Cultural sensitivity and why missionaries should be experts at it

What do you think of when you hear the word missionary?

Since I studied at the liberal arts college, specifically focusing on history, for me, missionary and crusader are so often synonymous. It can remind me of English Imperialism, where the sun never sets on the British Empire. It can even make us think of the Scramble for Africa, where at the Berlin Conference, European powers simple chose “what to take” in Africa, and essential eliminating any self-governance and independence in Africa (aside from Liberia and Ethiopia). And so often, we think of spreading out faith as imperialistic.

This is especially true if we see our faith merely as a product of our culture. With certain parameters, spreading any part of our culture and allowing it to replace another is evil. Of course, seeing our faith merely as a cultural expression is the Western way of seeing it—and it is that pluralistic viewpoint that I would hesitate to evangelize all over the world, in fact. Most “Eastern” cultures are working with something else altogether. Faith isn’t a byproduct of culture like so many of us have been taught and think. For example, most Muslims think their faith is a revelation from God; not merely a cultural product. We don’t need to belittle Muslims further, do we? If faith is just a cultural product, then being a missionary is really hard, and probably wrong. I wouldn’t want our cells to grow if that’s what they were doing.

I hope we aren’t doing that. I hope we are actually representing the love of Jesus in an incarnational way—that is to say, through our relationships. I hope we are trying to reach and redeem the Philadelphia metro by being relatable, empathetic, and adaptable individuals.

To learn how to do this, I look to the Apostle Paul. Paul was a revolutionary Christian. He has such a conviction for spreading the love of Jesus, that he was willing to cross Jewish cultural barriers, and social norms that he was quite assimilated to as being a strict Jew before his conversion, in order to help the love of Jesus spread. His whole ministry, in essence, was organized around distilling the Gospel to its core, fundamentals you might say (although it’s hard to use that term now, since “fundamentalism” is such a cultural artifact in the United States).

When he’s addressing the Corinthians, he immediately humbles himself and declares, “I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

He’s trying to make it clear to all of the people he’s talking to that the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the most important piece he’s offering.

To the Galatians, he says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

One of Circle of Hope’s proverbs references the cell leaders presenting the Gospel with great flexibility. So I think we resonate with Paul quite a bit, in fact. I sometimes think that we might hesitate to explicitly be a missionary or evangelists because we know that those words and ideas mean something to the Philadelphia metro. We might hesitate to share the Gospel because we are worried about turning someone off. We think we should believe a certain thing or act a certain way in order to be more inclusive and help people meet Jesus. I appreciate that sensitivity and ultimately that passion for evangelism.. And I think Paul demonstrated that all the time.

Here’s how Paul summed it up to the Corinthian church: Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Cor 10:32)

That’s his strategy for life. He does what he has to do to get the work of redemption accomplished. He is the one sent on a mission by Jesus. Jesus was sent and he sends his followers. What gives you your marching orders every day?

We so often are willing to take marching orders from our families of origin or employers or whatever else, I want us to resist that, and take our marching orders from God.

Corinth is one of the places to which Paul was sent. There, Paul is walking tight rope between libertines who are taking advantage of freedom in Christ versus legalists who are oppressively applying the Jewish Law (or the Ten Commandments). I think we walk that tight rope all the time, if we are serious people, on mission with Jesus, at least.

It isn’t about what any of us thinks or feels, as much as it is about Jesus and his mission.

There is no greater place in his letters where Paul is walking his tightrope between different groups of people than when he is teaching about the new relationship between men and women. Now that Jesus has made the whole world new, the relationships men and women share are different too. This is a place he really gets to some people. This is definitely where Paul is all things to all people.

Paul’s basic teaching about men and women goes like this, in a nutshell: Both men and women are saved by faith in Christ alone. In marriage they are to love each other in mutuality. They are both gifted by the Spirit and are both responsible to exercise their gifts to build up the congregation. Their relationships reflect what Jesus has done and what he is doing. The hierarchical structure of men over women is revalued as the gospel brings us equally to God and as the Spirit gifts us equally for each other. There is a new life of community in Christ in the new age of God’s redemption.

A lot of people have their most trouble with Paul these days because of how he writes about women in the church. And rightfully so, still in the 21st Century there are Christians all over the world, and oddly all over Philadelphia, that simply don’t believe that men and women are gifted equally. They actually take Paul’s teachings, applying them literally, instead of trying to understand what Paul is doing in the Mediterranean and applying that. And I don’t blame them, it’s much easier to read it like a cookbook, then to apply it in a deeper fashion.

I think a lot of people are missing Paul’s point most of the time and, as a result, are missing the point God might be making. Paul is not talking about or going for 21st century gender equality—how could he be?—he is mainly going for a fruitful mission. And that’s the thesis; he is doing is all for the mission – the question we need to answer is what do we need to do to achieve the same end in the Philadelphia metro. Let’s try to work this out. Here’s the passage that I am referring to.

The head covering is an ancient issue. The women of the Middle East specialize in it and always have. French people are banning it from schools. The BIC abandoned it as a rule in the 60’s, but some women still wear it as a sign of applying 1 Corinthians literally, just like their mother did. Of course, lots of women have other ways to apply 1 Corinthians.

I think people generally interpret this scripture upside down, as if Paul were a reinforcing the hierarchy that the general message of his letter persistently overturns. I do not think Paul is inventing a subjugation policy for women. It is incredibly unlikely that Paul wants us to return to the oppressive traditions of men or of the Jewish law.

While, as you can easily tell from just this short section, that Paul undoubtedly comes from a patriarchal society and he definitely does not have western European senses of political equality, he is also working out the subversive nature of the gospel in such a way that starting from the churches he planted it will eventually topple the hierarchy of the Roman Empire.

Again, it doesn’t make sense for me to shoehorn my Western values in the scripture and make them say something they aren’t saying. I don’t think that’s fair. I also don’t think it’s fair to take the Scripture and use it as if it is a textbook that we would apply to our lives, detail-by-detail.

To understand what he is saying we can’t just see it as if he is talking about a religion, he is not talking about moral philosophy, he is not talking about rules. He is a missionary—primarily concerned with spreading the Gospel, just as we are as cell leaders. He is still trying to get this church in Corinth to be real and to make an impact, he is trying to give people real faith, he is trying to keep the Empire from taking over.

Try looking at this part through the eyes of mission and see if the material gets less contradictory and less offensive.

At the end of 1 Corinthians there are several chapters about how their worship meetings take place. Chapter 11 is in that section. The meetings of the church in Corinth are apparently the scene of some wild stuff. People get drunk at the Love Feast, the man sleeping with his father’s wife shows up as if his situation is normal, people buy meat for the feast from the pagan temple and freak some people out, others abuse spiritual gifts in extreme ways. It is kind of messy. Paul weighs in.

The subject of women being veiled seems kind of odd to us. Especially married women in Paul’s day wear a veil when they were in public. If she is not wearing her veil in the street she loses respect and dignity; she is like a prostitute or a beggar widow. I don’t think Paul is justifying that. But he does know that a woman who became a Christian and then stopped wearing her veil would be making a huge statement that Paul finds totally counterproductive. She might be able to justify it, but it is not useful and not necessary.

Of course, for many of us, we might just as well think, that is easy for him to say, since he is a Roman citizen, male! (And it’s easy for me to say since I am a male, myself.) You get to exercise all of your rights, and not everyone does! And what kind of Gospel am I preaching if it doesn’t argue and defend equal rights? I can really get wrapped up in that, and organize my whole life around it, but I don’t know if that fight is always the most effective at the forefront of trying to relate, understand, and know those who are around me.

For me, the amount of patience, love, and understanding that I need to understand goes a long way. Because I was raised by Arab parents, I familiar with what it looks like to evangelize to a conservative culture that it isn’t ready to hear about the radical love of Christ.

When I visited Egypt a few years ago, I remember walking into a few Coptic Churches and being told not to wear shorts or to raise my feet. It wasn’t even polite to cross my legs so long as there was an older person in the room. To bear that bottom of your foot in public is a rude expression. I complied to it, even though, it is nearly impossible for me to sit with both of my feet flat on the ground. Moreover, I still don’t get it.

When I prayed in a mosque a few years ago with my friend Aaron, I remember feeling weird about having to cover my head and wear certain clothing. But I knew if I wanted to relate, and connect and be with those people that day, I needed to follow their custom. I could have just done my thing, for the sake of my rights, but I think I could have just done what I wanted. I don’t want to reduce myself to that. Just like I wouldn’t ask a cultural Muslim who was following Jesus to stop celebrating Ramadan.

The question for those who want the missionary mindset—is how to we export the Gospel without exporting our “culture?” Hard questions to answer, in my opinion, because it’s so hard to separate preaching Christ with negligible “American” values. How do I reach a city where sex is normal after three dates, recreational marijuana use is standard? What do I do with people who have different values than I do? And how can I help them become Christians without losing everything else? How we can make our faith a thing that revolutionizes our character, our willingness to serve, and change the world but without just Scrambling for Africa or making sure that the sun never sets on our Empire?

It sounds like Paul is a sellout, but I really think he wants people to be transformed by the love of God, and he can easily lose them altogether if he doesn’t go about it carefully.

I think he laid out his philosophy before chapter 10 and 11, in chapter 9. He really wants to relate, connect, know, and learn from all the people around him. He wants to establish trust with the Jews before he revolutionizes the way they the world again:

Though I am freeand belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone,to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law(though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

What does it look like for us to be “all things to all people?” What is the essence of our message and our mission? What’s flexible and adaptable?

The application for us is, look at your life with a missionary mindset. When you want the scripture to inform what you are doing, make sure to read it as if the writers are on a mission because they are, and that is why they wrote the material. They are not creating religion they are working out how the gospel of Jesus gets to the people in a given territory and how it spreads from there to the next one and to the next generation. If it is not all about the mission, you probably aren’t getting the point. If you just want Paul to do good philosophy or consistent comparative religion, you’ll have trouble with him.

But the question remains for us: what do we need to do to advance the Gospel in this day in age? What fights are we willing to have, and when do we need to adapt?

One Reply to “Cultural sensitivity and why missionaries should be experts at it”

  1. Another thought-provoking writing that I appreciated, Jonny, and relevant to what I am reading now. I agree wholeheartedly there is a fine line between being too legalistic and too liberal in our freedoms in Christ. I love reading and learning from missionaries all over the world and the importance of not diminishing a people group’s culture in the process. So many of these cultures have ancient stories passed down from generation to generation that go back to the “one true God”, way before other religions within their culture were established. I found “Eternity in their Hearts” by Don Richardson enlightening and gives much evidence of “one” Supreme God existing in ancient cultures all over the world before some pluralistic religions we know today became cultural practices within those cultures. I am currently reading about missionaries to the Hopi Indians in the Southwest. Many Native American faiths have parallels to Christianity and their religious practices include prophesy that someone will come and save their people. I find it particularly interesting that the Christian Hopi Indians (who have accepted Christ as that “someone”) and other Native American Indians also evangelize and are missionaries to people groups in other countries. Author ministering to these saved Hopi Indians says their testimony of Christ’s redemption to others, i.e., aborigines in Austrailia, etc. has a “profound” effect because there are parallels in their native practices vs. Western culture. So very cool to see God working in the BIG picture and how he uses all cultures to achieve his purposes. And yes…the question is, “What do we, as Americans, need to do in Philadelphia, PA and Crofton, MD and elsewhere to further the Gospel of Christ?”

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