by Raymond B. Buker, Sr.
This article endeavors to discuss some of the major cultural phases.
Cultures change; Christ is changeless. Every generation, possibly every decade, any given culture in any given place may change. Formerly it was not this way. The East has had the reputation of always being the same. Century after century the changes were so gradual that one could make adjustments without difficulty. This is no longer true. The inter-action of cultures all over the world is causing local changes in any country at a rate that makes it imperative for one to reevaluate conditions, situations and approaches at least every decade.
This article does not propose to go into the details of the various aspects of culture around the world. This would take a book for each phase. It will, however, endeavor to discuss briefly some of the major cultural phases. A mathematical formula provides a basis whereby one may fill in specific factors and come out with an exact answer. This is possible in social situations as well as in mathematics. People differ in different lands. These differences may be put into the formula balancing the differing factors in relation to each other. The conclusion or answer will be the guide for proceeding in a given circumstance.
MISSIONARY MUST LEARN FACTORS
It is the responsibility of the missionary to learn the factors of his given locality. Putting these together in the proper relationship will provide a direction for the best approach in presenting the Gospel. Although the Gospel does not change, it is very versatile. An example of this is the complete aptness of the Gospel in any and every language of the world. It can be understood by any man or woman in his or her own tongue.
Cultures need from ten to twenty years to solidify. Before we can classify or characterize a culture we must observe it from one or two decades before we can describe its characteristics with certainty.
Consider Latin America. Today the society of Latin America is considered revolutionary. Revolutions occur so frequently in most of the countries that every worker should reckon this to be a feature that determines the background for the presentation of the Gospel. Fifteen years ago we would not have been so ready to ascribe this feature as a characteristic of the land. There were revolutions at that time, but the continuing of these outbreaks over the years solidifies it as a part of the culture.
One needs to go further than just to recognize the characteristics. The student of anthropology wishes also to know the causes. The Latin American Mind by Leopoldo Zea (University of Oklahoma Press, 1963) will be a great help to anyone seeking sources for the national actions of Latin Americans. Positivistic philosophy has so gripped the thinking of the intelligentsia that they have followed this ideology and have encouraged the actions that lead to revolutions. The Gospel must be presented in the light of this background.
Africa presents another fascinating challenge to the culturally sensitive missionary. Although the old Africa is fast disappearing, there is sufficient of the old culture present so that every missionary must know not only the past, but also the present. African culture, however, is changing so rapidly it is impossible to be dogmatic. Three to five years ago it seemed certain that some countries were about to become Communistic. However, reports like that of Emmanuel John Hevi about his stay in Peking in his book, An African Student in China (Frederick Praeger, 1964) are affecting national philosophies. The Gospel presentation in Africa, therefore, must be extremely versatile.
Language is a door to the culture of any people. Certainly language is a door to the heart of any person. Missionaries in the early days of modern missions expected to learn the language of the people withwhom they worked. But the learning process was a sort of hit and miss procedure. Those whoacquired the language were much appreciated.Those who did not do too well were expected to cover up perhaps by much activity. During the last half century there has been a lively development in this area.
Language schools have been set up in most of the countries where new missionaries begin their careers. These schools are giving their students the benefit of modern methods of linguistics. Wycliffe Bible Translators, for example, has set the pace for the missionary world as well as secular governments in the science of languages. Their Summer Institute of Linguistics in six centers challenges the world to approach the study of languages with scientific methods. As this science has opened one door, it has also found many other open doors whereby leaders are able through the right use and knowledge of a given language to enter into the life of the people. In this area we discover the thought mold of a people. We discover a direct road to the customs of the land.
The next step is to present the Gospel in keeping with these discoveries. Consider the revelations in relation to the African mind. Many of the tribes of inland Africa think only concretely. Abstract ideas are foreign to them and, when presented as the American normally thinks, are meaningless. Uhuru (freedom) is something Africans think can be put into a suitcase and carried back for use in the village. Foreigners from both Asia and America have largely failed in the first attempts to introduce the African to these greater horizons of the present day. A proper understanding of the language and how to use it will be a major help to bridge the gap of the two worlds of thought.
The cultural inheritance from linguistics works two ways. Literacy is a door that opens the world to the illiterate. Blind and ignorant, without the knowledge of letters, the individuals and groups grope helplessly before the on-sweep of modern civilization. To learn to read is the equivalent of removing cataracts from the blind. Life takes on hope and great possibilities.
Many tribes in central South America are slowly disappearing. In their superstition and ignorance they cannot cope with the complexities of modern society. Consider the stone-age Amarakaeris of Southeastern Peru.’ They were reduced to less than one hundred members about ten years ago. Two Wycliffe missionaries took up residence with the tribe. They learned the language and put it into writing. This process opened the door to the knowledge of their culture. It opened a more important door of literacy to the people of the tribe.
Another door of health permitted them to move from their evil witchcraft form of medicine to the realm of modem medicine and hygiene. Ways of competing with the economy of a great outside world have been introduced. The road of tribal disintegration has ended. Today the group is oriented to the modern world and is regaining a position in society. Fifty years ago, if missionaries had gone to them, it is doubtful if such a transformation might have happened. Today the missionaries go anthropologically prepared to cope with the situation. The Gospel provides the motive for such heroes to endure the privation and suffering involved. Modem missionary methods have evolved another victory for Christ. The cultural involvements of linguistics outline the details for this Christian achievement.
This phase of mission work covers may facets. Transportation, radio, television, public address systems, periodicals, and allied activities are included in this category.
Transportation facilities have changed drastically in the last fifty years. Judson took months to reach Burma from the. United States. That was 150 years ago. Fifty years ago it took’ six weeks for the same trip. Today it is done in less than two days. Tomorrow it will be a matter of hours.
The increased speed oftransportation is only a part of the significant development in this area. Changes in methods of transportation are equally as important. Formerly missionaries in the interior walked, rodehorseback, using pack ponies for baggage, or human carriers. Some places used bullock carts as the highest development of wheeled vehicles. That is, until the modem innovation of bicycles was introduced. Now every land has motorized transport. This has required roads-wider and more gradual over the mountains. The influence upon culture by these transportation transformations is extensive. Trade has greatly increased. Goods from the outside are brought in. Markets for local produce are now accessible. Cultural interchanges are automatic. Famines and epidemics may now be greatly alleviated. The present day development includes airplanes. These require landing strips. The local inhabitant who formerly was buried within an immediate environ now has a horizon that slowly but surely includes the world.
The motorized age brings with it the electronic era. For communications this means the local public address system, radio and then television. As we study the population explosion throughout the world we become keenly aware that our former methods of spreading the Gospel by word of mouth are inadequate. The growth of Christianity percentage-wise is overshadowed by the rapid increase of the population in every country of the world. Man’s ingenuity reached its extremity, then God permitted man to invent and develop the radio and television. Now the possibilities of reaching every person of every tongue and nation are within reason. Many missionaries are getting in step with these modern developments.
All of the above-mentioned forms of communication are being placed at the service of the ones who are working out the most effective methods to introduce literacy to the former "silent billions" and to distribute the literature that will bring the Light. Competition in these areas by the forces of Satan is beyond the scope of this article to describe. Literacy programs have always been an early procedure of every mission where illiteracy is present. Missions may well be given the credit for stimulating the pioneers to develop the present scientific techniques in this field. Secular and religious workers now join in implementing these methods. Literature, however, reaches out to avail itself of all the latest in the category of communication. Books and magazines are now produced with greater facility than in the past. They may be printed in one country or continent and then made available in adjacent countries within a matter of days. Quality and quantity are much in contrast to the past. Every worker of Christ, whether in general or specialized work, must now be aware of and make use of these improvements. The world rushes on and missionaries must be prepared to keep in. step without losing their major emphasis of the Gospel.
The phenomenon of the increase in size of our cities is recognized in every country. It has been slower to develop in areas of Africa and certain parts of Asia, but it is happening everywhere. The percentage of urban population as compared with the rural is steadilY rising. This writer does not believe that this is cause for instructing mission boards to re-allocate their missionaries. Statistics indicate that over the last two decades the percentage of missionaries placed in urban areas has kept pace with the rise of the urban population percentage. It does mean, however, that missionaries and missionary administrators must make all necessary study and adaptation to meet this special situation.
It is interesting to note the relationship between other; cultural changes and the new urban factor. The introduction of improved transportation and roads now encourages the villagers to ride the buses and to invade the city. Once the villagers reach the city, the opportunities and glamor persuadehim to remain. Either the fact that he does not return, or the word that he sends back to his friends, entices them to join, him in the city.
Today we must adjust our missionary program to meet this condition of great unassimilated populations in our urban areas. Housing shortages,overcrowding, job shortages, absence of family ties, and the failure of religious inhibitions to guide and guard, all these and other equally serious factors develop a society of lawlessness, immorality and groping that challenges Christian workers to provide ways and means whereby the Gospel can minister to the souls of these replaced, misplaced peoples. No one technique will serve for each and every country. These people must be approached in terms of their particular cultures and needs. The inner city, the congested slums, the shanty town suburban developments-all of these situations must be dealt with as the Gospel is presented with the goal of establishing functioning churches of Jesus Christ that minister to the needs of the people as they are.
Latin America reports more females than males in the cities. Africa has the opposite problem. Each country is discovering changes in the middle class population of the metropolitan areas. Latin America’s cities have a crying need of industrialization to supply jobs for the increase of city dwellers. This swelling population requires more food, but no provision has been made to .grow or to market the produce needed.
It is not the responsibility of the missionary to solve these economic problems. He, however, cannot shut his eyes to the world he lives and work in. The work of Jesus Christ must be done with and for these people who are experiencing these changing conditions in their culture.
Dr. Donald McGavran has introduced a term into the discussion of missionary work. He calls a certain manifestation, cultural overhang.z He points out that missionaries tend to bring their own cultural habits and understandings into the work that is being done. The carrying over of the culture from the missionary’s own background tends to confuse the issues involved and to hinder the reception of the Gospel.
There is a further consideration that concerns cultural overhang. This is the effort to perpetuate methods and mores used in missionary work in one section when engaged in another area. It may be, moreover, that work used in one generation will determine the procedures of the next generation. More specifically, methods pursued in rural work are not usually the ways for mission work in the city. Or the mode for mission activities in the normal city of the past may not at all fit into the present burgeoning city life. Neither should we expect that the methods used by the missionaries in the colonial days of India will be necessarily effective today. These are general examples of cultural overhang. The missionary must exercise perpetual care that the things he does and the ways he recommends are not overhangs of another time, another place, and another culture. He must ever be alert to be relevant in terms of the environ where he is working and in terms of the timeless Gospel.
We live today in an era of changing ideologies. The propaganda of Communism that promises social betterment to the lower classes states an ideal that Christians cannot oppose in principle. The efforts in many lands to equalize privileges, provide jobs and an opportunity for an income that will sustain the family in its basic needs, to distribute the land so that all will have an opportunity to secure food – these things are not wrong. The Christian missionary may not be the one to initiate and implement such moves, but he must be aware of the pertinency of such causes. He must know and expound the place of the Gospel in these matters. Jesus Christ cares for the common people. He died for all men. Reforms of all kinds through all ages and in every land have been sponsored by Christians.It, therefore, behooves the missionary to implant the Gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that the layman of each cultural situation will be doing their part to fulfill God’s will. These things, however, can and will be done within the culture of a given people. The missionary will endeavor to divest himself of his own culture and identify himself with the culture where he works,that the Gospel may be meaningful to those where he is planting the Church of Jesus Christ.
A specific example of cultural adaptation is found where missionaries introduce singing into the new Christian society of any given culture. For more than one hundred and fifty years the representatives of Christ from the West have been teaching the Christian church of Asia, of Africa and of South America the hymns of the European and American church. These hymns have made an unmeasureable spiritual contribution to the Occidental mind and ecclesiology of the West. There is no criticism of these hymns in all their variety as an integral part of the life of the Protestant church in Europe and America.
Hymnology is a vital part of the worship of the Church. It is not a mistake to insist upon including singing for Christian worship in every part of the world. The procedure of missionaries, however, has been to translate Western hymns into the languages of the Orient and Africa, using tunes that have been written for the Western church. They have tended to ignore the music that is indigenous to the country and people where they work. Anthropological rules and findings have been disregarded.
What is being done in the Ivory Coast in Africa is an example of what perhaps can be the norm for any missionary work. The peoples’ movement as outlined by Dr. Donald McGavran manifested itself in the Ivory Coast near Korhogo in 1962.’ As the Christian groups emerged in the surrounding villages the missionaries endeavored to teach hymns by memory to these illiterate people. Th Africans could not seem to retain the tunes or the words. One of the indigenous leaders was impelled to go about the country witnessing. His soul yearned for a way to give his testimony through song. Accordingly, he made up his own theme song. He sang it to a tune of his own people. It was then that the missionaries discovered that this language had a Ecale of five notes rather than the seven note scale of Western music. The language itself is tonal. The missionaries perceived that the Africans would use words of a high tone for a high note, and low toned words for low notes. During the next few months the Africans conposed many hymns to their own tunes. Now the tribes of these parts are edified in their own worship and aided in the spread of their faith by the indigenous music directly related to the Gospel.
This example of adapting the local cultural situation to the need in Christian development of a given group is indicative; of what may well be done in any culture.
The discussion in this article has only touched upon various phases where culture and missions are involved. Each of these aspects should be carefully considered by every missionary involved in the direct implementing of the Gospel message in the lives of people. Recognizing the brevity and introductory nature of what has been said, it is hi ‘hly recommended that each missionary and appointee for missionary service should read widely to familiarize himself with the problems involved. This reading should be pursued with zeal and dedication to improve the talents already bestowed, so that an increase of talents may be offered to the Lord who has called him into His vineyard.
1. Who Brought the Word (Santa Ana, Calif. Wycliffe Bible Translators), p. 59 ff.
2. Donald McGavran, How Churches Grow (London: World Dominion Press, 1959), p. 85 ff.
3. Donald McGavran, The Bridges of God (New York: Friendship Press, 1955), p. 13.
The bibliography that follows is only suggestive. It is but a beginning. As these books are read many others will be suggested. New ones will be coming off the press. This list is divided into general and specific countries. These countries are chosen as an example of what should be read for any given country where the missionary may work. In addition to these books there are many, many invaluable articles in current publications dealing with pertinent problems of the missionary encounter with culture.
United Nations reports and articles on all phases of society throughout the world are an invaluable source of facts.
Weyer, Jr. Primitive Peoples Today. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday Dolphin Books.
Nida, Eugene. Customs and Cultures. New York: Harper an Row.
Boas, M.I. God, Christ and Pagan. London: Allen and Unwin.
Council on Foreign Relations. Social Change in Latin America Today. New York: Harper and Row.
Rycroft, William and Myrtle Clemmer. A Study of Urbanization in Latin America. New York: United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
Szulc, Tad. The Winds of Revolution. By Tad Szulc. New York: Frederick Praeger.
Zea, Leopold. The Latin American Mind. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press.
Bengt, G.M. The Christian Ministry in Africa. London: SCM Press.
Hempston, Smith. Afirca, Angry Young Giant. New York: Frederick Praeger.
Ruth Sloan Associates, compilers. The Educated African: A Country by Country Survey of Educational Development in Africa. New York: Frederick Praeger.
Abraham, W.E. The Mind of Africa. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Rycroft, William and Myrtle Clemmer. A Factual Study of Asia. New York: United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
Ginsburg, Norton, ed. The Pattern of Asia. Edgewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall
Roy, Andrew T. On Asia’s Rim. New York: Friendship Press.
Boutwell, Richard. Southeast Asia Today and Tomorrow: A Political Analysis. New York: Frederick Praeger.
EMQ, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 9-18. Copyright 1964 Evangelism and Missions Information Service. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.