Cultural Contamination and Missionary Common Sense

Cultural Contamination and Missionary Common Sense

Long-standing cross-cultural relationships will tell you that cultural transmission is, in fact, inevitable.

A.W. Workman

Want to know one of the deepest fears of contemporary missionaries? Being labeled a colonialist. Missions books and pre-field trainings are full of examples of how previous generations of missionaries got it wrong, exported their culture along with the gospel, and thereby hamstrung the growth or even existence of the indigenous church. The average well-educated Westerner will go to great lengths to avoid the shame of being labeled a racist or a -phobe of any sort. The average Western missionary will go just as far - perhaps even further - to make sure the dreaded colonialist label never sticks. 


This deeply-imbedded cultural fear often works its way out in a missiology of reaction. What ends up crystal-clear for the average missionary going to the field is what he should not be like - those old-school colonial missionary types. So, when missions methods are proposed that keep the missionary always in the background, never leading from the front, the missionary becomes an easy convert. In these methodologies (also chock full of promises of exponential success), the missionary has found a compelling philosophy that keeps him from leading groups in Bible study, from preaching, from baptizing locals, and even from calling out the darkness of local culture when necessary. In his zeal to not be a colonialist missionary, the gospel worker focuses overtime on preventing any of his culture from being transmitted through his ministry. 


In a previous post, we’ve seen how the Bible’s strong emphases on direct gospel ministry and protection against false gospels provide a helpful response to this kind of missions thinking. How might the experience of seasoned cross-cultural missionaries also inform this fear of being a cultural colonialist, a cultural contaminator? 


Thankfully, cross-cultural wisdom and common sense also bring some needed correction to the missionary mortified at the thought of passing on some of his culture to his local friends. To start with, those with long-standing cross-cultural relationships will tell you that cultural transmission is, in fact, inevitable. 


When we love someone, we are shaped by them.


Spouses’ personalities and body language become more like one another as they age. Likewise, friends from different cultures slowly absorb traits from one another’s lives. This is simply how human relationships work. When cross-cultural relationships exist, culture will be transmitted whether we want it to or not. This is because group as well as personal cultures are porous and dynamic, constantly flowing back and forth and naturally interacting with the other cultures around them. Naivete says we can stop cultural transmission entirely. Wisdom and experience say it will happen, so let’s seek to notice it and be intentional about it.


Similarly, culture can never be transmitted without being changed in some way, localized as it were. No one can emulate another in one hundred percent the same way. No, even the sincerest emulation still gets colored by the unique traits and personality of the individual or group that has been influenced. Once again, experience shows us that cultures never receive anything without putting their own spin on it. Yes, the Melanesian church of my adolescent years sang “Rock of Ages” in English in their services. But the timing, the pitch, and the fact that every single verse of the song was sung was most definitely not Western, but more akin in style to the tribal dirges of their ancestors. When this kind of exchange occurs, does it represent a coercive act of culture invasion or a consensual act of culture adoption? Must we insist that the former category is the only possibility? Or can we admit that indigenous cultures - not just our own - possess enough agency to adopt and transform foreign forms willingly? 


One more point of cross-cultural common sense is that cultural transmission can be either good or bad. This much should be plain to the Christian, even if it’s not to the secular academy. Strangely, even among Christians, it is assumed to be bad when a Western missionary’s culture influences local believers. But why is this the default assumption when an unreached culture is influenced by a missionary who is 1) steeped in and shaped by God’s word, and 2) who comes from a culture that has had widespread exposure to God’s word for hundreds of years? In most cases, the cultures of the unreached have either been cut off from God’s word for hundreds or thousands of years or have never had access at all. This isolation from God’s truth always means the presence of areas of horrendous darkness in these cultures – strongholds of evil such as female circumcision, cannibalism, honor killings, or witchcraft. Regarding areas such as these, Western missionaries should be actively trying to change the culture. Yes, some cultural transmission can be good, even godly.


For a global missions culture dominated by the fear of being called colonialist, cross-cultural common sense and wisdom bring a welcome correction. Cultural transmission is inevitable inhuman relationships, and therefore calls for intentionality. Culture transmitted is always localized in some way. And some forms of cultural transmission are necessary in order to combat the works of the enemy. When considered alongside the Bible’s ministry emphases, personal humility, and a deep trust in the sovereignty of God, this common sense wisdom can help free the missionary from a fear-based missiology - and lead to one built on a better foundation. 

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