by Kenneth McElhannon
Our identification transcends material culture and behavioral roles and focuses on the servant’s attitude.
Our identification transcends material culture and behavioral roles and focuses on the servant’s attitude.
In recent issues of Evangelical Missions Quarterly, two writers have tackled the difficult subject of how missionaries should fit into culture and society. In the first, Harriet Hill made a “plea, especially to our missions professors…to think carefully about the (incarnational) model being proposed to students.”1 She argued that adopting the incarnational model of Philippians 2:5-7 is unrealistic, hypocritical, dishonest, unsuitable for the long haul, and unappreciated by the people to whom we minister.
For support, she drew upon anthropologist Jacob Loewen’s argument that when a missionary assumes any insider’s role within an alien society, the outcome is usually serious trouble. An outsider is safer, more honest, and better off to remain an unassimilated outsider.2
The second writer was Janice Dixon, who gave implicit support for Hill’s argument when she noted the high rate of attrition among first-term missionaries who become frustrated with their inability to meet unrealistic expectations.3
Hill begins by citing the Brewsters’ analogy between an infant “bonding” to its parents and missionaries “bonding” to the people they serve upon their initial entry to the host society. The biblical parallel, they say, is the “incarnational model established by Jesus who left heaven, where he belonged, and became a belonger with humankind in order to draw people into a belonging relationship with God.”4
FOCUS ON ATTITUDES
The Philippians passage, which discusses Christ’s attitude about his incarnation, helps us focus on our own disposition, or attitude, which is foundational to our ministry. According to Louw and Nida, disposition is the outcome of “one’s faculty for thoughtful planning.”5 In the case of Jesus, his attitude led him not to cling to the nature and characteristics he shared with God the Father prior to his incarnation. Rather, he gave up all the privileges associated with his higher status or rank, and took on the nature and characteristics of humans.6
These aspects of Christ’s incarnation parallel Paul Hiebert’s model for missionary identification: (1) deep-level-attitudes (e.g., ethnocentric feelings of cultural or racial superiority); (2) mid-level roles (e.g., master-servant); (3) surface-level cultural practices (e.g., food, houses, clothes, lifestyles).7 Hiebert warns that if missionaries identify only at the surface level of lifestyles, they can miss identifying at the deeper levels.
When we speak of a missionary’s having an incarnational ministry, we speak of an identification that transcends the superficial material culture and behavior roles and focuses on the underlying attitudes that should characterize missionaries as servants.
One of the requirements of an incarnational ministry, however, is that our lifestyle must not interfere with our ministry. If some missionaries find their possessions interfere with the depth to which they can serve others, it may be best to give up some things. However, we miss the point if we equate the incarnational model with deprivation, whether physical (ranging from asceticism to the simple giving up of some modern comforts), or emotional (separation from our family and friends). If that’s all we do, we do not rise above the surface level of cultural practices.
When considering how far missionaries should go in adopting the lifestyles of their hosts, it’s essential to look at “cultural distance” as David Hesselgrave applies the term to the cross-cultural communication of the gospel.8 We should expect missionaries to have a high rate of success in total assimilation when they go to a people whose thought patterns and lifestyles are not significantly different from their own. For instance, North Americans who go to Europe may expect a lower level of cultural stress and a shorter time for assimilation than those who go to Africa or Southeast Asia.
Hill focused on her failure to achieve local acceptance byemulating local African lifestyles, and on her subsequent guilt. She concluded that the incarnational model was faulty. Dixon, on the other hand, speaking from her experience of living with an Indonesian family for two years, noted that missionaries must have realistic expectations and recognize that there is no quick and easy path to identification.
Three decades ago, William Reyburn noted that a total assimilation to the local lifestyle “had no special virtue.” For him, the goal of missionary identification was to “create a communication and a communion” to discover a “point of contact” where the Holy Spirit challenges a person to surrender to Christ. To create this communion, Reyburn had first sought to shed the “feudal role” of the patron. However, dressing and behaving like the people among whom he lived never led to their total acceptance. Eventually, despite all his work, Reyburn learned that the people called him patroncito simply because he was not born to an Indian mother.9
Acceptance not guaranteed
Claiming that the incarnational model’s goal is total acceptance means dumping an unbiblical burden of guilt on missionaries when they fail. Anyway, we should not attempt to validate our ministry on the basis of our acceptance within the host society, since by that standard even Jesus did not succeed. His own villagers rejected him (Matt. 13:53-58), as did the majority of his fellow citizens (John 1:10c, 11). He was misunderstood (John 2:19-21; Matt. 26:61) and harassed by the authorities (Matt. 12:14). He had to withdraw from the crowds for some solitude and relaxation (Mark 1:35, 4:35, 6:45, 8:13).
The apostle Paul, in becoming all things to all people, so that he might save some, also adopted the incarnational model for ministry (1 Cor. 9:19-23). However, just as Paul knew what it was like “to live like those of low status”10 — the same verb he used to describe Christ allowing himself to be humiliated by crucifixion—he also knew what it was “to have more than he could use” (Phil. 4:12a).
Paul endured many difficulties and hardships: people who hounded him and struck him down; opposition and insults; beatings and imprisonments; misunderstandings and challenges to his authority; pressures from the churches; fatigue, cold, hunger, thirst, and sleeplessness; he was denied his rights, slandered, and charged with being an imposter; Christian brothers worked to undermine his ministry.
Since Paul was not wholly accepted, are we to call him a failure as a missionary? In light of what he encountered, today’s missionaries can’t abandon the incarnational model because of difficulties or lack of acceptance.
At this point we should distinguish the goal of the incarnational model, bonding, from the methods we use to achieve it. Although the Brewsters claimed that people who “plunge right in and experience life” will not suffer culture shock,11 we have heard many reports to the contrary. Those who plunge right in often suffer from such intense culture shock that they either retreat to the mission compound or go home. But we can’t cite this method and these cases as reasons for discrediting the incarnational model as a whole, and, by implication, the goal of bonding.
BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
Except where there is a high degree of similarity between the missionaries’ culture and the host society, we can’t expect missionaries to achieve a fully incarnational model. Hiebert has correctly pointed out that if missionaries and local people are to relate to each other, they “must create new patterns of living, working, playing, and worshiping—in other words, a new culture.”12 This new “biculture” is where missionaries and the people interact. It becomes the medium through which the gospel passes from the missionary to the local society and culture.
However, there is a possible pitfall in this biculture. Both the missionaries and the local people may assume that this arena is wholly adequate for transmitting the gospel, so that neither side takes the other’s culture seriously. One example isthe trade language. Just as the trade language limits the verbal expression of the gospel compared to the vernacular language, so also the biculture sets an artificial context for living out the gospel.
This flaw can be overcome if missionaries and the people learn as much as they can about the other’s language and culture, to achieve a maximum overlap in their knowledge and experience. The greater the interaction, the greater the likelihood the gospel will be transferred without distortion.
They must spend time together in as many contexts as possible. The missionaries must live in the host community, learn the vernacular language, and participate in society. If they do, they will realize the incarnational model. As they and their hosts share life in all its fulness, subtle but significant changes will occur in the attitudes of both groups. Bonding will take place at the deepest level and lifestyle differences will diminish in significance.
Missionaries ought not “settle for an outsider’s role,” as Loewen recommends.13 There is greater danger in missionaries choosing the less demanding roles of outsiders than in diligently learning the language and culture. Missions history reveals the triumphs of those who have struggled with adjusting to an alien culture and society, and who have subsequently communicated the gospel clearly and powerfully.
Paul’s response to hardship and adversity was not to abandon his ministry. Rather, he persevered, extended extraordinary efforts, and demonstrated great patience. His goal was to to “put no obstacle in any one’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way…” (2 Cor. 6:3, 4a).
1. Harriet Hill, “Incarnational ministry: a critical examination,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2 (April, 1990), p. 201.
2. Jacob Loewen, “Roles: relating to an alien social structure,” Missiology, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1976), pp. 217-242.
3. Janice Dixon, “Unrealistic expectations: the downfall of many missionaries,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (October, 1990), pp. 388-393.
4. E. Thomas Brewster and Elizabeth S. Brewster, Bonding and the Missionary Task: Establishing a Sense of Belonging (Pasadena, Calif.: Lingua House, 1982), p. 7.
5. Johannese P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. Vol. 1: Introduction and Domains (New York, N. Y.: United Bible Societies, 1988), p. 325.
6. Ibid., p. 740.
7. Paul Hiebert, “The bicultural bridge,” Mission Focus, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1982), p. 4.
8. David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1978).
9. William Reyburn, “Indentification in the missionary task,” Practical Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1960), pp. 1-15.
10. Louw and Nida, op. cit., p. 740.
11. The Brewsters, op. cit., p. 7.
12. Hiebert, op. cit., p. 1.
13. Loewen, op. cit., p. 226.
EMQ, Vo. 27, No. 4, pp. 390-395. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.