Cultural Contamination and The Sovereignty of God

Cultural Contamination and The Sovereignty of God

It ends with a deep trust in the sovereignty of God. Alongside these truths we draw from cross-cultural common sense

A.W. Workman

One of the greatest surprises we experienced during our first term on the field was discovering that most of our locals did not want to meet in homes for Bible study or church. All our training, all the books, and all our expectations said that house church methodology was going to be the most effective form of church planting. We bristled at locals’ suggestions that we meet somewhere ‘real’ for spiritual activities, like a church building. We cringed at how excited they seemed by all the trappings of Western church - sound systems, worship teams, pastors wearing collars, church budgets, even church buildings. 


What took us quite a while to realize was that for our particular people group, this attraction to “official” Christianity was simply the result of where God had sovereignly brought their culture. As a newly post-tribal culture full of corruption and nepotism, and one exposed to the ravages of terrorism, they longed for order and healthy organization. They hungered for institutions that would balance strongmen, and the kind of solid, public Christianity that did not feel like a secretive ISIS Qur’an study. Our locals, the ones we were commissioned to reach, were deeply drawn to what to us felt like traditional, Western Christianity. And they found our ideas about house church movements unconvincing, even dumb. Even worse, none of their desires were technically unbiblical. 


We were faced with an unexpected choice. Either we ignore the overwhelming feedback of the local believers, or we shift to a church planting strategy that risked looking very traditional and very Western, which missiology said was doomed to fail in an Islamic context. By God’s grace, our team eventually came around to the idea that the wiser thing was to contextualize to our actual people group, rather than what the books had told us was supposed to happen. We surrendered to the mysterious providence of God that had ordained that, for our people group, the most contextual and effective methods would feel, to us, like the most traditional and the least effective. This was the right call. When we let go of our fear of cultural contamination and started doing more traditional church planting ministry, the work finally began to get traction. 


The missionary who believes his Bible knows that God is utterly sovereign over the trajectories of the world’s people groups and nations (Acts 17:26, Deut 32:8). There is no development which God has not ordained – and this includes developments of cultural transmission. After a missionary has labored hard to make the gospel the only stumbling block, yet still finds that the locals have adopted some of his home culture, he can rest in the sovereignty of God. The power of the indigenous church has not been forever ruined because the missionary (or someone else) introduced a certain service order which the locals have eagerly taken ownership of. No, God is sovereign, even over cultural transmission. In fact, the transmission that he ordains may become one of the particular strengths of the new indigenous church, such as when Middle Eastern believers gain a witness because Jesus (and emulating their missionary mentor) has made them more direct and honest in their speech. 


Looking to missions history, we see many examples of how the sovereignty of God was working through the very culture the missionary introduced along with his gospel work. The missionary Bruce Olsen, in his book, Bruschko, writes of the farming improvements he introduced to South American tribes, which greatly improved their crop yields. The Lisu people of China became known as a singing people for Christ because the missionary who reached them, J.O. Fraser, was an accomplished pianist. And the illiterate, pagan Irish surprisingly became the great scribes and missionaries of Europe in the centuries after the fall of Rome. Why? Because Patrick had taught them of the love of Christ - and the love of books.


As in any area of practical theology, the sovereignty of God is no excuse for laziness or carelessness. Missionaries should be conscious of the ways local believers are adopting Western versus local forms, and act as mentors who try to guide this messy process. But we must embrace a deep trust in the sovereignty of God as we seek to plant healthy indigenous churches. Their cultures exist in their unique historical positions for God-ordained reasons. They are drawn to certain things and repelled by other things for God-ordained reasons. “The secret things belong to the Lord,” but we know that at least some of those reasons of providence are so that many will hear the gospel message, understand it, believe it, and become the indigenous church. 


God is sovereign, even when one culture bleeds into another. Our approach to the fear of cultural contamination begins with the Bible’s call for direct ministry in word and deed and call to guard against false gospels. It ends with a deep trust in the sovereignty of God. Alongside these truths we draw from cross-cultural common sense, which invites us to take a realistic view of how cultures and relationships actually function. And we also lean into personal humility, which asks us to remember our equality as well as our limitations.  


When missionaries are shaped by these truths, they are helped to keep the danger of cultural “contamination” in its place – as a real, but secondary danger. Gospel workers should keep a wise eye on it, but not let it be a primary driver of their missiology or become a fear that keeps them from the timeless task of preaching the gospel, making disciples, and planting churches.

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