Imagine a missionary couple working among a group of tribes located along a jungle river. To reach these scattered tribes they need a bat to travel the river. They have found some scrap iron and other materials left behind by an oil-exploration crew. Using these materials, they began to build a boat, but they know little about physics and boat building. In the end the boat turns out to be heavier than the water it displaces.
Anyone who has studied elementary physics knows that an object that is heavier than the water it displaces will sink. “Oh, but in this case the Holy Spirit will overrule, and the boat will float. After all, it was built for God’s work,” some might say. No. The missionaries were foolish. They should have built the boat in keeping with the laws of nature.
This same principle applies to presenting the gospel to people of another culture. Since we do not expect God to overrule when we go against natural laws, why do we expect Him to overrule when we go against cultural or behavioral laws?
Just as there is underlying order in nature, so there is underlying order in human behavior. The behavioral sciences are concerned with discovering the underlying order in human behavior just as the natural sciences are concerned with discovering the order in nature. True science, natural and behavioral, is concerned with discovering the order in God’s creation.
The missionary who uses cultural anthropology as a tool in developing a missionary strategy is not trying to work apart from the Holy Spirit but in harmony with Him.
-From “Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective” by Stephen A. Grunlan & Marvin K. Mayers. (p. 20 of the 1988 edition)
A classic error in Evangelical circles is to presume God is at work in miracles (violation of natural laws) and God is not at work within the laws of nature. How ridiculous is that. The greatest miracle of God was Genesis 1 and 2, where God actually established those very laws.
But that is even more true of laws of behavioral science. I understand the confusion regarding natural laws. Often when we see God act in the Bible it seems to be in violating laws of nature. While I feel that view is highly simplistic, it is completely unjustifiable when it comes to behavioral science. In the Bible, God clearly acts through nations and people— judgment is far more often executed by invading nations than by miraculous floods or plagues. The Fall of Man, and the crucifixion of Christ may have been divinely ordained or divinely permitted (depending on your theology), but they were most definitely in line with human psychology and sociology.
A missionary and a minister is wise to have a firm understanding human nature, sociology, anthropology, psychology, communication theory, group dynamics— many different components of the behavioral sciences. This information doesn’t tell us how to avoid God… it tells us much of how God works.
Having and utilizing this knowledge is like making a boat that naturally floats rather than naturally sinks (hoping God would overcome our own ignorance of His laws). Of course, building a boat that floats is not enough. We need God to guide us where to go, protect us, and show us how to use it. But in all likelihood, if we make a boat that naturally sinks, God will seek a better shipwright to guide and bless.