by Duane Elmer
This book is for international missionaries. Or, is it? More correctly, this book is for every Christian who anticipates witnessing across cultural lines.
InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426, 2006, 212 pages, $15.00.
—Reviewed by Jim Cianca, academic dean, Heritage College and Seminary, Cambridge, Ontario.
This book is for international missionaries. Or, is it? More correctly, this book is for every Christian who anticipates witnessing across cultural lines. In a candid exposé, the author critiques Western attitudes that result in Christian service being “perceived as superiority, cultural imperialism or neocolonialism.” Initially, such criticism is hard to accept; however, Elmer, through his experience and personal transparency, presents a convincing argument that will bring conviction to well-meaning believers who want to serve humbly in God’s kingdom. The author uses familiar anecdotes and personal experience to illustrate what he has learned through a lifetime of cross-cultural ministry, namely, that quite often, good intentions do not produce good results. He points out that cultural biases, which are difficult to detect, admit and overcome, give a negative impression and are consistently counterproductive to cross-cultural ministry.
Throughout the book the author makes it clear that Christian witness and service must be liberating, not paternalistic. He reminds would-be servants of Christ that regardless of their intentions, they must never limit the freedom of others by interacting with them as objects or targets to be struck with the notion of becoming like them. Elmer insists that cross-cultural servanthood must respect all people as equals created in God’s image and who have the ability to interact with the message of the gospel. The author leaves no doubt that true servants accept and honor all cultures deeply enough to engage in dialogue with a sincere belief that they can learn from those who are not like them. He implies that for Christian service to be liberating, our witness must never be demanding or manipulative (oppressive), but lucid and loving, allowing meaning and value to be constructed from within the hearer.
Although Elmer advocates tolerance and “thinking gray,” he carefully delineates between acceptable accommodation to culture and watering down the essence of the gospel. He balances two ideas: (1) that Jesus fits comfortably within all cultures and that truth is communicated through “creation, other believers or unbelievers” and (2) that discernment is an essential skill. He wisely cautions Christian servants not to mistake cultural values for biblical truths. Elmer supports his contentions with relevant biblical references and gives a useful perspective on “common grace” that helps cross-cultural servants understand that others, regardless of their culture, have something to offer, a fact he calls an important step in the direction of true servanthood.
Because of deeply ingrained cultural biases, many westerners unknowingly fall prey to arrogance and misuse of power. Elmer helps readers uncover those biases and leads them to suspend their “agenda, vision and personal wishes and listen to the wisdom of God through his people.” It will take courage to face the issues in this book, but those who are willing will undoubtedly be convicted, instructed and challenged to new heights as effective cross-cultural servants.
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