In our last blog, we closed by posing several questions:
In this blog, we address the first of these, albeit in an abbreviated fashion. For fuller consideration and treatment of these topics, please consult the resources available through the Newbigin Center for the Study of Indigenous Missions (www.unfinishedtask.org/resources).
Conversion is worldview shift, meaning that cross-cultural evangelism is essentially an effort to introduce change into a specific culture. As a result, it is helpful to consider what is meant by culture. In ordinary speech we use the term “culture” to refer to the behavior of the rich and famous. It is listening to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, having the proper taste for good clothes, and knowing which fork to use at a banquet. However, anthropologists in their study of mankind in all parts of the world and all levels of society, have broadened the concept of “culture” and freed it from value judgments, such as good and bad. A good working definition is the one proposed by Paul G. Hiebert: “Culture is the more or less integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas and products characteristic of a society.” Another way of stating this is to say that culture is the learned part of man’s environment.
We learn about culture by observing the behavior of people and looking for patterns in that behavior. For example, two North American men when meeting each other usually shake hands, while Hispanics embrace, the French kiss one another’s cheeks, Indians put hands together and raise them towards their foreheads with slight bow of the head, and Suriano men of South America spit on each other’s chest when meeting. Culture is not inherited, but it is learned. In other words, an ethnic Chinese raised in an African environment would act, think and speak as an African. An Anglo child raised in an Indian environment would act, think and speak as an Indian. This process of learning a culture is called enculturation.
Cultures are made up of a great many patterns of behavior, ideas and products, but is more than the sum of them. These patterns are integrated into larger cultural complexes and into total cultural systems.
Hiebert asks if his readers have noticed that Americans have an obsession with platforms (chairs)? He goes on to say that this North American peculiarity may be regularly observed in airports as U. S. travelers uncomfortably drape themselves over chairs in airports while most others sit or lie comfortably on the floor. Behind this pattern of behavior is a basic assumption that the ground and floor are dirty, explaining why we keep our shoes on when we enter a house/building. For a North American, when food touches the ground, it instantly becomes dirty, no matter how clean the floor is. The exception is the unofficial three-second-rule invoked by a number of households, mine being one of them. On the other hand, Asians believe the floor is clean. They take their shoes off at the door, sleep on mats, and eat squatting on floor. These basic assumptions that people have about the nature of reality and of right and wrong, are all integrated into ‘worldview.’ This linkage between cultural traits and their integration into a larger system have important implications for those who seek to introduce change into a culture. Culture abhors a vacuum. When changes are made in one are of culture, changes will occur in other areas of the culture, often in unpredictable ways. A classic example of this may be seen in the low budget film, “The Gods Must Be Crazy” – in which a Coca Cola bottle finds its way into Bushmen of Botswana, resulting in selfishness, ownership, jealousy, anger, etc.
In our next entry, we consider in more detail the implications of such cultural differences for Evangelism and church planting.