Some thoughts on culture and communication, Part 3

<Continuation from Part 2>

Missionary Interaction with a Culture

Missionary Culture         Respondent Culture

Figure V. Gospel Communication Between Cultures

Figure V shows the most generic interaction where a missionary from one culture seeks to give a contextualized message to a second culture. If one looks at the Three Culture Model, this is essentially the upper triangle labelled “M”. the culture on the left interacts with the culture on the right via culture “B” which is the Bible Culture. Since a culture is understood in terms of the symbolic structure of a people, this works well. The message of God is transmitted to us via symbols. So the job of the missionary as a giver of God’s message is primarily in the symbolic area, not structural area. (Of course, some missionaries focus on community development and social ministry, in which case their main role would be different. I am here focusing on the prophetic role of the missionary here.) The missionary must gain understanding of the message of God through proper exegesis separating the message from the symbolic patina of the missionary’s own culture. Then contextualization must be done to relate that message to the other culture. <This is the concept of “Translation” rather than “Diffusion” as described by Lamin Sanneh.> Ideally the transfer of the missionary culture to the respondent culture should be low. Historically, such as in the 1800s, missionaries were seen as doing two major things… the first is spreading the gospel. The second is “civilizing the populace.” Doing this means that one does not simply work on the cultural/symbolic level but is interacting with the society. Today this is viewed as cultural imperialism. Since the culture is the link between the natural world and the societal structure, changing the culture is the more worthwhile goal.

Let’s look at the challenges associated with other interactions. Figure II (from Part 20 involves more of an E-1 to E-2 interaction. This might include reaching out to neighbors of a very different religion or belief system. Some people may not consider this to be cross-cultural. And yet it is, and is a big challenge. That is because it is difficult to accept two different cultures within the same system that are both blessed by God. The Book of Galatians describes Greek and Jewish culture Christians in the same community but with different cultures. People found it very difficult to accept that both can be in God’s favor. Different denominations in the same community often fight because they think that others should the same as themselves.

Figure III is the easiest and the hardest. It is the easiest because the commonality of culture, along with lack of competitive interaction, greatly reduces the challenge of contextualization. This is an E-1 interaction. It is difficult because there is the APPARENT lack of need to exegete and to contextualize. However, the problem there is that there becomes the greater assumption that the Bible culture/symbolism is the same as the culture/symbolism of their own culture. Monocultures often become unable to separate between their own cultural faith characteristics and the Gospel of God.

Figure IV describes an unstable condition, the same culture has two very different societal rules and structures. Ultimately, if one people group does not totally absorb the other, the two cultures will begin to separate or the two natural worlds will begin to separate (or both). This is a challenge and an opportunity. History shows Christians’ tendency to side with one people group while rejecting the other. In the early years, Christianity sided with the Greek world and rejected the Jewish world (and later the Arab world). In North Africa, the church sided with the Latin world and against the local society. Sometimes, Christians chose the winning team and gained apparent success from that. Other times Christians chose the losing side and have suffered for it. But if Christianity can gain a foothold in both people groups, it does not matter what changes occur in this situation. The point is, the apparent similarity of cultures of two very different groups should not lead a missionary to ignore the affect of societal differences since they will affect things in the long run.

Since culture is the lens through which a people group interact with the world around them… a unique set of symbols… it is critical that the missionary learn these symbols, as well as the symbols of God’s message to us. Hardly a new concept. But something that needs to be emphasized regularly.

Part 4 moves into Incarnational aspects of communication and ministry


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