Loving Thy Neighbor in a Different Culture

Read two things recently regarding Christian ministry in Buddhist countries. One was an interview one of my students had with a devout Buddhist from his own country. This person was fairly familiar with basic Christian doctrines and many of the differences between Christianity and Buddhism. When my student asked her about what she thought about Christianity, she said that she thought TWO things.

She said the first thing was positive. She noted that Christians she knew tended to be kind. They helped people, and (working in the hospital as she does) she is impressed with how they demonstrate loving concern to fellow Christians, as well as to non-Christians. (I wish all Christians had such an outsider’s testimony.)

She said the second thing was negative. She noted that Christians acted like foreigners where she lives. They dress in foreign clothes. They listen to foreign music. They celebrate foreign holidays, and show little interest in local festivities or cultural values. They tend to look and act like the foreign missionaries who were or are among them, and like the colonizers who have now left.


Foreign and Friendly

In looking at the chart above, they would be in the Yellow Zone. The Christians in that region are F-F (Foreign but Friendly). That is not the worst place to be. Still, to this woman, to become a Christian, one needs to reject a lot of one’s cherished culture.

Figure 3.jpg

This is not a trivial thing. Going back to the “Human Trinity,” (as shown in the figure above) one aspect of our own personhood is our cultural identity. Becoming a Christian is supposed to be transformative, but it is not meant to “gut” our cultural identity— and certainly not by replacing one local identity with a different, foreign, cultural identity.

If one considers the Divine mandate that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself, certainly two aspects of such love are Kindness, and Cultural Respect. Jesus explained the love of one’s neighbor with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It showed such love as being expressed through human kindness that transcended cultural differences. Paul expressed love in terms of tearing down of cultural barriers as well, but the idea wasn’t via one culture subsuming another, but that cultures would be respected an honored. Paul would be a Greek to the Greeks and a Jew to the Jews. The church was wide open to all peoples regardless of their culture, and respecting of their cultures.

So to love one’s neighbor in a different culture, demonstration of kindness is needed but so is contextualization/cultural respect and localization. Sadly, sometimes we can’t even get the first half right. I was reading an article about barriers to evangelism in a different Buddhist country. One of the barriers was aggressive evangelism. One might wonder on this point. We usually assume that evangelism is a good thing and so a barrier is a lack of evangelism. However, often the methods of so-call evangelism are very much “in-your-face” aggressive and argumentative. In many countries arguing is disrespectful— especially so if done with someone older. I recall listening to American short-term missionaries visiting my city here in the Philippines and hearing a very aggressive and noisy presentation of the gospel. One I recall especially well– a young woman screaming (not trying to be sexist here… “screaming” is the correct term) at a man perhaps 20 years older than herself, “YOU MUST BE SAVED!!!!    YOU MUST BE SAVED!!!!!” Of course, he doesn’t HAVE to be saved— and I suspect that “he did not feel the love” from the experience. Reading FB posts from Christians (often Christian friends of mine, frankly) I find it strange how angry, argumentative, and just plain unnice so many of the posts are. FB is hardly a private chatroom with people who agree with everything one says. It is a public forum. Why in the world make people happy that they have nothing to do with your God?

Anyway, if one wishes to share Christ effectively in a different culture… it should be L-F (local and friendly), rather than foreign and unfriendly (F-U). Other options are in-between but still failing on some level to express true love of neighbor.

Which Comes First

I have never cared for the assumption that the foundation for Christian Missions is the Great Commission. There are reasons for this, some of which I have talked of elsewhere. However, let’s take a fairly simple case as shown in two options:

1.  Great Commission is given priority over the Great Commandment. Behavior is given priority over the heart. So what is valued?

  • Preaching the Good News
  • Baptizing (drawing people into the unity of the church body)
  • Teaching/discipling

What happens if behavior is given priority over heart? Missions would not be easily differentiated from secular marketing. Good missions is effective missions, and effective missions is one that which brings positive results (converts/adherents).

2.  Great Commandment is given priority over the Great Commission.  If the Great Commandment is given priority over the Great Commission, then the heart is given priority over behavior. In this case then, the attitude and motivation of the Christian is to guide the behavior. We share the Gospel of Christ because we love the people we share with.

In this case, good missions is that which is motivated by love of God and love of Man. Missions must be done in good faith and good will to be considered good missions.

Let me give an example. For several years, my wife and I were part of a group that we helped found with others that did medical missions throughout the Philippines. Medical Missions is a great mission ministry from the standpoint of statistics. We were with the group from 2005 to 2009 and we treated around 30,000 people. Those who came had the gospel shared and over 50% responded. The Philippines takes seriously the idea of implied debt (“utang ng loob”) so many will respond as a way to please those who provide care.

If we are simply motivated by the Great Commission, we are simply focusing on getting as many to respond as quickly as possible and get them into the church. We are then not focused on proper medical care. We are not focused on providing what we promised. We can do “bait and switch,” deceptive marketing, and pressure tactics. But in so doing, although we might get more positive responses, we probably would be getting more negative responses as well. Unfortunately, negative responses can be poisonous in the community.

If our missions is motivated by love, then we are focused on providing good wholistic care, keeping promises, and demonstrating good will in the community. Might it get less measurable missional results? Probably… but it is likely to have more positive long-term results. People respond to divine love more over time than top-notch marketing.

I would suggest that the second case here is the correct one. While we tend to applaud big results… there is a certain “creepiness” (I swear, I can’t think of a better word) of Christian missions that seeks to be judged by numbers rather than love. Even if one desires to value “success metrics” one should take the time to view not only positive numbers, but negative numbers. When love is not the motivation, success of converts is likely to be balanced by those who have been driven away.

Why do Christian Missions Anyway.

In “Ninety-two Questions on Humility in Theology and Science” (1999), Sir John Templeton listed as question #74:

“Is trying to help in God’s creativity processes a way to express our worship and thankfulness?”

I suppose that is a good question. One of the seeming defining characteristics of Man is the ability to

John 3:16
John 3:16 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

be creative, and the desire to act on that creativity. At times such creativity is squelched or hindered with the argument that such creators are “playing God.” And perhaps they are right. Certainly creating for the sake of creativity, without the canvas of moral limitation is dangerous (and probably mediocre… creativity in humans seems best drawn out within the context of prescribed limitations).

But for me, let’s bring this back around to missions.

“Is trying to act in concert with the Mission of God a way to express our worship and thankfulness?”

It does make one wonder why we do missions anyway. I would like to suggest, first of all that joining God in His mission is NOT a challenge to His sovereignty, any more than being creative is a challenge to God as creator. That point never made much sense to me anyway. I believe He could act without me… but does that mean that He would find offense if I, in some small way, seek to join? So ignoring this, here are a few possible reasons:

1.  Obedience to God. The Great Commission (in its various forms) seems to be a general command to all Christians at all points in History. So I suppose one could argue that we are constrained by orders. But is “legalism” our sole or primary argument for doing missions? I am not sure that Christians live in a state of Grace, while missionaries live in a state of Law. (Yes, I am stretching the point… but we are considering if obedience to the Great Commission is THE or PRIME  reason for doing missions, not merely a factor.)

2.  Duty to God (or Calling). This is related to the first. However, the first could be seen as acting on a general command to all Christians. This second may be more individualized. I feel “called” uniquely by God to carry out a unique aspect of God’s mission… so I act in accordance to the duty associated with God’s calling. If one accepts this as the primary or only reason for our doing missions, then we are using as justification a doctrine that has (frankly) little Biblical support. Not a good basis for missions. Second, since few of us really have an “Isaiah” or “Burning Bush” experience anyway, in practice such a basis has stronger roots in our passions or desires. Is the primary motivation for missions really that we “feel like it”? I hope not.

3.  God’s Glory. God has done much to restore a broken world, so when we join in the task to restore it, we reflect or increase God’s glory. I guess I have a problem with this as well. I really enjoy the book “Cat and Dog Theology.” In the book, Sjogren and Robison make a strong point that everything is to be for God’s glory and everything God does is for His own glory. Although there are verses that can be used to support it, I can’t quite accept it (not attacking the book as a whole… just questioning a bit of how I interpreted parts of the book). First, the term “glory” is pretty vague, so even if everything is to be for God’s glory, such a fact is not very informative as to what I should do. Second, if everything God does is for His own glory, then some pretty nasty things (floods, disease, and human misdeeds) were also part of God’s self-glorification activity. Again, if these things can be for God’s glory, what things could I do that would NOT be glorifying. Third, some statements seem to cast doubt on glory as the end all. Take the classic John 3:16. It says that God’s mission was motivated by His love, not His desire for personal glory.

4.  Love of Man. If John 3:16 says that at least a major part of God’s mission was motivated by love for man, perhaps that could be our prime motivation as well. It seems like our love for man should at least be a sizable part of our response to God’s initial love for us. Caring for people because we care about people is good but seems pretty limited. Our mission is greater than a social gospel. Our role is more than doing nice things because we are nice people.

5.  Great Commandment. Our activity as a response or an outflowing of our love for God (and Man) seems to be closer to the truth. Of course, one problem is that love is a concept that doesn’t give much guidance in how to act.

To me, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission together provide a pretty good justification. We respond to God’s love by loving God and loving what God loves. This is the Great Commandment. The Great Commission provides one important guidance in how to express that love.

Another way to look at it is that God loved us and we respond in like fashion due to thankfulness (the Great Commandment) and then respond in service as worship (Great Commission). Maybe the statement, “”Is trying to act in concert with the Mission of God a way to express our worship and thankfulness?” both true and highly relevant for our basis for missions.