CULTURE & The Important Difference Between Assimilation & Acculturation

by Bob Whitesel D.Min. Ph.D.

In the field of missional leadership, it is important to understand the difference between “assimilation” and “acculturation.”  While there is some authors who use the terms interchangeably, classic research by Teske and Nelson ( 1974: pp. 351-367) found that assimilation and acculturation are widely divergent.

They found that most scholars were consistent in saying that “assimilation” forces others to leave their culture and become like the dominant culture.  And they found that “acculturation” allows out-group members to adapt parts of their culture with the in-group culture and form a new hybrid culture.

Let me explain what Teske and Nelson found.


  • Is unidirectional. Change only happens within one culture and this culture becomes a clone of the dominant culture.
  • The out-group members have to change their values and embrace the values of the dominant in-group. Out-group members must now value the things the dominant in-group values. While this may be necessary with theology, it does not respect their culture when they are forced to adopt the dominant culture’s methodology too.
  • Out-group members must accept the dominant culture as superior.


  • Is “two-way, that is, may occur in both directions” (p. 365). In other words, the dominant culture may change too by its interaction with the out-group. The out-group may bring some new and/or outside perspective that helps expand the awareness of the in-group.  For example, new young people coming into our churches can help the choir or the traditional order of worship employ a contemporary chorus (but the choir may rewrite the chorus to make it more consistent with their musical genre).  The idea is that in acculturation both sides influence one other for good (and hopefully not for bad).
  • Does not require change in what the out-group values.  Out-group members can value the same things as before, where these values do not conflict with the values God wishes for His offspring.
  • Out-group and in-group members see both cultures as having value. Reconciliation between cultures occurs.

Now, acculturation does not mean accepting all elements of a culture. For some elements of every culture run counter to God’s Good News.  Here is how I have stated, this (Spiritual Waypoints, 2010, p. 74):

When elements of a culture run counter to the Good News, and others are in agreement with it, what should be done? Eddie Gibbs has provided a helpful metaphor in the image of cultural “sifting” (Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, 1981, p. 120). Sifting separates out unwanted elements from wanted elements, most notably in cooking where a mesh strainer such as a colander will sift out impurities. The task of explaining the Good News to wayfarers at Waypoint 13, also carries the requirement that we sift between elements of a culture that go against Christ’s news and those that do not.  To not fully explain God’s expectations is to misinform and ill prepare the traveler.  Some Christians avoid the task of doing this, perhaps because championing God’s requirements is awkward in comparison to lauding His rewards.  But both must be undertaken.  A leader who is not ready to sift elements of a culture and tactfully explain what can be retained and what must be abandoned, is not ready to travel forward with the wayfarer.

As you can see, the term “acculturation” is technically the better term, for what we often refer to in our churches as “assimilation.”

Now, while most people in out-groups (e.g. visitors, displaced volunteers, ignored leaders, etc.) will never know the difference between these two terms; it will be important for up-and-coming missional leaders to understand (and be able to articulate) the difference.

Gibbs, E. (1981). I believe in church growth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Teske, R. H.C. & Nelson, B. H. (1974). Acculturation and assimilation: A clarification. American Ethnologist, Vol 1, No. 2. pp. 351-367.
Whitesel, B. (2010). Spiritual waypoints: Helping others navigate the journey. Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House.