Why Cultural Anthropology?

This next term I will be teaching two classes. One of them is Missions History. I will be teaching that at a seminary here in the Philippines. At the same time, at a different school, I will be facilitating (hate to use the word “teaching” since it is doctoral level) a class in Cultural Anthropology.


A simple map of cultural theory
A simple map of cultural theory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


As I have said before, Evangelical Christians tend to be ahistorical. They do not focus on the past (at least if the past is more than a few decades old) and tend to rejct a lot of symbology. That is a shame in some ways. Part of the errors we find in Evangelical groups today often comes from a “grab a verse and wing it” theologizing. In missions, there is a tendency to hold that “doing something is always better than doing nothing.” Not true… lots of times it is better to do nothing. A bit of historical perspective can do a world of good.


But what about Cultural Anthropology? Why might that be useful? And why, oh why, would it be conisdered a Missions subject. Instead of being clever, I will list 8 reasons that I got from one of the classes I took in Cultural Anthrolopology. It was taught by Dr. Flint Miller, and he got these reasons more or less from Dr. Darrell Whiteman. To the best of my knowledge, he drew these loosely from Kraft, Nida, and Hiebert.


  1. It’s about People. Missions is people-focused. It might sound more holy to say that missions is God-focused, or Christ-focused, or even Spirit-focused. But the target is people, and much of the aim of missions is to understand people to express God’s love and message in such a way as to be understood and responded to– leading, hopefully to holistic transformation. Cultural Anthropology tries to understand people via their behavior in groups (cultural groups particularly). It would be difficult (to say the least) to understand a single person without understanding the culture they are immersed in.
  2. It deals primarily with non-Western groups. Most academic studies (in seminaries and universities) are Western-focused. Cultural Anthropology has historically been focused on non-Western cultures. In fact, it has only been in relatively recent times that the tools of cultural anthropology have been directed back to studying Western cultural groups. It helps Westerners (particularly) to lessen ethnocentrism (or cultural bias) to train in an area whose greatest insights are non-Western.
  3. It is a Behavioral Science. As valuable as systematic theology or philosophy may be, it is focused on thoughts and ideas (idealistically). Theology and philosophy tends to start from how one should think and then goes to how one should behave. But in missions, we are seeking to bring people to Christ, not impose a single culture’s answers and actions (after all, theology and philosophy have a strong subtle cultural element). But by looking to actions and artifacts, one can go backward to thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the culture. In a sense, we are attempting to “reverse engineer” their theology and philosophy. From there, a missionary is better positioned to see what parts of their culture are harmful, neutral, and beneficial.
  4. It seeks to generalize about human behavior. It helps us to understand what is common to all and what is culturally conditioned. In other words, it helps us understand what it is that makes us universally human (that part of us that is like everyone else), what makes us part of a cultural group (that part of us that is like some of us), and what makes us individuals (that part of us that makes us individually unique). God’s love and message has a universal quality that meets universal needs. Buty it also has value contextualized (adapted) to specific cultures. A failure to adapt the message to a culture can lead to “scratching where it does not itch.”
  5. It uses a research approach that is useful for cross-cultural ministry. Participant-Observation works good for cultural anthropology and it works well for missionaries. Ethnographic research and inteviewing is very instructive in how missionaries can gain useful insight into a culture.
  6. It places great importance on communication. Culture is very much tied to language, verbal communication, and non-verbal communication. Behavior itself is a very strong form of communication. Understanding culture is often critical to good communication and good communication (verbally, non-verbally, behaviorially) is necessary for effective dissemination of God’s truth. In cultural anthropology we learn that communication needs to be respondent-focused rather than communicator focused. And if it is respondent focused, then the respondent must be understood for effective communication.
  7. It distinguishes between forms and meanings. We tend to filter behavior we see through our own cultural meanings. This can be a big mistake. Westerners may feel that putting flowers on a grave of a deceased relative. The same Westerners may see people from the East have a picture of a dead relative in their house with fruits and other gifts put in front of it. The Westerner would probably consider the flowers perfectly healthy… a memorial and a demonstration of love. The same Westerner may be tempted to describe the picture and fruit as a “shrine” and the behavior of the house residents as ancestor worship. But is that the case… or is it simply a Westerner seeking to apply a Western-based interpretation to an Eastern practice? Cultural Anthropology seeks to understand actions from the people’s own worldview and ideology. This can and should reduce a lot of misunderstandings in missions interactions. Meaning is more important than form.
  8. It seeks to understand how and why cultures change. Only dead cultures don’t change. Christianity seeks to transform people and cultures. Yet it is unhealthy to destroy a culture by imposing another culture’s forms on it. It is also unhealthy to try to prevent change since change is normal and healthy in any culture. A missionary needs to learn to be both an Agent of Change and an Agent of Preservation.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s