations to want to worship like an American?
But the worst part is that since the Protestant Reformation the church has slowly been telling its people: “Don’t be involved in education, let’s make our own Christian school.” “Don’t be involved in Government, its corrupt and self-serving.” “Don’t be involved in media, because it promotes the devil and liberal agendas.” “Don’t be involved in arts, it is perverted and fake.” “Don’t be involved in business, because only greedy people do that.” Not only this, but we shoot down any Christian who begins to become prominent in any mountain other than our church mountain.
The problem is that now we have Christians who only influence the “religion” mountain. The Catholic church over the ages understood how to effect cultural change. That is why you have whole nations which are “catholic”. The center of ever town is a church, next to that is the government building, next to that are the schools and universities named after Catholic saints. All the key media and business people are all significant members in the church. And up until the Protestant Reformation did you know the arts were all Christian? The best painters, the best music, the best poetry all gave glory to God. They understood how to transform cultures.
Us non-Catholics need to learn again. I believe the keys to changing culture are found in seven mountains: religion, family, education, government, media, arts and business. Basically all my efforts in evangelism and church planting only have effect on one mountain, the religion mountain. In Cambodia, we are climbing the mountain, but Christianity is a minority religion therefore our influence in the religion mountain is limited as well. It will be many years of growth before the Buddhist government will allow us to have Christmas or Easter as national holidays. But I believe as Christians we are called to influence culture, all of it!
Therefore, our philosophy of ministry is one in which we embrace empowering Christians in all seven mountains of culture. That is why we work in education. This is a huge focus for us. Not just starting our own schools, but helping to improve education, building schools for the community and training teachers. We select children who have no hope such as orphans, trafficked children and kids from the jungle and give them a chance to have the best education possible because we know it will change their lives. With most of our kids they are the first child in their whole village to ever attend high school, much less university! Who do you think will have the most influence in their home village when they go back? That’s why we also work with government officials, police, military and lawyers. Because we need to influence government. We encourage Christians who are a part of the government mountain to excel and succeed, but we also help non-believers in authority to understand our Biblical principles so they can learn from them.
We promote Cambodian arts, we promote Cambodian musicians and find uniquely Cambodian ways to express ourselves in art. Art in Cambodia has been completely intertwined with Buddhism, but though promotion of Cambodian arts, Christ can redeem the arts for his purposes. That is why I hate to see Cambodian churches singing translated western music like Hillsongs. Not because I don’t love Hillsongs music, but I want Christians to have influence on Cambodian culture through Cambodian arts.
Media is so power that we used to think it would be impossible to influence it. But now, 45,000 people a year read my blog, including this one. I have nearly 2,000 friends on Facebook and people re-tweet and share what interests them. Today a nobody can influence what people think though the power of digital media. Next year we are putting in a specific plan for digital outreach in Cambodia and among Khmer speakers around the world. When we translated a new Bible, the digital version on iPhones, Androids and simple mobile phones came out before the printed version!
Every church loves a businessman in their church… if he tithes a lot! But rarely do churches encourage or empower our business people as a ministry calling. Businesses have great influence in society. The saying is true, “Money makes the world turn.” Wealthy people have huge influence just because they are rich. The same is true of the church. Why do so many mission trips come from the west? Do they offer a higher level of spiritual understanding? Are they closer to God? I think any short-termer would say the opposite is true. The poor Christians they visit are much closer to God, but they don’t have influence because they are poor! Money is influence, whether it is good or bad.
In our ministry, we not only have some profitable aspects of our ministry, like publishing, but we are involved in counseling and training Christian leaders in stewardship, management, and how to manage debt. We also are working to start large businesses in Cambodia like a construction company to build infrastructure and a plantation to create jobs and develop commercial agriculture initiatives. Of course, we have to do business in a godly way to have the right influence.
At the heart of all culture is the family as well. We spend a significant amount of our time teaching leaders to be better fathers and mothers and counseling those who have family problems. As much as 40% of our training is directed to strengthen the family. When families are strong, nations can be strong. One of the worst results of the genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge was the destruction of families. The nuclear family was specifically targeted and split apart so that everyone would have to rely on the Khmer Rouge government. The results were catastrophic. Generations will suffer with no father and distant mothers. Siblings learned to hate instead of supporting each other and relatives who distrust each other; all because of what the Khmer Rouge did to decimate the family. If Cambodia is going to be a strong nation today, we must strengthen the family. So many of our social problems today: immorality, abortion, gangs, drugs and violent crimes can be traced directly to dysfunctional and absent families. A nation characterized by self-centered greed is the result of a nation of orphans.
This is our philosophy which guides our ministry to change culture. We are not simply interested in seeing many people come to Christ and churches planted, we are most interested in seeing Cambodian culture be transformed. To do this, requires, not a four-year or five-year project, but lives dedicated to seeing influence in the seven mountains over a lifetime! None of our projects have an “end date” attached. When we were asked by the government to open a children’s center to care for orphans, we told them we would commit to these orphans for three generations. They were so shocked at our commitment they gave us the property with the land title, on which the children’s center is built! They said they had never met an organization who had more than a five-year project. Five years will not change a culture and in five years you won’t see transformation.
This being our philosophy, it affects everything we do. It guides our approach to human trafficking, it dictates our use of short-term mission teams, it answers the question of whether to “buy or rent?” It makes no sense for us to rent something. We are not doing anything temporarily, but permanently. It dictates the makeup of our staff. We would hire a Cambodian any day over a more qualified foreigner, because the foreigner will eventually leave, the Cambodian will stay in his country. For me personally, it guides how often I take a furlough. So far in twenty years I haven’t taken one yet. How could I leave my country to go “rest” in America? It guides us to constantly find ways of empowering Cambodian Christians. Whether they are police, government officials, teachers or students, businessmen or those weird artsy people; we desire to empower each one of them to reach their full potential.
It would be so much easier on us to just do one project and plant a few strong churches. But honestly do you think that will change a country? The effect will be minimal, regardless of what the professional promotional DVD says. I know Jesus changed the world with 12 individuals, but his individuals were not like missionaries today. They didn’t have permanent housing, vacation time, furloughs, salaries to raise, nor the education of their children a priority. They were 100% sold out to Jesus and changing the culture of the world. They went into the world, literally, and never went home. None of the apostles died in Israel except James who was executed there. They were lifelong followers of Jesus. Paul left Tarsus and never returned. That is how the world was changed!
This seven mountain strategy also determines who’s kingdom we are building. This is where the Catholics got it wrong. They built their own empire. Anyone outside of their “organization” would be suppressed using their influence over each mountain. They only helped “their people”. However, we believe that the ultimate goal of culture transformation is that the glory of God may be shown in the nation. We are not trying to build our brand name, we don’t want to create a new denomination or collect the most number of Christians. We don’t want churches to have our “DNA”, but the “DNA” which is imparted by the Holy Spirit! We want to promote Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God only. That is why we planted thousands of churches, but don’t have one. That is why we train tens of thousands of pastors and we never asked for anything in return, not even a report. That is why we don’t promote the name of our ministry and sometimes even our donors are confused by what name we use. Are we Words of Life? Are we Antioch Institute? Are we Imparting Smiles Association are we an Autonomous Church Association? Are we individuals? Yep and nope. We are followers of Jesus Christ and we are dedicated to Cambodia to see the very heart of the culture of this land transformed so that Jesus Christ will be gloried here!