Cultural Contamination and Personal Humility

Cultural Contamination and Personal Humility

True humility will, in the end, be the most effective for preventing the wrong kind of cultural transmission

A.W. Workman

Pride is such a slippery sin, one that often masquerades as wisdom, sound strategy, or simply holding to the “correct” position. For so much of the contemporary missions world, the right position, the strategic thing, is to avoid transmitting our own culture to those we are leading at all costs - even if that means not leading, not preaching, and not modeling crucial aspects of the Christian life for indigenous believers. This kind of posture often feels like humility, but its assumptions about local believers prove to be anything but humble. 


For example, missionaries who long to see exponential growth and even movements among their focus people group will often refuse to preach sermons directly to locals. They believe that this is a Western Christian form that will be foreign to the locals and bad for church multiplication. Many will persist in this posture even when local believers repeatedly request that they preach to them and even when the local culture is one steeped in Islam, where a mullah or imam (checks notes) preaches a sermon in the local mosque every Friday. No, the missionary persists in what he maintains is the humble thing to do, refusing all opportunities to preach the Bible to local believers. He might tell himself that by doing this, he is humbly refusing to build his own kingdom, and he is saving the indigenous church from the pollution of Western forms. In reality, he is pridefully elevating his own opinion or training over the good desires of local believers and the clear commands of scripture. 


In previous posts, we’ve noted how the Bible’s emphases and cross-cultural common sense help to guard the missionary from this powerful fear of cultural contamination, from the specter of their culture being passed on to their disciples and thereby wrecking indigeneity. This current post adds personal humility to the list of guardrails that keep us from being frozen or misled by inflated fears of cultural transmission. 


The first point of personal humility that missionaries must embrace is that local believers are not inferior to us (Col 11:3). Everyone is equal at the foot of the cross, both in our sinfulness as well as in our new nature as believers (1Pet 2:9). Local believers are our equals in Christ, even as we seek to mentor them in the faith. This spiritual equality means that local believers are indeed increasingly able to sift their own culture and borrow from other cultures as a means of reforming their own. Should they be trained in discernment so that they don’t believe that everything Western is also Christian? Absolutely. We don’t need a hands-off posture that gives local believers no guidance at all. But neither do we need a posture that desperately tries to shut the door to any possible cultural transmission. As we have previously noted, this is not a real-world option.  


I remember the first time I realized that “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” had been translated into our Central Asian language and was a regular part of house church services. I was so disappointed. My personal feelings about this song were connected with Bible camp altar calls that felt manipulative, with a fundamentalist Christianity that was decisionistic and fixated on secondary issues. Yet here it was, being sung from the heart by persecuted local believers. 


My bubble of indignation burst when a fellow missionary who had grown up in India told me that the song wasn’t actually American, but originally from a first-generation Christian of tribal north India. This information served as a very helpful rebuke. As it turns out, my culture had also borrowed this song from another, and the Lord had used it in the testimony of countless thousands. Even though I felt that the song’s value was largely gone for my generation, I knew enough about its history to know that it had been used mightily in American generations past. Yet here I was, upset that some unthinking missionary had translated this song into the local language. Even if that had been the case, who was I to say that the local believers shouldn’t even be exposed to a Christian song that had been mightily used of the Spirit elsewhere? Did I really believe them to be my equal when it came to discerning what would and would not edify the church? Proper biblical humility moves us away from this kind of “cultural appraisal for me, not for thee” posture. 


Second, embracing humility can remind us that culture is often a deeply entrenched, stubborn thing and that we should not over-inflate our own ability to change it. The locals in Papua New Guinea may now wear T-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops, but they still take their children to the witch doctor if they fall seriously ill. The culture has only been Westernized at a surface level, but not where it counts. Similarly, Western missionaries might lament that Central Asian Christians now sit in chairs instead of on the floor in their services. However, they should be lamenting that local believers still believe that alone, strongman pastor is the only kind of leadership that is “real.” Proper humility recognizes that it takes the work of God to change these deeper core levels of culture; thus, it’s not something we have the power to do accidentally. Remember, Jesus says that we do not have the power to even make one hair of our heads black or white (Matt 5:36).


Local believers are our equals in Christ, who become increasingly wise to appraise aspects of foreign Christian cultures as they grow in their faith. It is not our job to work so hard to shelter them from our Western culture that we refuse to do direct, lead-by-example ministry. Furthermore, we are, apart from the Spirit, impotent to change the deeper layers of culture. We need to stop assuming that we are so influential and so popular that we might turn everyone into Westerners without ever meaning to. 


Rather than postures that reflect hidden pride, we need to embrace a biblical humility, one that focuses primarily on doing the Lord’s work. A posture of true humility will, in the end, be the most effective for preventing the wrong kind of cultural transmission, and bringing about healthy indigenous churches. 

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