by Christopher R. Little
Ministering transculturally requires letting go of “Christianity made in America” and contextualizing our faith in other cultures.
Americans . . . ought to serve mankind in other fields than in religion.” This was the conclusion of the Japanese writer Kanzo Uchimura in 1926 as a first generation convert to Christianity through the sacrificial efforts of American missionaries. Why then would he make such a statement? Because, he says, “Americans are essentially children of this world” (Walls 1990, 1–2).
A CONTEMPORARY APPRAISAL
Some eighty years later, one wonders whether Americans have improved their reputation among those they have tried to serve in Christ’s name. A brief review of recent mission history will supply the answer.
When the Iron Curtain was drawn back in the late 1980s, over 1,500 different missionary and church-based organizations entered Russia seeking to fulfill their perceived divine mandates. The consequences of their activity were not always positive. First, local pastors were inhibited from preaching to their own congregations for months at a time due to the custom of deferring to visiting speakers. Second, church leaders were offered so many new partnership projects that they did not have time to follow-up on previously arranged ones. Third, younger church leaders received financial support from Western agencies, which led to confusion within the Christian community. And fourth, mission organizations determined evangelistic methods incited greater denominational competition and brought about the Americanization of Soviet evangelicals (Sawatsky 1992, 54ff).
Subsequent relations between westerners and their Russian counterparts did not improve. For example, national Christians from ten countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States in an Open Letter of the Missionary Coordinating Council to All Western Missionary Organizations criticized westerners for overwhelming the indigenous Church. “In Moscow alone, over one hundred Western organizations were registered. And each one wants to accomplish its program by using the existing church infrastructure, which is still so weak that it cannot resist the pressure, neither organizationally nor spiritually,” the letter read. These Christians also noted, “Indigenous missionary organizations cannot compete with strong Western missions and the best people prefer to work for Western organizations and, naturally, for better payment” (Deyneka and Deyneka 1998, 57).
Furthermore, Grigori Komendant, president of the Evangelical Christians–Baptists of Ukraine, witnessed the effects of the Western missionary machine and commented, “The West needs to be more realistic in recognizing that Russia is not a Third World country. The Church has been here a long time, and we are not interested in the Americanization of our Church” (1998, 57). More recently, one informed observer of the ministries of CoMission, a consortium of over eighty different evangelical organizations, concluded that its very own activities prompted the 1997 governmental “restrictions on religious associations that ultimately spelled its own demise” (Batalden 2004, 84).
In view of what happened in Russia, William Taylor of the World Evangelical Fellowship called on Western mission organizations to not make the same mistakes in China (1994, 241). But his appeal, as Samuel Chiang reports, has apparently gone unheeded (2000, 161–162). Lamentably, the “debacle” of Western missionary involvement in China during the first half of the twentieth century is being replayed for all to see (Paton 1996, 81).
"CHRISTIANITY" MADE IN AMERICA
American evangelicals who desire to work toward the successful fulfillment of the Great Commission in the twenty-first century should stop, think, pray, change and commit themselves to reversing this state of affairs.1 The first step on this path is to realize that “American missions are…both products and purveyors of American culture” (Walls 1990, 8).
It is undeniable that there is indeed a distinct variety of American evangelical Christianity which has both strengths and weaknesses. It is tremendously creative, efficiently organized, strategically oriented, highly energized, incredibly diverse and endowed with seemingly boundless resources (financial, human, literary, technological, etc.). Yet it also exhibits serious shortcomings. Below are five.
1. Americans have a systematized theological perspective. Through the influence of the scientific method, God has not only been approached as an idea to be examined but also forced into arbitrary categories which are often culturally derived and bound. For example, the preoccupation with eschatology comes from a crisis-oriented culture which is obsessed with the future. Most of the rest of the world abides in a non-crisis environment contented with the present (cf. Lingenfelter and Lingenfelter 2003, 109–110).
2. Although Americans did not invent the “professionalization of the ministry,” they have taken it to new levels so much so that if servants of Christ have not received proper theological education, Americans generally deem them unqualified to lead a church. This mindset does not mirror the example set by the early Church, which was essentially a lay movement and had no concept of a paid clergy. It must also be noted that the effectiveness of such training has been called into serious question (cf. Banks 1999, 10).
3. American evangelical Christianity is extremely anthropocentric. As a direct consequence of the Enlightenment, the American gospel starts with humanity’s need and invites God to meet it. Some of the best selling books over the past few years promise success in life or an understanding into the meaning of life. These writings demonstrate that Christianity is being manipulated in an attempt to fulfill the American dream. It is unlikely that Jesus would have agreed with such an agenda (cf. Matt. 16:24–26, Luke 12:13–34).
4. American-style evangelicalism has been thoroughly McDonaldized, mimicking the popular fast-food chain. Consumer-oriented marketing principles have been embraced to attract and satisfy more and more people in order to sustain ever increasing egos, visions, budgets, staffs and buildings. In this type of environment almost any conceivable program is justified as a legitimate means to a desired end. Yet this is nothing but unrestrained pragmatism. Such a perspective is open to criticism because even if something works it does not necessarily make it right, true or conducive to forming genuine Christ-followers (cf. Geisler 1999, 606).
5. American Christianity exhibits a dichotomistic worldview. It has been successful at dissecting almost every conceivable aspect of the Christian life: sacred/secular, church/state, church/parachurch, clergy/laity, faith/works, evangelism/social action, sovereignty/free will, natural/supernatural, literate/illiterate and form/meaning. Such differentiations are not necessarily incorrect or counterproductive; the problem occurs when they are superimposed upon others as the only way of viewing the world and doing Christianity, particularly among those who have a more holistic outlook on life (cf. Lingenfelter and Mayers 2003, 53ff).
To fail to recognize that American evangelical Christianity is in fact a local creation and thereby does not have universal appeal and applicability is to hinder what Andrew Walls calls the “Ephesian moment” in cross-cultural mission. According to Walls,
The Ephesian metaphors of the temple and of the body show each of the culture-specific segments as necessary to the body but as incomplete in itself. Only in Christ does completion [and] fullness, dwell. And Christ’s completion…comes from all humanity, from the translation of the life of Jesus into the lifeways of all the world’s cultures and subcultures through history. None of us can reach Christ’s completeness on our own. We need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge and focus our own; only together are we complete in Christ. (2002, 79)
A BETTER WAY
Contextualization must be placed at the top of the agenda for American evangelical missionaries. This subject is relatively new among the evangelical community; in fact, only since the Lausanne Consultation in 1978 on “Gospel and Culture” has this topic been taken seriously. For some, the notion of contextualization still implies compromise. Nevertheless, it is warranted on at least two grounds.
1. The manner in which God has chosen to communicate divine revelation is through the vehicle of human culture (cf. Kraft 2003, 14ff). For example, in the Old Testament the ritual of circumcision, a custom practiced in various Ancient Near East societies of Abraham’s day, is adopted as a sign of what it means to be God’s covenant people. Moreover, in the New Testament Paul discards the Jewish “Messiah” in favor of the Greek “Savior,” a term taken from the religious climate of the eastern Mediterranean of his time, in an effort to impart knowledge about Christ’s work. Thus, the only way in which we can hope to effectively pass on Christianity to others is by utilizing their culture, that is, their “frame of reference” (Kraft 2003, 145ff). Yet, given the fact that culture is not a neutral vehicle for expressing divine revelation, one must constantly be on guard against over-contextualization or syncretism (cf. Hiebert 1985, 185–186).
2. Contextualization is not an attempt to change the inherent meaning of the gospel but to communicate it in such a way that people welcome it for the right reasons and not reject it for the wrong ones (cf. Whiteman 1997, 3–4). To do this, one must search for relevant answers to questions such as:
—What is the general background of the audience?
—What are their besetting problems?
—What issues arise from these problems?
—What appropriate departures should theology take? (cf. Gilliland 1989, 64)
Christians from various backgrounds will come up with vastly different responses to this kind of undertaking. Even the person of Jesus will be understood in different ways: the American Jesus frees from addictions; the African Jesus delivers from evil spirits; the Latino Jesus liberates from oppression; and the Asian Jesus opens the way to transcendence (cf. Hesselgrave 1983, 480). This should surprise no one as cultural complexities are seemingly endless. Yet as long as a shift in allegiance from false gods to the “true and living God” (1 Thess. 1:9) remains the focus, one can be assured that the right path is being taken.
Ultimately, missionaries must learn the dance of transculturation (see Shaw 1988, 221ff). This entails the ability to move from the communicator’s culture through biblical cultures to the receptor’s culture so that the latter can comprehend God’s message.
To demonstrate how this dance is performed, we can look at one contemporary case study regarding the Arab world.
PERSONALITIES: AMERICAN, ANCIENT AND ARAB
In view of recent events, the Arab world is arguably the greatest missionary challenge facing the American Church today. But Americans can indeed successfully enter Arab culture and earn the privilege to be heard.
The typical American personality can be depicted in terms of the “me, myself and I” triad. It is private, individualistic, autonomous, introspective, independent, egalitarian, competitive, achievement-driven and inclined toward self-realization (cf. Pilch and Malina 1998, xxxxiiff). This personality has been nurtured in a “rights culture” (deSilva 2000a, 215) and its conscience is governed by internal feelings of guilt (cf. Malina 1993, 64ff). Ultimately, the average American lives for self, questions anything which inhibits self and finds no greater authority for self other than self (cf. Pilch and Malina 1998, xxxvi).
In contrast, the first-century Mediterranean world was populated with people who exhibited a “dyadic personality” (Malina 1993, 67). They were public, communal, collectivistic, outward focused, interdependent, status-minded, traditionally bound, devoted to group well-being and attained fulfillment by upholding kinship values (cf. Pilch and Malina 1998, xxxxiiff). Such people were raised in an honor-seeking, shame-avoidance culture (cf. deSilva 2000b, 518); as such, their consciences were primarily preoccupied with the views of others (cf. Malina 1993, 67, 81). Thus, the normal person in New Testament times was committed to social integration and community maintenance for the sake of honor (cf. Pilch and Malina 1998, xxxvi).
It should come as no surprise that the social values of first-century Mediterranean society survive in the same part of the world today (cf. deSilva 2000a, 84), in particular among the Arabs. Consequently, most of the characteristics of the dyadic personality would apply to them. But Arabs, comprising both Christians and Muslims, also display a “Fahlaw personality” (Patai 2002, 113ff). According to Raphael Patai, “The one overriding concern of such a personality is to save face, to appear as a person who adheres to the ethical norms of his society” (2002, 113). Therefore, what “the Fahlaw personality dreads most is not failure in itself, but the shame and disgrace in case his failure becomes known” (2002, 118). This personality has been reared in a culture of “familism” where the family is considered “extended, patriarchal, patrilineal, patrilocal, endogamous and occasionally polygynous” (2002, 299–300). In such a context (1) honor is viewed as a collective property of the family and upheld at all cost, (2) loyalty to family takes priority over personal needs, (3) status supercedes achievement, (4) making a good impression on others is imperative, (5) anything which threatens personal dignity must be rejected and (6) family honor is the greatest source of pressure to ensure compliance to accepted behavior patterns (cf. Nydell 2002, 25, 45, 92). Therefore, the Arab is actually dominated by concerns which lack “counterparts in the modern [American] West”; to make matters worse, the American personality at almost every point undermines the familism upon which Arab society is built (Patai 2002, 295, 300).
DE-AMERICANIZATION IN THE ARAB WORLD
So how are American evangelicals to dance transculturally in the Arab world? There are three things we can do.
1. Realize that it is the epitome of ethnocentrism to expect Arabs to comprehend and convert to an Americanized version of Christianity. Indeed, missionaries “have no mandate to spread their culture. The only legitimacy to their crossing cultural lines with a message for others is that the message is not their own, does not derive from their culture, but that it is God-given and thus transcends cultural variability” (Priest 1994, 313). Hence, the road less traveled in missions must include crucifying self by laying down strongly held theological, ecclesiastical and/or methodological loyalties for the sake of God’s kingdom (Rom. 12:1, Gal. 2:20, Phil. 2:3–8). The Apostle Paul, who became “all things to all men” so that he “may by all means save some,” serves as a powerful model (1 Cor. 9:22).
2. Acknowledge our cultural biases in approaching scripture. The average American Christian is handicapped in this area. As David deSilva notes,
Those living or reared in Asiatic, Latin American, Mediterranean or Islamic countries have considerable advantage in their reading of the New Testament…since many of those cultures place a prominent emphasis on honor and shame. Readers living in the United States… may recognize immediately that we live at some distance from the honor culture of the first-century… Semitic peoples in the East. (2000a, 25)
This distance causes Americans to become oblivious to issues of honor, shame and community dynamics in the Bible. For instance, when it comes to the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32), interpreters have projected their own world on the text. This is evident in the endless homilies which concentrate on the deviant behavior and guilt-ridden conscience of the younger son who repents in order to experience a better life under his father’s care. However, the main figure is clearly the forgiving father whose reactions to both sons are central. Each part of the story—the granting of the inheritance, the father running and kissing the younger son, the robe, the ring, the sandals, the killing of the fattened calf, the celebration with the household servants and village community and the father’s pleading with the older son to join in—are masterfully woven together by Jesus with honor/shame language in order to convey the lengths to which God the Father is willing to go to be reconciled with those estranged from him (cf. Bailey 1980, 161ff).
3. American evangelical missionaries must minister within the context of Arab honor/shame sensibilities if they hope to be trusted, respected and heeded (cf. Hesselgrave 1983, 480). Confrontational approaches aimed at exposing the sins, failures and/or flaws in Arab character which are common American evangelistic strategies (e.g., the Four Spiritual Laws, Evangelism Explosion and the Sinner’s Prayer at the end of the Jesus film) must be deemed unwise and in some cases disastrous. This is because Arabs, who are compelled to conceal vulnerability (cf. Lingenfelter and Mayers 2003, 102ff), will automatically try to defend their dignity “even in the face of facts to the contrary” (Nydell 2002, 45). They will be “forced to hide shortcomings and failures in order to preserve appearances and save their self-respect” (Patai 2002, 118). Another strategy must be sought.
Successful missionary encounter necessitates outdoing the Arab at his or her own “social game” (Lingenfelter and Lingenfelter 2003, 74). That is, Americans must live, move and have their being “in such a way that [Arab] conscience functions as an independent…witness to the truth.…[I]t is [this] conscience…in agreement with biblical principles, which should provide [their] reference point” (Priest 1994, 310–311). In other words, the American “who understands and works with native conscience [will find] conscience to be God’s great and good gift, an ally which works to support repentance and faith” (1994, 315).
On a practical level this means that if the Christian faith is to become winsome to Arabs, American missionaries must excel in those areas which Arabs value and admire. Specifically, they must outshine their Arab friends in such things as marriage, raising and loving children, producing respectable males and modest females, honoring parents, respecting the elderly, showing hospitality, being generous, caring for the stranger and poor, working for justice, resolving conflict through mediation—in sum, being more honorable than Arabs themselves. As Americans concentrate on doing “things in such a way that everyone can see they are honorable” (Rom. 12:17; cf. 1 Cor. 10:32–33; Col. 4:5; Heb. 13:18), by having “regard for what is honorable, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (2 Cor. 8:21), Arabs will eventually be confronted with issues relevant to their own moral standards. This will provide an opportunity for the Holy Spirit, who has been sent “to convict the world concerning sin” (John 16:8), to use Arab misconduct, whether publicly acknowledged or not, to reveal their “shame before a holy God” (Hesselgrave 1983, 480).
Undoubtedly, however, the offense of the gospel will at some point have to be addressed. But just as Paul utilized whatever cultural information available “to convey the significance of Jesus Christ” to his audience (deSilva 2000a, 127), Americans should employ the material present within Arab society to communicate truth about the Messiah. Thus, trajectories for discussions concerning such concepts as the atonement should be conducted within honor/shame categories. This is precisely what Ziya Meral, an Islamic background believer from Turkey, advocates:
Western thought presents Christ as the Savior who removes the burden of our sins. This conception of Christ’s atoning work speaks well to the needs of westerners but not as well to Middle Easterners.…A Christology relevant to the region will present Jesus as the one who restores our honor with God. (2005, 213)
It is here that Anselm’s satisfaction theory is particularly promising for Arabs. He surmised that through human sin God was robbed of the honor due him. Divine justice required sinners to be punished, but divine love sought a solution by which they could be saved. However, since the offense to God was infinite, the satisfaction must likewise be infinite, that is, divine. In addition, since humankind was the source of the offense, a human must be the one to offer restitution. Hence, the rationale for the God-man whose sacrifice not only satisfied God and restored his honor, but also provided a means by which sinners could receive forgiveness and eternal life. There are, of course, problems with this view, as there are with all atonement theories (cf. Morris 2001, 117–119). For instance, the theory of penal substitution, generally assumed by American evangelicals as the one correct way to understand the atonement (cf. Enns 1989, 322ff), sets Christ “in opposition to the Father by maximizing the love of Christ and minimizing that of the Father” (Morris 2001, 118). Nevertheless, all the theories are needed as each one “draws attention to an important aspect of our salvation, and we dare not surrender any” (2001, 119). For the Arab, the satisfaction theory is uniquely applicable as it not only makes the atonement comprehensible in readily accessible terms, but also lifts up the God-honoring Messiah who places before humanity the necessity of living with the same orientation in life (cf. John 10:18, 12:32, 17:4; Rom. 15:5–6; 1 Pet. 2:21).
The question as to whether “Americans…ought to serve mankind in other fields than in religion” must be reconsidered. Perhaps they should be restricted to other fields of work. Or perhaps they may be willing and able to de-Americanize by dancing transculturally, particularly in the Arab world.
1. Obviously, Americans are not solely responsible for all mistakes on the mission field either today or in the past. However, they presently bear a greater responsibility because: (1) they hail from the world’s only superpower, (2) they are setting the example for others and others are following and (3) they have access to historical records which should lead them to avoid past errors.
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Christopher R. Little has been involved in cross-cultural ministry for over fifteen years on four different continents. He holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary.
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