I remember when I was planning to move to Africa as a missionary. I heard from a few different people — something along these lines of, “Why don’t you just leave those people alone? They are okay with their culture and their way of doing things. Why do you want to make them American?” It was shocking the amount of times I heard such a protest. However, after moving there, I quickly realized the absolute ignorance of the people who said these types of things. First, the people in Africa were not happy. They were dying. They were stuck in their cultural practices that were keeping them enslaved 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 five to six times before they were adults. Wives would expect to be beaten by their husbands at least once or twice a week. 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 would be cruel.
When It comes to being culturally sensitive and working within a culture, I have seen missionaries take two opposite roads. In the first approach, they completely ignore the host culture and seek to bring in their culture. One man came to Africa with very noble intentions. He was shocked that the people were 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 idea was noble and, in theory, correct. However, these individuals were still living in what we would liken to the Stone Age. The vast majority, probably close to 98%, have never ridden in a car, let alone driven one. The ox and plow were all they knew. We encouraged this individual to buy a few oxen instead of a tractor because we knew that it was sustainable for the people. However, the individual, who had a great heart, decided to buy the tractor. Of course, the people were elated! Yet, once it ran out of gas, the people had no idea what to do. The nearest gas station was a 45-minute drive, which they couldn’t even fathom because they didn’t have cars. 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. And in less than one month that nice new tractor was a heap of uselessness. On the flip side, I have seen missionaries who take the complete opposite path and seek to be so “culturally-relevant” that they never address the sinful issues of the culture, out of fear of possibly offending the people. I have seen missionaries that will only host nice comfortable game nights, craft days, smile, and hope that somehow the person would accept the Gospel.
So what is our goal? This is a delicate 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 effect upon the people. We want to encourage godliness in the people who, outside of Christ, are liars, sluggards, drunkards, adulterers, etc. In other words, there are plenty of 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 learn. For example, they probably have a higher sense of social behavior, respect for their elders, and loyalty to their community, among other things. These are biblical ideas that are praiseworthy within their culture.
Cultural sensitivity has its limits. We are there to change and influence their culture towards a biblical model. However, most missionaries struggle with this because they view their home culture as the “biblical model,” which could not be further 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 viewing a church service in the typical Western way – We have greeters, pass out bulletins, open with a worship service of three or four songs, have a 35 to 45-minute message and close with another worship 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 three to four worship songs but more like two to three hours’ worth of songs followed by a sermon of unknown length; (a short one would be one to two hours). To the American, this is entirely unheard of. By the end of the service, we are completely in the flesh because our entire day has been wasted. We think that this is just wrong! Don’t they respect our time!? (Notice the difference between a time-oriented and relationship-oriented worldview?) Don’t they know we have things to do? We come in and say, “A ‘godlier’ way is… (fill in the blank),” and we seek to change something that has everything to do with our personal and cultural preferences and nothing to do with biblical accuracy. We need to realize that we are there to biblically influence the culture in the areas where it is needed, but in other areas, we are to remain hands-off. We are not seeking to establish nice American ministries. We are looking to develop culturally-penetrating and nationally-run Biblical ministries.
Pastor Mike Thiemann
Saving Grace World Missions
Train4Missions.com is a ministry Pastor Mike Thiemann runs to help equip and train missionaries and senders on all topics of long-term overseas service. Pastor Mike and his wife Erin serve State-side as full-time missionaries through Saving Grace World Missions and raise their own missionary support. If you would like to partner with Pastor Mike and Erin to help them further the ministry of Missions Training, please click the “ways to give” image below. Also, you can access their website by going to sgwm.com/thiemann.