by Phil Parshall
A study on the distinctives of how Muslim priests and Christian missionaries are perceived in society.
Recently my sixteen-year-old daughter, Lindy, was walking down a street of Manila with my wife. As they passed a store that specialized in custom designed T shirts, Lindy blurted out, "I would like a shirt with ‘Missionary Kid and Proud of It’ stenciled on it." Fortunately, my daughter has positive feelings about being associated with the word "missionary." Most missionaries wouldn’t care to advertise their high calling in Christ through the pop medium of printed T shirts. Yet, I’m sure we are comfortable and even proud to be members of the select fraternity of people called missionaries. To us and to our Western church supporters this time-worn word communicates spiritual commitment, willingness to sacrifice, and a deep love for a world of lost people.
Unfortunately, however, perceptions can be radically altered as they traverse time and space across geographical, cultural, linguistic, and religious barriers. The process of reinterpretation can often be so subtle as to substantially alter communication, without the involved parties even realizing it. This is what happened among missionaries living in the old-style compounds of India.
In India the missionaries were called dore. The word is used for rich farmers and small-time kings. These petty rulers bought large pieces of land, put up compound walls, built bungalows, and had servants. They also erected separate bungalows for their second and third wives. When the missionaries came they bought large pieces of land, put up compound walls, built bungalows and had servants. They, too, erected separate bungalows, but for the missionary ladies stationed on the same compound.
Missionary wives were called dorasani. The term is used not for the wife of a dore, for she should be kept in isolation away from the public eye, but for his mistress whom he often took with him in his cart or car.
The problem here is one of cross-cultural misunderstanding. The missionary thought of himself as a ‘ ‘missionary," not realizing that there is no such thing in the traditional Indian society. In order to relate to him the people had to find him a role within their own set of roles, and they did so. Unfortunately, the missionaries were not aware of how the people perceived them.
My own research has led to a startling conclusion. The missionary is often perceived by the Muslim community as nothing more than an efficient secular administrator. He is a person who has great resources available and is able effectively to stimulate and oversee progress to successful completion.
This was personally brought home to me in a powerful, painful manner a few years ago. At the time I was renting office space from a highly placed Muslim government official. We had many talks together on a great variety of subjects. One day he piercingly looked at me and said, "Mr. Parshall, are you a man of God like my friend Mr. Lakin?" That question caught me off guard. Mr. Lakin, a missionary colleague, looks, acts, and talks like one of God’s special saints. Regaining my composure, I sought to assure the official of my theological orthodoxy. After a few moments of reflection, he quietly said, "But Mr. Parshall, you are more like an American diplomat."
We were as ships passing in the night. I was being perceived as informed, articulate and dynamic. My desire was to be perceived as godly and humble. That encounter led me to do the following study on the distinctives of how Muslim priests and Christian missionaries are perceived in society.
A. "Image" as perceived by Muslims
MUSLIM PRIEST (IMAM)
1. Passive disposition
2. Subjective in outlook
3. People oriented
4. Financially poor
5. Would not attend drama, watch TV, or go to movies
6. Would not eat in expensive restaurants
7. Would not eat pork
8. Wife would wear a veil and would appear only in culturally modest clothes.
9. Man’s clothes depict him as religious person
10. Wears a beard
11. Cares very much about his image in society
1. A driver, a doer
2. Objective in orientation to life
3. Task oriented
4. Possessor of a car, camera, tape recorder, etc. Regarded as extremely rich
5. Would do all of these
6. Would do so
7. Would eat pork
8. Missionary wives have not always dressed in culturally appropriate, modest clothes; thus their identification with the "sinful" actresses as seen on western movies and TV imports
9. Clothes depict him as a secular person
10. Infrequently has a beard
11. Easily passes off this concern with the statement, "I will never be able to be a person of another culture."
B. "Ministry" as Perceived by Muslims
MUSLIM PRIEST (IMAM)
1. Mosque is focus of life
2. Prays openly five times a day
3. Fasts for one month during daylight hours
4. Constant use of religious vocabulary
5. Not a giver of relief and financial aid; is a recipient of local money only
6. Has no employees
7. Puts little value on non-Quranic education
8. Memorizes vast parts of the Quran in Arabic
9. Involves himself in a healing ministry by pouring consecrated water on a sick person, putting charms on the diseased, chanting the Quran, and saying prayers
1. Goes to church one hour on Sunday
2. Little public prayer
3. Seldom, if ever, fasts
4. Little use of such
5. Is a dispenser of foreign funds-as relief, jobs, training Institutions, hospitals, etc.
6. Has employees with accompanying status
7. Great value on formal, secular education and degrees
8. Memorizes very little of the Bible-in any language
9. Gives a mild prayer for the sick with little faith or Conviction. People go to the missionary for medicine, not prayer. Emphasis is on the scientific not the spiritual.
So much for the objective data. In one Muslim country a team of missionaries analyzed these empirical observations and then hammered out the following modus operandi in the hope that the barriers created by diverse presuppositional filters would be neutralized or at least minimized. This methodological approach is utilized while they are in residence among their target people.
— Missionaries wear the pants and shirts that are worn by Muslim priests. The men have beards. The wives wear the conservative dress of local women.
— Rented houses are as simple as conducive to physical and emotional health
— Eating pork is avoided
— A greater sensitivity is directed toward individuals and away from programs
— Religious vocabulary, at times in the Arabic language, is frequently utilized
— A higher profile of religious form and ritual is practiced
— No institutions are operated, but missionaries are glad to give counsel to Christian development organizations that are working among the needy of the country.
— There is a meaningful involvement of prayer with the sick and suffering.
These and other adoptions have caused Muslim contacts to veer away from the normal flow of interaction with the foreigner on such subjects as politics, geography, and economics. They now are prepared to discuss the weighty matters of sin, salvation and eternal life. Missionaries are being perceived as "People of the Book" who are keenly motivated to dialogue the great issues of life. "Perception" has made a dramatic shift that puts the missionary on a religious track and away from the "secular administrator" imagine that has been so counter-productive to his God-given task.
Incarnation into local rhythms of life in a foreign context is never easy for the western missionary. We enjoy life on our terms. Mixing with the foreign community with its pattern of familiarity gives us a sense of security and continuity of self-identity.
Then, of course, there is the whole question of our children to consider. How far can we go in making legitimate incarnational demands on those who are not full partners in the decision-making processes? Also, what about our emotional capabilities to adjust to the rigors of a third world life style?
Dogmatic assertions are not called for. Rather, we in the missionary community should sensitize ourselves to the locally relevant issues and then prayerfully map out a program of involvement that will align us as close as possible (and practical) to that which allows the gospel to flow through us in the most productive manner. It would seem to me that is the extent of what our Lord requires and expects from each of his children.
Copyright © 1982 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.