Church Acculturation in Missions

J.W. Berry (1980) described 4 modes of acculturation.

  • Assimilation.    One’s cultural identity is lost in the dominant culture
  • Integration.   One Seeks to integrate one’s cultural identity with the dominant culture.
  • Separation.    One maintains one’s unique cultural identity, rejecting the dominant culture.
  • Marginalization.    One loses important parts of own cultural identity, while having those parts inadequately replaced with parts from the dominant culture.

While these 4 options are not equally good, probably the only one that is clearly broken is the fourth one— marginalization.

Consider the Three Culture Model for Mission Communication. Missionaries (from Culture A) need to do proper exegesis/interpretation to carry the message of the Bible (set in Culture B) to recipients (in Culture C).

Acculturation can occur at all three cultural interactions.

Three Culture Model

Missionary Culture (A) can interact with Biblical Culture B via assimilation, integration, separation, or marginalization.

Biblical Culture (B) can interact with the Recipient Culture C in these 4 same ways.

Missionary Culture A can interact with the Recipient Culture (C) also in these same 4 ways.

However, Biblical culture is static since the message of God was transmitted to man in history.  The culture of the Bible does not presently exist, so it can’t be affected by present cultures (although its interpretation can be affected by the present.) The result is that the viable interactions are:

B affecting A   (Bible culture affecting Missionary culture)

B affecting C   (Bible culture affecting Recipient culture)

C affecting A   (Recipient culture affecting Missionary culture)

A affecting C   (Missionary culture affecting Recipient culture)

Suppose we focus on the Recipient Culture C as the affected culture. Then we are dealing with A affecting C  and B affecting C. It is generally (NOW) felt that culture A (culture of the missionary) should not affect culture C (culture of the recipient) if possible. Often the argument is that it should not because that is a form of cultural imperialism or diffusion. That may be true, but that is not necessarily the biggest problem.

The bigger problem is when A and B both affect C, but the recipient (C) is unable to distinguish which is which…. which comes from A and which comes from B. So another affect can be described as

(A + B) affecting C     Two affect recipients but unable to distinguish them.

It is dangerous to confuse people as to what is God’s truth, and what is the missionary’s cultural novelties.When the message of God reaches the recipient via the missionary culture, the message goes through marginalization and assimilation. Aspects of the message of God gets removed and/or replaced by the filtering process of the missionary culture. The result is that for the message of God to reach the recipient culture, some assimilation and marginalization between cultures A and C must occur. The message of God is damaged in the process.

Culture C should not be destroyed, replaced, torn, spindled, or mutilated by another culture. Acts 15 provides the model for God’s ability to transform a culture and create a church within that culture. Culture C (recipient) is not to be changed by Culture A (missionary).

This is well-known and well-documented. Here in the Philippines, marginalization and assimilation degradation of the message of God is rampant, both within “orthodox” and “heterodox” bodies. It is understandable, but not acceptable.

But consider the next possibility. Is it possible that there is also a problem of degradation of the message in the interaction between the Biblical Culture B and the Recipient Culture C?  Absolutely. The message of God was given to people in a Jewish/Greek/Roman/ Persian/Egyptian mix of cultures. The message was given within this cultural context, but the message is NOT this culture. Some Messianic movements seem to spring from the assumption that the culture of the Bible must be transplanted into recipient cultures, replacing many neutral or even positive aspects of the recipient cultures.

Not only can missionaries err by trying to bring their own culture along into the recipient culture as part of God’s message, they can also err by bringing the Biblical culture (cultural aspects that are over 2 millenia or more out of date) into the recipient culture as if it is part of God’s message as well.

This is common. We see it in the “search for the New Testament church.” We should not seek to create the New Testament (1st century) church in the 21st century. Some look to the churches of Timothy and Titus as the ideal. Some look to Corinth.  Some look to the church of Jerusalem. None of these churches are 21st century churches. We should seek to create God’s church in the 21st century. Such a church can and should be quite different from the 1st century church because the culture is so different.

We can also see it with attempts to define eating rules of ancient Israel as timeless patterns for today. We see it in attempting to define relationships between individuals and other social entities by cultural standards of the Hellenized world. The result of bringing cultures along with the Gospel tends to create marginalization and assimilation of cultures which degrades and confuses the Gospel message.

In short, bringing the message of God into a Recipient culture C needs to be done where Separation is maintained not only with the Missionary culture, but also with the Biblical culture.

Can Integration (the healthy interaction and combining of cultures) ever be healthy. Of course… and in some way it is nearly inevitable. Cultures will always change due to interaction with other cultures. But the message of God should be carried out with cultural separation. Otherwise the recipient will have difficulty knowing what is culture (and thus variable) and what is God’s message (and thus eternal).

4 thoughts on “Church Acculturation in Missions

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