by Joy Anderson
Strategically, we have to admit that there is a serious roadblock to world evangelization when the existing church cannot minister effectively to minorities.
One day we were giving out literature to a group of Indians and one of them looked at it and said, "The Christian church has nothing to offer us Indians. It is powerless and cannot deal with our problems. Furthermore, it tries to make us into white men."
The Indians’ needs could be met by the church, but they had never understood the gospel, primarily because it had never been presented in their cultural context. Why? Because the white culture had been more interested in acculturating the Indians to their values.
When we told them about Christ’s power over the spirit world, they listened intently with amazement. When we agreed that their medicine men had more power than white psychology, they gave us a hearing. They listened when we told them that Jesus had power to conquer the spirits, not just appease them.
All of us are concerned about how to reach minorities, in whatever country we work. Often they are the focus of our efforts to find the unreached groups. Tragically, too often existing churches in those areas haven’t accepted these minority cultures and find it impossible to reach them. When a minority person is reached, he or she is supposed to adapt to the prevailing culture of the existing church.
Strategically, we have to admit that there is a serious roadblock to world evangelization when the existing church cannot minister effectively to minorities. Should Western missionaries serve under churches like that, or in such situations are they not justified in looking for other alternatives?
Our basic problem is to convince churches that every culture has a right to its own identity. In the United States, where whites and Indians mix, we find much opposition to the Bible’s being in the Indian language. Whites feel Indians should use the English Bible since they can read it.
Indians feel that when they become Christians, they have to become white and they won’t need the Bible in their language. However, their attitude changes when they hear it and read it in their own language.
After she heard the Easter story in Northern Paiute, an Indian woman who has told us she didn’t need the Bible in Paiute, said, "That’s the way the Bible should sound." She wants the Bible read in Paiute in Indian prayer meetings on the reservation. These prayer meetings were started by our main translator because there was no Christian fellowship in the Indian language, only English churches.
Of course, when existing churches try to make minority cultures amalgamate with theirs, they are following well-known cultural practices: dominant cultures use social pressure to bring nonconformists into line. This happened in the early church when the Judaizers wanted Gentile converts in effect to become Jews culturally. "Frequently, we who control the church in our day require our own equivalent of these (Jewish) customs as preconditions," writes anthropologist Charles Kraft (Communication Theory for Christian Witness, p. 26)
Ralph Winter in his article, "The New Macedonia" (Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, p. 302), says, "There is blindness to the existence of separate peoples within countries." the way Jews looked at Samaritans is a good example of people blindness. They saw them as worthless dogs, because they couldn’t understand why the Samaritans acted the way they did. So, the Jews reacted against them to get them to conform.
The Samaritans, for their part, were a culture to themselves and reacted against the Jews and did not conform to their culture. Therefore, to the Jews they were a nonpeople.
So, when we discuss how to reach the unreached, specifically minority groups surrounded by existing churches, we must first deal with the fundamental issue of whether or not we should ask people to change their culture to believe. All culturally distinct groups have the right to hear the gospel from their own cultural perspective. But because of prevailing attitudes in nearby churches, these groups may not hear the gospel, if evangelism is left to these churches.
Minority people do not want a message that depends on their giving up their culture for the culture of the dominant people, no matter how bicultural they appear to be. In Chicago, a Navajo woman spoke beautiful English and was a successful secretary. She was converted in a white church. One day she found an Indian church and came back to her white church waving a Navajo New Testament. Although her English was flawless, and she had been converted outside her own cultural setting, she still felt more at home with the Navajo Bible and an Indian church. People do not easily lose their cultural identity. Many Christian Indians in our cities attend no church because they do not feel at home in white churches.
We have to decide if cultural unity is more important than spiritual unity and outreach to minority people. We can affirm the cultural values and identity of minority Christians and then encourage and teach them how to reach others in their own group. In the long run, this will enable them to preach a culturally relevant gospel and people will gain a correct understanding from the beginning.
In effect, it seems to me that the apostle Paul taught us to adapt to another’s culture, rather than force them into ours, in our efforts to reach them. He said, "While working with the Jews I live like a jew in order to win them, and even though I am not subject to the Law of Moses, I live as though I were, when working with those who are in order to win them. In the same way when with the Gentiles I live like a Gentile, in order to win Gentiles" (1 Cor. 9:20, 21, TEV). He also said, "I try to please everyone in all that I do with no thought of my own but for the good of all, that some might be saved" (1 Cor. 10:33, TEV).
Preaching the gospel in the language of minorities, and from their cultural point of views, gives people a clear picture of what God is saying to them. For example, because the gospel has been preached in English and presented in a "white way," some Paiutes have misunderstood Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Some of them identify Jesus with their trickster and think the Holy Spirit is demonic.
Part of the problem, however, is that when we train minority believers too often they are forced into the culture of the dominant church. We put them in schools in the white world and they learn white ways of doing things. When they return, they can’t relate the gospel to their people because they have adjusted to white ways, instead of learning how to apply the gospel to their culture.
We lose those who could be good ministers to their own people, but who can’t or won’t adjust to the white world. In effect, we stop them from preaching to their own people.
I think that the national churches too often are dominated by the values and perspectives of their own culture, so they can’t reach minorities. Cultural pressures make it difficult to think and minister cross-culturally. Therefore, we need groups and individuals from within and from outside the existing churches who are trained in cross-cultural evangelism.
This is being done in some places. In India, for example, we helped to train believers interested in evangelizing minority groups. Our students soon saw that their reactions often were due to cultural differences. Some could handle this better than others. One student from North India couldn’t stand the food because it was South Indian cooking. One day he admitted he was in culture shock, and he had to go out to eat, but he came to see why he was reacting as he did.
In the United States, some pastors and missionaries give up Indian ministries because they can’t function cross-culturally. Too many workers come to this field without adequate training in cross-cultural work. Not only those who work with Indians, but also those who work in inner cities, need this kind of training. They don’t get it in their churches, so outside agencies have to do it.
Part of our ministry is to help churches in Indian areas to accept the right of Indians to have their own culture. Christians need to accept them for who they are. It’s easy to agree to this in white areas, but where Indians live close to whites there is much misunderstanding. People working with other ethnic groups in America have the same responsibility.
Wherever we serve, only as we help Christians to see the need of minority groups to maintain their culture can we help the churches to understand them and reach out to them. The national church must catch the vision that every ethnic group within its boundaries had a right to its own identity.
Only then can we depend upon the church to evangelize all people. In the meantime, as long as the need to reach minorities exists, God is raising up groups and individuals to evangelize minorities and to train others how to do it.
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