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I am, because we are

Culture is interesting, isn’t it? We are all influenced by culture, one way or another — our family upbringing, social class, environment, country of origin, and so on.

Many of these influences, whether it’s the way we were raised, the country we live in, or the community to which we belong, can affect our thoughts, attitudes and behaviour in ways that are often unconscious. Being followers of Jesus doesn’t exempt us from this. As Peter Scazerro writes in his book The Emotionally Healthy Leader, ‘Jesus may be in your heart, but Grandpa is in your bones’.

A wider lens advantage

Because MAF’s missionary staff serve in 25 countries in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, they end up with a wider lens with which to view cultural influences and their differences.

Before our personnel go overseas, it’s important they understand the culture of the country they’ll be serving. It’s an essential part of the training they receive before leaving the UK, and an ongoing lesson when they arrive.

Something that soon becomes evident is the difference between the individualistic cultures we’ve inherited in the West, and the collectivist cultures found throughout Africa and in countries such as Indonesia, Brazil and Guatemala. Both individualist and collectivist cultures are concerned with how individuals in a society prioritise and manage their relationships and goals.

Members of individualistic cultures tend to focus on individual rights, a person’s uniqueness, and self-reliance. Collectivistic cultures are characterised by prioritising group solidarity over individual goals. The self-image in a collectivist culture is characterised by the word ‘we’, while individualistic cultures see things in terms of ‘I’.

Interestingly, members of individualistic cultures focus more on the content than the context of their communications. So it’s important to realise that, when we read the Bible, we’re reading about a culture that was generally collectivist in nature. Unfortunately, however, we tend to look at the text through a more individualistic lens.

Why the change?

So, if communities in biblical times were more collective, it’s worth asking why the West has become so individualistic.

It’s been suggested that individualism began with the Age of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe, when people embraced ‘reason’ and individual thought. Those who played a part in this movement sought to break free from the shackles of religious repression in order to find, express and fulfil their true selves.

Along with the Enlightenment’s intellectual demand for liberty, the growth of commerce created a prosperous middle class of traders, successful farmers and city craftsmen who believed in private property and the unrestricted accumulation of individual wealth. But it goes back further than that.

The 16th century Reformation also influenced the development of individualism because the Reformers asserted the right of individual Christians to determine the truth of Scripture for themselves. Whether intentionally or not, Martin Luther opened the door to the public cry for liberty of conscience and freedom of worship.

A yes/and approach

There are strengths and weaknesses to both individualistic and collectivistic cultures. Rather than replacing one with the other, it’s important to see the difference and discern whether or not the inherited ways in which we live align with Kingdom culture.

With selfishness and polarisation at an all-time high, we could learn a thing or two from our African brothers and sisters. South African Ubuntu theology, a Christian response to the African Ubuntu philosophy, is based on the belief that humanity can only exist through community — ‘I am, because we are’.

Global Connections CEO Dr Harvey Kwiyani recently wrote, ‘An Ubuntu missiology, where done well, will create a human fellowship of the Spirit in which love and care for one another are key hallmarks because, of course, we can only be whole when everyone is whole.

‘Such a communally-shaped missiology will involve constant discernment of the Spirit — no wonder, if Africans get anything right, it is prayer (as a means to access the Spirit of God).

‘Essentially, Ubuntu missiology will mean the Gospel is for the good of all of human life, not just the saving of souls, and that we must care for one another because our wellbeing depends on everyone else’s wellbeing. COVID-19 showed us this is actually true.

Kingdom Culture

Mark 12:30-31 reminds us of the two greatest commandments. The first is ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. ’We are told that ‘there is no commandment greater than these.’

I am, because we are. A Kingdom culture challenges us to change the ‘I’ to ‘we’ when reflecting on our actions and their consequences.

We are called to live countercultural lives; bringing light where there’s none, forgiving what some regard as unforgiveable, and loving those that society deems unlovable. We are called to be an Ubuntu people.

In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, ‘A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.’


Put aside some time to consider how our individualistic western culture might be influencing your thinking and doing. Are there ways you could be more collective in your day-to-day life?

Consider the lens through which you read Scripture. Whenever you read the New Testament, do you do so mindful of the context and culture of its first century writers and readers?

Ask the Holy Spirit to help us all become Ubuntu people.