by EMQ Readers
Conforming to a Culture. The October 2002 issue of EMQ included the article, “A Testimony for Missions,” by Richard Smith. The article included these statements, “…fall in love with the local culture…identify with its institutions and traditions…” “He is here because he is deeply attached to our nation and what comes with it…He has tried hard to be one of us…”
Conforming to a Culture
The October 2002 issue of EMQ included the article, “A Testimony for Missions,” by Richard Smith. The article included these statements, “…fall in love with the local culture…identify with its institutions and traditions…” “He is here because he is deeply attached to our nation and what comes with it…He has tried hard to be one of us…”
Seemingly common among missionaries is the idea that we are to love the culture in which we work. I can appreciate that we should seek to communicate the gospel in an appealing way, and that we are to love the people to whom we minister. But I don’t understand the idea that we are to love the local culture and identify with its traditions. A couple of verses come to mind in this regard. Romans 12:2 (“Do not conform to the pattern of this world”) and 1 John 2:15 (“Do not love the world or anything in the world”).
When I think of Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Moses and Daniel, it occurs to me that they quite often went against the patterns of the local culture. The Old Testament seems to warn us repeatedly—all the way through it—against absorbing or being like the culture that surrounds us. It does not emphasize loving or becoming like the culture which surrounds us, though this seems to be a popular concept today. One area that the Israelites kept stumbling in was in wanting to be like—wanting to like—the people and culture around them.
In my years in missions I have seen more than a few cases in which families have become very immersed in the culture, with the deliberate intent of getting their children very much involved in and part of the culture. Time and time again, I have seen kids grow up in these families and begin to reflect the culture and its values, i.e. worldly values which run counter to the Bible, and grow up as non-Christians.
It seems to me that our goal should not be to become like nationals or even to like them—but rather to honor and lift up Christ and to share his good news.
I think there is a point to which we can’t help who we are and the culture of which we are part. Various aspects of the culture of which we are part will offend and rub people the wrong way. The clash between certain cultures can be especially strong, such as when several nationalities work together on one team. But we can still offer the gospel to people and trust that the Holy Spirit will convict and change lives, in spite of who we are or what culture of which we are part.
Another aspect of this idea of loving the culture is the selective nature of it which I have sometimes observed. I have heard some people strongly emphasize the importance of loving and immersing oneself in the local culture. At the same time, they rather strongly express dislike, distaste, or worse toward some other culture, frequently their own home culture, or often the US culture, which seems to be a favorite one to bash. But if God wants us to love culture, shouldn’t we love them all? Should we love one and smear another? Virtually all the cultures I have come into contact with display many characteristics which are anti-Christian and anti-God. Why should we love these?
Certainly we should love all people and be sensitive to local ways of doing things and take care to approach people humbly. But I don’t believe we should love the cultures which surround us.
— Lewis Codington, Sheffield, England
On Islam and Dependency
I enjoyed the October 2002 issue of EMQ and its focus on Islamic issues and the wide variety of helpful insights given on the Islamic mindset and ideas that have worked in reaching them effectively with the gospel.
But as usual, EMQ made me a bit mad, not so much with what was said as what was not said. Current Western missiology has promoted the theory that withdrawal of funding will encourage an independent church in the developing world. This has been an attempt to correct the cultural imperialism and money management that many of us have been guilty of in the past, as well as trying to get emerging churches to prepare to stand on their own feet.
But a comment recently made by one of my national colleagues does spell out a problem with the approach that we have taken: “We are all one body of Christ, not a North American, European, African, Asian, etc. body. It does not seem to fit the biblical model when one part of the body is fat and lives in self indulgence while criticizing the hunger of the other three-fourths of the body that is emaciated. We need to learn how to distribute to the needs of the whole body what is necessary for the health of the whole.”
The issue that specifically sparked this conversation was a reflection on the methods apparently being used in Burkina Faso and other West African countries by the Islamic Societies around us. Hospitals, schools, Mosques, community development projects, small business loans—you name it, they are funding it—with no concern about creating a dependence situation. In fact, according to local gossip, they encourage it with a view to converting the entire populace to Islam.
It is curious, is it not, that the tools they are using are tools that Protestant missions have found to be the most effective in the past one hundred years in sensitizing populations to our message. These same “tools” have fallen on hard times recently because we seem to think that Western money is better invested in other things. So we have left the provision of clean drinking water, health care and education to the Muslims who have a wealth of oil money at their disposal.
Maybe missionary salaries are too high, maybe we do spend too much on administration (hinted at in Gary Corwin’s column), but the answer is not to starve the developing church.
As a point of discussion I wish we could constructively deal with the situation at hand rather than theorizing in generalities. We need to encourage them to take up their part in maintaining their existing structures, but we must also discover how to help them develop the vast number of areas for which they do not have resources.
Can we not help them build needed schools and medical facilities? Can we not help them build adequate facilities to train their leaders? Can we not help them have safe drinking water? They are already dependent on these needs, let us not make them also dependent on the Islamic Bank to build them!
We should not let the unwillingness of Western Christians to give develop our missiology. If rich Christians are not willing to help the poorer, the solution is not to punish the poor with a new theory of how to grow the church that is cheaper. It is to educate the rich Christians on how best to help their poorer brothers.
If I sound angry, it is out of frustration for my struggling brothers here in Africa.
— Bill Stregger, SIM International, Burkina Faso
War Imagery and Missions
Am I the only one of your readers to feel very uncomfortable by Paul Thompson’s article “What the ‘War on Terrorism’ is Teaching Us about Missions” (October 2002)? Many points Paul makes about contemporary approaches to mission are valid and important, but why does he choose to use a war to draw missiological lessons that many folks are learning simply by surveying the current state of missions, particularly Western missions?
For a start, using a war in which real people die (the vast majority of them not westerners) simply as an illustrative tool shows a great lack of sensitivity. This is echoed within the article in comments such as “The Gulf war was short and relatively painless.” It was not. Thousands died. Does the fact that most were Iraqis make it “painless?” True, the Apostle Paul in his letters uses some military analogies and metaphors, but never in such a way that could remotely be seen as commending war. He uses the analogy of a soldier’s dedication and single-mindedness to encourage committed discipleship, and he speaks of spiritual warfare. But in his references to this in both 2 Corinthians10 and in Ephesians 6 he is deliberately contrasting this—worldly warfare with spiritual warfare. And Paul makes it abundantly clear in his letters that spiritual victory is not won by conquest, but by sacrificial love, which leads to reconciliation. This is seen supremely in Colossians 2:15.
This leads me to my greater concern. That is, the fact that we can think of using war as a valid analogy for contemporary mission suggests that we are still stuck in an imperialistic missionary mindset, with images of conquest, target peoples, strategy and so on. His use of the phrase “grunt work” to describe the ongoing mission and evangelism of local brothers and sisters in Christ is not helpful. What possible good can come of warfare analogies, especially if Islamic groups pick up on it? We have already heard the warnings from Indian Christians of the results of Western Christians using militant language which demonizes local religions. Those who suffer will not, by and large, be westerners, but local Christians. We all remember Graham Staines, but who can name even one recent Indian martyr? There have been many. Tragically we now all know the name Bonny Wetherall, and we should be praying that great good will come out of her death. But great good will only come if Christians continue to show love, forgiveness, a desire to serve and a willingness to work for reconciliation. Paul-Gordon Chandler’s article “Salaam on Islam” seems to come much closer to current challenges.
The question of whether a “war on terrorism” can be primarily a military one is beyond the scope of this letter, but it is a question which has profound theological and missiological significance. What is clear (and Ralph Stice’s article emphasizes this, even if his reference to American missionaries as “the primary carriers” of the gospel suggests he has not fully grasped the de-westernization of the church) is that unless we abandon images of warfare and destruction and begin to pick up on images of building and sowing, which are also there in Paul, and model our ministry on service and reconciliation, which is surely the pattern of both Jesus and Paul, then Western missions will become increasingly irrelevant in our fractured world.
I pray it may not be so, but I do wonder if we can see past our cultural blinders.
–David Miller, International Christian College, Glasgow, Scotland