Missions Anthropology Thoughts

<The following is actually some guidance for my students in Cultural Anthropology class. But others can read it if they want.>

Cultural Anthropology has been called Missions Anthropology by some, and when Cultural Anthropology is used by missionaries for solutions to ministry questions, the term Missions Anthropology is quite appropriate.

One of the goals of Missions Anthropology is to change how missionaries and ministers react to cultural differences. Here are two ways of looking at cultural differences.

#1. The Common Response. A Christian sees something different in a culture.

a. That cultural behavior is done by them (non-Christians). And…

b. That cultural behavior is not being done by us (Christians). Therefore…

c. That cultural behavior is unchristian, and must be stopped.

But is that a good response? For hundreds of years, Christians did not use cellphones. This does not mean that cellphones are unchristian. It also does not mean that cellphones cannot be utilized for good. So here is a second response…

#2. The Uncommon Response. A Christians sees something different in a culture.

a. That cultural behavior is done by them (non-Christians). And…

b. That cultural behavior is not being done by us (Christians). Therefore…

c. What would this cultural behavior look like in a Christ-redeemed culture?

Let me give an example.

In Japan, the dominant religion is Shintoism. Actually, Shintoism is in many ways, more of a collection of values and practices than a fully functioning religion. Shinto shrines are all over Japan, and even in public places such as subways. For many Japanese, their practice is to fit religion into their brief moments of free time, so they may step into a shrine for a couple of minutes while waiting for their train to take them home from work.

So let’s look at this situation from the two different responses.

Response #1. These little Shinto Shrines all over Japan are not Christian. They are places of worship to false gods, and must be destroyed so that Christ can be glorified. Japanese people should stop going to shrines at different times of the week, but should go to church on Sundays at 10am… just like us.

Response #2. The Japanese look for opportunities to pray, meditate, and express religious reverence in quick little moments in their lives. What would a vibrant Christianity look like within this culture? Maybe it would have little prayer rooms scattered throughout the country, where Japanese people can take a quick break from their busy lives to pray to God… to read some words of Scripture… and to meditate on God and His message. In some larger prayer rooms, they may have chaplains there to help them with their concerns and to be a guide for them.

I think Response #2 is better than Response #1. Response #1 says that Japanese can come to Christ by destroying the things that make them unique. To become Christian, they have to stop being Japanese in any culturally distinct ways. Response #2 recognizes that Christianity around the world is diverse and centered on God. Therefore, Japanese Christianity can be uniquely different from other forms of Christianity, much like Greek Christianity was very different from Jewish Christianity in the first century.

Why am I mentioning this? A few of you have made some rather strong statements. For example, one might talk about something which is done in their culture, but then say, we (Christians) don’t do that because it is unchristian. To me, that is not a good answer.

  • If it is unchristian because it is sinful, then is there a way that it can be done without sin? For example, in the Philippines, fiestas often are tied to adoration of saints and icons, and often have a lot of drunkenness and gambling. These may be sinful, but is there a way that fiestas can be participated in that is not sinful?
  • If it is unchristian because it is something practiced by non-Christians, then is there a way that Christians can connect with the culture through the practice, while still being Christian. For example, if one is in a Muslim country where Ramadan is widely practiced, is there a way that Christians can show that they are part of the culture (not members of an alien or foreign faith)? Can Christians honor the cultural practice of Ramadan as a show of honor to the culture and to their neighbors, while still honoring Christ?

My point here is that for that class, when you are talking about a cultural item or a cultural practice, if you say that it is “wrong” or that it is unchristian… I will ask you, “Why is it wrong?” or “What makes it unchristian?” And I may ask you, “What needs to change for it be a healthy part of the lives of Christians who are of that culture?”

How to Teach Missions Anthropology?

A few weeks ago a friend of mine who teaches at a small missions school asked me what is the most valuable way to teach missions anthropology. I suppose the most valuable way to teach missions anthropology is to do missions anthropology. However, the question was given in the context of a course taught in a predominantly classroom environment.

I think I said at the time that I think the most important or valuable is to do ethnographic research. I still think that is probably the most important… but perhaps I would say things a little different now that I have thought about it more.

The most important or valuable way would involve three things that all, potentially, tie together.

  1. Do a simple ethnographic study of a sub-culture or micro-culture. Ideally it is on a group that one is actually interested in, or one that one plans to minister to. Choose a topic of interest as the focus of curiosity. Determine the right method of research. Carry out the research. Analyze the findings. Reflect on the findings in terms of ministry and culture.
  2. Hold dialogues with people of other cultures. These can be semi-structured or unstructured. Write down the conversation. Reflect on the conversation.
  3. For both items 1 and 2, present to a small group in a clinical case format. That is, one presents the work as a case to a small group. One then interprets the case, and reflects on it theologically, ministerially, and culturally. One then opens oneself up to questions, clarifications, comments and insights, from the rest of the group. Then one reflects on the experience of the small group. (And being part of the small group, one also is on the other side, listening and responding to the ethnographic studies and dialogues of others in the group.)

This I find the most effective for a few reasons. First, it is embedded in the real and relevant. That makes it more practical, and usually more interesting. Second, it helps to learn through the experiences, words, and actions of others. Third, it pushes one towards change of values and perspective. It helps one to see the world from others’ perspectives (both those being studied, and those in one’s group.) Fourth, the actual behaviors can be easily tied to the more academic topics such as taxonomies of groups, and special terminologies.

Theological Ducks, Part #2

Part #1 looked at perspective regarding culture. Instead of rehashing… please READ IT.

Now let’s apply this to Theology. Theology is a system of symbols and concepts shared (typically) by a group. So while theology may not constitute a culture, it certainly constitutes a major aspect of a culture (or sub-culture).

Like culture, theology is commonly distorted from an external (cat or etic) perspective.

Like culture, theology loses perspective when it only has an internal (fish or emic) perspective.

Theology is best understood by bringing together etic and emic perspectives (the “duck”).

Of course, the fish and cat views go together. One sees one’s own theology as very sound  while the other as clearly messed up. That is not abnormal… but when this view is based on limited cross-theological exposure (or a monotheological perspective) the viewpoint is not particularly trustworthy.

What might some evidences be of a Monotheological viewpoint… that is, hampered by a fish/cat perspective rather than a duck perspective.

1.  Those who describe their theological viewpoint as the “Biblical Viewpoint.” I recall reading the writing of a Calvinistic writer who said that another term for Calvinistic is “Biblical.” It really doesn’t take a lot of reading of the Bible to discover that God’s revelation on the process of salvation is “muddy”… like a river. Anyone who says their view is “Biblical” suggesting that the other views are “Unbiblical” simply has not really dealt with the whole Bible fairly. I would argue that an Arminian who described their view as the “Biblical” one has also fallen into the same trap. The issue of God’s sovereignty versus freedom of creation is also muddy.

I recall listening to a Prosperity Gospel guy here in the Philippines say, “I know some of you won’t like this,” (the teachings of the Prosperity Gospel), “but it is simply what the Bible teaches.” I might argue that he was correct if my Bible only had the books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs. But once you start bringing in other books, this confidence rapidly becomes questionable.  Admittedly, Liberation Theology can also be guilty of the same myopia. One really needs to bring these views together to grow from the perspectives.

The fact is that most Christian Theology could be described as Biblical… at least in some sense. Buddhist theology can’t really be described as Biblical, since the Bible is not used as revelatory material for its theology. Islamic and Mormon theology should really not be described as Biblical theology either. Although they “respect” the Bible as Holy, they don’t really utilize it as primary source material for their respective theologies. When a person says their theology is “Biblical,” they are usually saying that “people who interpret the Bible in a similar manner to myself tend to agree with me.” Of course, that tends to be a tautology.

2.  When one describes “contextual theologies” or “third world theologies” as being qualitatively different from “real theology.” This is, in fact, the essence of monoculturalism. When one is unable to see the cultural biases inherent in one’s theological perspective, that is monocultural, monotheoloical. Some give special praise to “systematic” theology. But systematizing one’s theology into formal topics and propositional statements may not be superior to metaphors and narratives valued in a different culture.

Some are bothered that “contextual theology” is heterodox. Of course, they can be, but ALL THEOLOGY IS CONTEXTUAL.  All theology bridges divine revelation (for example, special revelations of the Holy Bible and Jesus Christ and the general revelations of creation and history) with a cultural group. Good theology is contextualized to that culture… it is contextual. But presumably not all theology is heterodox.

3.  When one is excessively involved with apologetics. This sounds counterintuitive. To do apologetics or debate, one needs to understand the other side… to be prepared to argue with them. The problem is that in debate, there is a tendency for “BIAS CONFIRMATION.” (See THIS ARTICLE.) The two people on opposite sides tend to move further apart in their beliefs than closer together. In fact, there is a tendency to stereotype or create caricatures of other beliefs… much the same as a monocultural or monotheological view. This is not universal. Some apologists make a genuine attempt to understand and interact with other viewpoints. But those who are simply focused on WINNING will tend to miss out on the most.


For myself… I hold to an essentially evangelical theology. I am not suggesting some odd syncretization of beliefs, or suggesting that all interpretations are equally valid. But I am suggesting that one must be open to learning through different perspectives. For example, the insights from SHAME/HONOR or COLLECTIVIST societies really add in understanding God’s Word. I am not suggesting that they negate GUILT/FORGIVENESS or INDIVIDUALIST perspectives. Rather the two support each other. The Triumphalistic theologies that have come out of Europe and especially the United States (including some Evangelical theologies) REALLY need the added perspective of the disempowered and persecuted Christians in some other parts of the world.

Missions (and the church in general) needs theological ducks.

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.