by David J. Hesselgrave
Is “going native” the answer to the missionary’s quest for identification? David Hesselgrave shows that this is a superficial, and not completely biblical, solution to the problem of identification.
Is "going native" the answer to the missionary’s quest for identification? David Hesselgrave shows that this is a superficial, and not completely biblical, solution to the problem of identification. Communication that as effective goes beyond this level. It begins with God, extends to a proper self-image, and finally to the missionary’s audience.
The missionary stood aghast. He could hardly believe his eyes, but there it was . . . .
Several weeks before he and his family had moved to this thriving town in central Japan. His predecessor had done a good work, and a number of Japanese had already come to Christ. He decided, however, that the response would be greater if he modified his way of living and brought it into line with that of the Japanese. After much soul-searching about what God expected, and what it meant to "deny self," he had determined to sell his Western-style furniture before moving into the unpretentious Japanese house that was to be his new home. To him, this was the most obvious place to begin living in true Japanese style.
Now he and his family were returning from a vacation and they were welcomed by the rusuban whom they had hired to watch the house in their absence. They hack wondered at the time if there was enough to guard to warrant hiring a watchman, but that was the way the Japanese did it!) The husband was the first to remove his shoes. He stepped up to the tatami level and opened the sliding door leasing to the living room. Momentarily he stood speechless. Then he saw it – the Western-style furniture, a little on the small side, but beautiful and carefully arranged. His wife and children were likewise astonished. Finally, they blurted out their questions.
The answer was really quite simple. The little group of Japanese Christians had watched their missionary friends move into their new home and had noted their almost complete lack of furniture. Avid readers of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue, and frequent visitors to the furniture section of the local department store, they knew well enough how American homes are furnished. In the absence of the new missionary family they had made their decision. They had sacrificially given money until they had enough to buy the furniture, so that their American friends could live more in the style to which they were accustomed.
The foregoing illustrates how easy it is for a missionary to get entangled in the problem of identification. Unfortunately, the problem is often limited to identification and its relation to our success or failure in communicating the gospel. For example; many missionaries, such as the family mentioned above, believe that the secret of effective communication is to adopt the clothing, customs and life style of the target culture.
That is only one aspect of the larger problem of identification, which must be examined three ways, as far as a missionary is concerned: his identification with God, with himself, and with his audience. In this article, we shall show how missionary communication is rooted in a proper understanding of all three of these aspects of identification.
IDENTIFICATION WITH GOD IN CHRIST
The New Testament admits to only one mission: to go into a lost word as representatives of the one Savior and Lord; to preach the good news about him; and to teach by word and deed that which he has commanded, to the end that there will be a "called out people" (the church) from every nation and tribe. There is nothing in the New Testament that would permit (much less, command) the missionary to preach what he does not know; or teach what he does not practice; or care for the body and mind but not the soul, or the soul but not the body, and mind; or participate in a search for that which he has not discovered; or deliver any message other than that which he has received in the revelation given by God.
The New Testament missionary proceeded with the knowledge that he was not his own man, that the message was not his own message, and that he was not on his own mission. The key phrases are, "Who was I that I could withstand God" (Acts 11:17; "I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision" (Acts 26:19); "All this is from God, who gave us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18); and "We are ambassadors for Christ . . . We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20)
Mission, in fact, begins with communication and identification with God made possible because he has identified and communicated with us. Apart from this vertical relationship resulting from his incarnation and selfdisclosure, and the proper response of repentance and faith on our part, there can be no mission. Apart from that we may become philosophers, theoreticians, and rhetoricians, but not missionaries. Missionary communication begins here or not at all!
IDENTIFICATION OF SELF
One reason the apostles communicated the gospel so effectively was that they knew themselves. But they did not learn to know themselves without traumatic experiences and divine prodding. When they finally embarked upon their missionary enterprise, it was not for them a program to "find themselves," or of self-fulfillment, or of selfaggrandizement. Rather, when men looked with amazement at their works they responded, "Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham . . . glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3:12, 13).
Missionary communication begins with identification with Christ, and it continues by that sort of self-identification which makes it clear that the missionary is simply a man among men, and a sinful one at that, and that he has come to give because he himself has been the recipient of God’s grace.
Correct self-identification will go a long way toward solving the problem of the relationship between loving service and faithful proclamation, which looms so large in missionary communication. It is the self, the person – in this case the missionary – who communicates. It is not just his words, nor yet his deeds. He communicates. It is bad theology and bad communications theory to say that acts of caring for the leper, reducing the rat population, reaching the illiterate to read, etc., communicate Christ of and by themselves. They communicate Christ when they are done "in his name." It is bad theology and bad communications theory to say that we do loving deeds in order to make it possible to communicate Christ, because the witness is also in the deed. It is bad theology and back communications theory to think that we can proclaim the message by spoken and written words alone, because both inaction and our deeds are part of communicating the gospel.
If it is true that we communicate to "whole men," not simply to "souls with ears," it is just as true that "whole men" communicate – not just "souls with mouths" or "souls with hands." That is good theology. "Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" ( Col. 3:17 ). That is also good communications theory, because the "silent language" of behavior is now seen as a most integral part of the communication process.1 That is also good philosophy, for it simply makes good sense to refuse to separate a man from his deeds, or a man from his words, or a man’s words from a man’s deeds. When a man lies, he is identified as a liar. When a man does good deeds, he is identified as a good man. When a man’s deeds do not come up to his words, he is identified as a hypocrite. The missionary gives of himself to others in service and witness. He does so in Jesus’ name, with the deep consciousness that he himself is a sinner saved by grace. That is missionary communication.
IDENTIFICATION WITH THE AUDIENCE
Paul said, "Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men" (2 Cor. 5:11). A missionary who has identified with Christ is a persuader of men.
When those early masters of persuasion – Aristotle, Cicero, Quintillian, to name a few – wrote of their art, they concentrated on identification with the audience. The persuader had to demonstrate that he was worthy of the audience’s confidence, that he knew their manner of speech and thought, and that he desired their good. Paul gave evidence of his knowledge and practice of this simple but profound secret of persuasive communication when he wrote to the Corinthians: "To the Jews I became as a Jew . . . to those under the law I became as one under the law . . . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law . . . . To the weak I became weak . . . I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some (1 Cor. 9: 20-22).
These classic words are often used by missionaries to justify diverse methods of reaching people for Christ. But that is certainly a misinterpretation. Paul was referring to his one basic method of communicating the gospel. He put himself in the position of his respondents, whether they were Jews or Gentiles, under the law or without law, weak or strong.
There was a very real sense in which he could identify with each group, and identify he did!
One of the most outstanding of contemporary rhetoricians, Kenneth Burke, makes "identification" the key term of his new rhetoric: "You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his."2
This is a large order. But, as Eugene Nida points out, the kind of persuasion that the missionary attempts requires a high degree of identification. Nida makes a correlation between degrees of identification and levels of communication, as follows:
1. The first level of communication is one in which the message has no significant effect on behavior and the substance of the message is essentially self-validating. For example, if someone says that two and two make four . . . no one is particularly concerned that the source should psychologically identify himself with the receptor . . . .
2. In the second stage of communication, there is a message which, though it has no permanent effect on a man’s total value system, does affect significantly his immediate behavior. For example, if a man says that a flood is sweeping down on the town because a dam has broken, the receptors want to make sure that the source identifies himself with his own message namely, that he also is making preparations to leave town . . . .
3. On the third level of communication, the message not only concerns a large segment of a person’s behavior, but also his whole value system. If, for example, someone insists that a man should abandon his carefree way of life, settle down, marry, and raise a family; or if he tries to convince another that he should repent of his sins, become a Christian, and lead an entirely different type of life . . . in addition to identification with his message; he must also demonstrate an identification with the receptors; for the receptor must be convinced that the source understands his, the receptor’s, particular background and has respect for his views, even though he may not agree with them….
4. There is, however, still a further and deeper level of communication, namely one in which the message has been so effectively communicated that the receptor feels the same type of communicative urge as that experienced by the source. The receptor then becomes a source of further communication of the message. This level involves "entrusting to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2). For this level of communication it is necessary that the receptor be identified in turn with the source. In this last stage of communication the identification is complete.3
The missionary is engaged, of course, in all four levels of communication. But it will be immediately apparent that his main concern is with levels tree and four. To be a missionary persuader is a most demanding task. No one can achieve perfect identification with others at all times. But we can make the attempt – in fact, we must make the attempt, for that is what is required of the missionary.
It is this challenge that Hendrik Kraemer takes up in his classic, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, when he insists that there is only one "point of contact" and that is "the disposition and attitude of the missionary"; and when he emphasizes the necessity of understanding the "totalitarian" interpretation of religion and setting missionary communication in that context, rather than embracing the delusion which says that we can produce for every religion a port of catalogue of points of contact.4
It is this same challenge that Purushotman M. Krishna (himself a convert from Hinduism) takes up when he encourages the Christian witness to do more than simply insist upon the one way of salvation when confronting the "Indo-Aryan" universalist. He urges us to understand the impact that is made upon the Hindu mind by a patient recounting of (1) the moral impeccability, (2) the teaching (particularly the Sermon on the Mount), and, (3) the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Of course, what is involved here is a sense of the appreciation that a Hindu qua Hindu has for these facts, not just the appreciation that Christians have for them.5
Identification is the key to more effective missionary communication. It will unlock the doors to many hearts and minds that are ignorant of, or actually antagonistic toward, the truth that transforms and gives hope for time and eternity.
1. Edward Hall, The Silent Language (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications).
2. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives and a Rhetoric of Motives (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1962), p. 579.
3. Eugene Nida, Message and Mission (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), pp. 164-66.
4. Hendrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1963), pp. 130-41.
5. Purushotman M. Krishna, "Presenting One Way to the Universalist," Christianity Today, XVI, No. 21 (1972), pp. 4-6.
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