Such a phrase is often heard when it comes to talking about what tools the missionary needs. Sadly a myth exists that one can go into another land, different in language and customs, with little or no training in anything but the Bible and carry out an effective evangelistic or Bible training program. Perhaps this is true for a few rare people, but the rest of us need tools to assist and guide our work.
One tool which is of great utility to the missionary is cultural anthropology. In this science we find out what makes the society act as it does, what makes the individuals in the society act as they do, and what holds the culture together, as well as how changes are brought about among the people. The following incidents are examples of the need to study anthropology.
Once several years ago a missionary dropped by to visit a national preacher of some thirteen years experience in Christianity. The preacher had a sound reputation and was preaching for a good-sized congregation. But as the missionary walked in the door he revolted in shock as pine needles were strewn about the floor and chicken blood was sprinkled everywhere. This minister of the Gospel(?) still retained his traditional religion which he had known from his childhood. When he had accepted the Christian teachings, the man just incorporated them into his old system. No one had told him anything different, and now he possessed more security with more gods and more plans of salvation. More importantly, it must be noted that the missionary had not known the culture and the way of thinking of the preacher and his fellow countrymen, but anthropologists studying these people have pointed out this tendency of theirs years ago. Not taking advantage of the culture studies available, the missionary was unable to scratch where the people itched, figuratively speaking.
Another example occurred once while I was attending a worship service in one country. I became impressed with an argument that was taking place. Neither man would give in and they continued arguing. In this particular society it is very important to "save face." People just will not admit their mistakes, especially in public. Often North Americans try to force the issue on these people and become quite frustrated when we do not get a direct answer, or acknowledgement of error. Here, to maintain our spiritual posture, it is best to learn to read their answers in other ways.
I would like to point out that one's personal intelligence or experience does not insure his ability to work effectively in other lands. One is amazed at the number of church leaders, businessmen, Ph.D's and college professors who are quite uninformed when it comes to talking about preaching in other cultures and its related problems. A person who has not undertaken to educate himself in culture probably has little understanding of what is going on. And, too, study of the customs and cultures will not insure that one becomes able to solve all of his problems; or, that it will make him an expert. He will be gaining a tool that he can use according to his desires and abilities.
In one country where church of Christ missionaries have been working for some 50 years, only four of the 30 plus men who have worked there learned the language. From what is being shown by studies in the area of cultural anthropology and missions, a missionary can not come to a happy adjustment and thorough understanding of the people whom he is trying to serve unless he knows their heart language--not the national language or the trade language. And, they are showing that one's fluency is often closely related to how much he respects the culture. Also, many nationals expect you to speak their language, especially if the Peace Corps workers and other foreigners are doing so. It follows that language fluency must accompany those who seek to understand the people to whom they have been sent to teach and serve.
You may be asking yourself, "Now what can I be doing to gain a better understanding of the people with whom I am working?" I would suggest that you take a course in cultural anthropology to give you a foundation from which to build preferably under a teacher who has training in this areaand who can help you from a Christian mission perspective. There are men teaching in this area merely because they were or are missionaries with experience, but this does not mean that they are competent or informed in the area of anthropology.
Reading culture studies about the people where you work is most advantageous. National papers, journals, and magazines provide insights into the culture and help one to keep up with what is happening among the people.
Remember that a lot can be learned by careful listening and observation, and by asking questions about what you do not understand. This involves a lot of time with the people in their homes as well as eating and working with them. These encounters can best be interpreted with training in cultural anthropology.
Cultural anthropology, in conclusion, is a tool that can be of most useful service to us as we try to communicate to other peoples. It helps us to preach more effectively, and to organize the believers into dynamic, working congregations with more ease. We learn to discern those things that only represent our American way of thinking from basic biblical patterns and doctrines. Anthropology can really strengthen us in the task of mission; if we will but only use it to our advantage.
Mirrored by permission of ACU Missions Personnel
Direct questions and comments to Ed Mathews, firstname.lastname@example.org