August 20 – Relevant

August 20 – Relevant

Matthew 10:16

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16, NKJV)

We live in a global society, movement of peoples around the globe is common. How do we relate to these diverse peoples? How do we communicate with our neighbor? When speaking of cross-cultural communication, we may think of a culture foreign to our own, but in truth all communication of spiritual truth is cross-cultural. The more distant the fundamental cultural elements of a given culture are to our own, the more aware we are of the un-biblical elements, perhaps, but the closer to our culture, more subtle and difficult the distance is to discern. But the necessity to try is essential. We seek to wed theology with ministry to bring all ministry under the functional authority of Scripture. But to communicate God’s truth, we also need to study the recipient of our communication carefully. That study has been called “cultural anthropology.”

Let’s provide an example: When I was a missionary in Japan, I sensed that anthropology must be focused on getting the task done, so I began the serious study of the Japanese value system. I wanted to know what Japanese valued, not what I valued. For pre-evangelism I wanted to connect with some motivational point for which our faith offered help. I was astounded to discover that many things important to me were of little or no importance to Japanese: eternal life, propositional truth, individual freedom, forgiveness of sin, a personal God, history. These were things I had been trying to “market.” At the same time I found things important to the Japanese that were not priorities for most westerners, but, I discovered, things to which Scripture speaks: approval and sense of belonging, security, relationships, feelings, honor of parents, here-and-now “salvation,” obligation, loyalty, beauty, love of nature, and the value of suffering.

Hirota was soundly converted and grew like an amaryllis. About six months after his conversion he came to me. “Sensei, you always talk about heaven and I’ve said to myself, ‘Who wants that? One life is enough!’ But now that I’ve gotten acquainted with Jesus I really want to go there to be with him forever.”

I had been trying to entice with visions of heaven a people whose idea of paradise is cessation of existence, to get off the wheel of reincarnation altogether. I was using bad bait. Cultural anthropology is a great tool to discover the values and non-values of a people so that the would-be communicator can start with good news about what is valued, not with what is valueless.

Do I spend time seeking to bring the serious seeker under conviction of sin (which, in a shame culture, he may not even recognize as existing) by stressing what he is so constantly guilty of – lying? It’s a big one for me. Why can’t he see it? Because, as his proverb instructs him, “A lie also is a useful thing.” My attempts to convict him of the heinousness of such a sin will no doubt prove futile. If I switch to sins he is acutely aware of, like relationships he has broken or his failure to meet his eternal obligations to his parents, however, I might make some progress in bringing conviction of sin, which my theology and good psychology teach me a person must have before they become interested in a savior. I might even switch to shame instead of sin as an entering wedge if shame is what his tightly knit culture recognizes. After all it is a shameful thing to fail in our obligations to God and forgiveness of that shameful offence might prove desirable.

Consider another example of cultural handicaps in evangelism. We value individualism, rugged individualism. The problem is we try to convert people into our image in order for them to qualify for receiving our message. The person who won’t stand out against family and friends is not worthy. Yet, the African or Asian may not think such a trait desirable at all. He may value contrasting virtues to which we give slight attention, even though they may be major biblical themes. Community and loyalty, for example, honor of parents and human relationships, acceptance and affirmation are biblical attitudes which don’t mix easily with individualism.

Individual responsibility is a major strand of biblical teaching, but it is not the only strand, and if not held in tension with balancing characteristics can become demonic. In a society in which a person’s all-important security is provided by those who guarantee his life, his family and employer, the offer of freedom and independence may not sound like good news. This may be the Achilles heel of all Western efforts to democratize Islamic peoples. Cultural anthropology might help politicians, too! We must include in our message values which we may have overlooked in our ethnocentric astigmatism if we are to be true to the whole revelation of God’s will for us humans and if we are to convince people that we bring truly good news. Thus, church growth anthropology – anthropological insights for more effective evangelism – will assist.

My conviction is that only a spiritually mature indigenous church can make a full integration of biblical truth with the local culture, true to that culture and true to Scripture. The foreigner should always be modest about his insights. Of course, the indigenous church leadership may have been so acculturated to western concepts that they, too, could benefit from the insights of anthropology, but the foreigner’s basic stance should be one of learning.

Anthropology is a wonderful bridesmaid to help the Bride ask the Bible questions that have not been asked and find solutions that are at once biblically authentic and culturally attuned. We all engage with peoples different from us – in our communities, ministries and work. Can and will we use informed cross-cultural communication to effectively and biblically engage with those with whom we work and minister? Appropriate engagement is for the sake of the Kingdom and the glory of God!

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