I remember when I was planing to move to Africa as a missionary I heard from a few different people something along these lines – “why don’t you just leave those people alone. They are fine with their own culture and their own way of doing things. Why do you want to make them American.” I was actually shocked at the amount of times I heard a protest along these lines. However, after I moved there I quickly realized the absolute ignorance of the people that said these types of things. First, the people are not happy. They were dying. They were stuck in their own cultural practices that were actually keeping them in slavery to sickness and death. The mortality rate among the kids was over 50%. Most people only lived to 40-45. Most women would be raped 5-6 times before they where adults. Wives would expect to be beaten by their husbands at least once or twice a week. And I could go on. You still want to convince me that these people are happy and should be left alone when we have the resources and the know-how to help? That is wicked.
When It comes to being culturally sensitive and working within a culture I have seen missionaries take two opposite roads. First, they completely ignore the host culture and seek to bring their own culture in. One guy came to Africa with very noble intentions. He was shocked that the people where still farming by using oxen and plows. So he got the great idea to buy a tractor for the community. He thought that these people could accomplish so much more if they just had a tractor. This was noble and in theory true. However, these Africans where still living in the stone age. 98% of them have never ridden in a car let alone drive one. The ox and plow is all they knew. I encouraged this individual to buy a few oxen instead of a tractor because I knew it was sustainable for the people. However, the individual (who’s heart was great) decided to buy the tractor. Of coarse the people where elated! However, once it ran out of gas the people had no idea what to do. They didn’t even know what gas was. And the nearest gas station was a 45 minute drive (which they didn’t have cars). So after the first tank of gas the tractor sat in the field and the people stripped it of all the usable parts. They took the belts to help tie up their homes or their bundles of wood for example. And in less then one month that beautiful new tractor was a heap of uselessness. On the flip side I have seen missionaries that take the complete opposite path and seek to be so culturally “relevant” that they never address the issues of the culture out of fear of offending the people.
What is our goal when it comes to culture? This is a fine balance. We are there to influence their culture but not to make them American. We want to bring the Word of God into their culture and watch it take affect upon the people. We want to instill Godliness upon the people who are, outside of christ, liars, sluggards, drunkard, adulterers, etc… In other words, there are plenty of non-praiseworthy aspects of their culture that the Word of God needs to penetrate. However, on the flip side there are probably praiseworthy aspects of their culture that Americans need to glean from. For example, they probably have a higher sense of social behavior, respect for their elders, loyalty to their community, etc… These are also Biblical ideas that are praiseworthy within their culture.
Cultural sensitivity has it’s limits. We are there to change and influence their culture towards a Biblical model. However, most missionaries struggle with this because they view their own culture as the “Biblical model” which in reality could not be farther from the truth. We need to recognize what is Biblically mandated and what is not and keep to those rules. For example, church planters always have a huge struggle with this. They view a church service in the typical western way – we have greeters, pass out bulletins, open with 3-4 songs, have a 35-45 minute message and close with a song. Now there is nothing Biblically wrong with this model. But there is also nothing Biblically mandated that requires this model. In Africa they would open with not just 3-4 songs but more like 2-3 hours worth of songs followed by a sermon of unknown length (a short one would be 1-2 hours). To the American this is absolutely unheard of and borderline blasphemy (I am being sarcastic). By the end of the service we are completely in the flesh because our entire day has been wasted. This is just wrong! They need to have a respect for peoples time (notice the difference between a time oriented and relationship oriented world view?). Don’t they know we have things to do? So we come in and say, “a more ‘Godly’ way is ______” and we seek to change something that has everything to do with our personal and cultural preference and nothing to do with Biblical accuracy. We are there toBiblically influence the culture in the areas where it is needed but in the other areas we are to remain hands off. We are not seeking to establish nice American ministries. We are seeking to establish culturally relevant nationally ran Biblical ministries.
Pastor Mike Thiemann