by Tabor Laughlin
Wipf & Stock, 2016
—Reviewed by Ed Scheuerman, professor of intercultural studies, Lancaster Bible College
Living among nationals is not enough to accomplish the goal of gaining acceptance in order to share the gospel. The missionary needs to seek to ‘become native.’ Drawing upon his ten years of living in China, Tabor Laughlin’s primer highlights the challenge of crossing the line from being among to living with those God calls the missionary to serve. He additionally calls the reader to “build deep relationships with them and to be intentional to share with them the gospel” (p. 8).
This short book (just 71 pages) is in three sections: (1) principles, (2) practices, and (3) take away. Each of the seven chapters ends with a few practical questions. The primary benefit of this book is its practical suggestions in such areas as language learning, food, dress, and identity among the local community. Laughlin wisely stresses the need for integrity in areas such as one’s visa.
The author seeks a level of acceptance where, “They will no longer see us as an outsider” (p. 37). But I don’t know that this will be entirely possible. Personally, one of the best days of my life in China was when I was told that I was “just like a Chinese.” I knew that this was a statement of acceptance but that I would never truly be Chinese.
Another slight concern is when Laughlin writes, “In such instances, when we realize that it’s actually our home culture that does things weird, not the new culture, maybe we should consider adopting the local custom” (p. 42). Neither needs to be “weird,” just different. We need to guard against making value statements (in either cultural direction) when customs are simply different. But the main point of adopting local customs is advisable.
Referencing Romans 14, the author wisely exhorts the reader to consult local believers when seeking to decide what would be a potential stumbling block for both believers and unbelievers in the local culture. “May the Lord grant you his wisdom in such cases,” he writes (p. 43). Laughlin similarly makes strong value judgements about children’s education and a wife’s language learning. “For her, studying the language should never be a higher priority than taking care of her family” (p. 58). I understand his intent here, but I would caution against imposing a Western value—in this case, of how one prioritizes family life. While I would not advocate imitating the family life of William Carey, I also don’t want to impose my Western understanding of family uniformly on everyone. The concern here, as with attempting to follow presumed “biblical standards,” is the need to recognize that how we interpret the Bible is also done with a cultural lens.
This book will serve well as an introduction for those about to get on the airplane to go overseas. But it can also serve as a challenge for all Christians to increasingly and appropriately seek to be in the culture in which God has placed them, regardless of their here and now.
Elmer, Duane. 2006. Cross-cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Lanier, Sarah A. 2000. Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- And Cold-Climate Cultures. Hagerstown, Md.: McDougal Publishing Company.
Lingenfelter, Sherwood G. and Mayers, Marvin K. 2003. Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
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