World-view and Contextualization

A reading for Cultural Anthropology

   "The ultimate goal in contextualization is to help a language group to learn how God can be a real part of their everyday life as they practice Biblical faith."
    —Dean Gilliland

by David J. Hesselgrave

(Originally appeared in Communicating Cross-Culturally. Adapted and used here under the "Fair Use" provision of the U.S. Copyright Act)

Imagine this scenario: During a visit to an American southwestern university you visit a class where an instructor explains problems encountered in introducing "more efficient methods or machines" to Native Americans or to rural farmers in India. You listen to the explanation that the problems likely stem from the fact that cultural insiders and outsiders understand the notion of "progress" in very different ways.

The Indian peasant may well ask, "What is progress?" He may inquire as to why he should adopt a different method of rice-growing simply because a foreigner argues that it is "more efficient."

An American of European origin may think that exchanging a horse and wagon for a pickup truck is unquestioned progress, but for the Navajo Indian, it is simply a desirable substitute rather than a symbol of "progress"

The university professor goes on to explain that such different reactions to the idea of "progress" are understandable if we consider the fundamental perspectives of those three cultures:

Here in the U.S.A., one might be able to assume that people will willingly adopt a technique or practice if its practical superiority can be demonstrated. In some other cultures, such "proof" would fall on deaf ears. The European-American sees a pickup truck as an absolute advance over a horse and wagon. It is more efficient and faster and totally in keeping with his notion of progress. To the Navajo Indian, the pickup truck is no less desirable, but it is not progress. It is simply a substitute for a horse and wagon.

This can be a difficult idea to illustrate clearly. Perhaps it will help to compare the Navajo's overall view of history with that of many other American citizens. The Navajo believes that his people were created in mythic times through various miraculous adventures, each of which gave rise to the ancestor of one of the many Navajo clans. To the Navajo, those times are not really past. Thus, by singing the proper songs and carrying out certain rituals, the Navajo shaman can bring those creation myth events back to life and uses them to cure illnesses. Similarly, the Hopi Indian dancing in elaborate masks and costume is believed to become one of the beings who created the earth and to whom the Hopi owe allegiance.

In the day-to-day life of most Western Christians, however, there is no such circularity of existence. The earth was created and will remain so until it ends. Christ was born, lived, preached, and was crucified. If He is to come again it will be a second coming, not the same one. Adam and Abraham, Moses and Saul are historical as well as sacred figures. Theologians and historians have spent much time establishing their precise places in history. From Adam's Fall to the present is an expanse of time which will never be repeated.

The Hindu, by contrast, live in a universe that remains essentially the same while humanity moves through it a life at a time. People's status may rise toward godliness, or it may descend through the lower orders of existence as a consequence of the way they live each life. However, through it all, the universe remains the same. To the Hindu, people do not live in a universe that is constantly progressing. Rather, one changes within a changeless universe. Little wonder then that, to Westerners, Hindus seem fatalistic and uninterested in progress as we see it. The Hindu may be interested in improvements in life such as better living conditions, more money, and healthier children. However, those things are seen as separate and distinct conditions rather than aspects of something called progress.

Here's the caveat: Don't expect all people to view this thing called progress as you do. Indeed, don't even expect them to understand the concept. Remembering this can save you a great deal of frustrating misunderstanding.

This illustration is a good starting point to reflect on intercultural communication. It highlights several important facts about people and cultures. In the first place, cultural groupings of human beings tend to share fundamental commonalties in defining reality. Having such commonalities is part of their culture. Any given culture is made up of folkways, modes and mores, language, human productions, and social structures. Culture is all of these and even more. Culture is also the larger significance of people and things in relation to which these aspects of culture take on meaning.

One might compare culture to a large and intricate tapestry. A tapestry is made up of countless threads of various colors which form larger shadings and lines which make up the pattern which in turn serves to aid in interpreting any smaller part of that tapestry. Culture is this type of wholeness. It is a larger reality which can give sense to its smaller parts. [ Definition of culture: PowerPoint ]

In the second place, people are born and reared "into" a culture. They are enculturated into it. Through this process, a culture becomes their own. Over a period of time, the cultural reality becomes their reality. As James Downs says,

"Men living in coherent groups ... define the world around them, deciding what is real and how to react to this reality. Failure to grasp this simple fact about culture — that is, culture (rather than rocks or trees or other physical surroundings) is the environment of human beings — will doom any attempt to work in a cross-cultural context."1

In the third place, since people of a culture (and that includes us!) take their culturally-determined view of reality seriously, the missionary communicator must also take that view of reality with utmost seriousness. Failing to do so may render the missionary incapable of effective communication.

To be sure, this does not mean that every way of looking at reality is valid. It is obvious that certain cultural views cancel out certain other cultural views. The important point here is to see that the way of looking at reality in a given culture is valid for the members of that culture. That sense of validity is what must be taken seriously by cross-cultural missionaries if they wish to communicate Christ to people of a different culture.

Because respondents decode messages within the framework of a reality provided by their own culture, the missionary must encode the Gospel message with that reality in mind. In other words, the communication of most people is circumscribed by the perspective provided by their own world view. This is true as well of the missionaries. Moreover, it will remain true of those missionaries until they make a Herculean effort to understand the world view of their respondents within the context of the culture of those respondents. When the missionary finally learns to speak within that framework, true cross-cultural missionary communication can begin.

Norman Geisler correctly contends:

The Christian accepts as axiomatic that his task is to communicate Christ to the world. That sounds simple enough, but in fact it is very complex. It is complex for at least three reasons: First, there are many views of "Christ"; secondly, there are many ways to "communicate"; and thirdly, there are many "worlds" to which Christ must be communicated.2

Geisler goes on to liken the variety of world views to colored glasses through which people view themselves and the universe around them. Everything takes on the "tint" or "hue" of whatever particular "world view glasses" an individual happens to wear. Moreover, since the vast majority of people have worn only one pair of glasses from the time of their earliest recollections, they are not predisposed — even were they able — to lay those glasses aside even temporarily in order to look at the world through different colored glasses.

This analogy of a pair of colored glasses is a good one as we shall see!

The way people see reality can be termed their world view. In Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, English, and certain other languages, one nuance of the word "see" is "know." For example, in English, people sometimes say "I see" to mean "I understand." Thus, a world view is the way people see or perceive the world, the way they know it to be. What people see is, in part, what is there. It is partly who they are.

Adapting the message to world view

From a communication point of view, we must analyze the world views of respondent cultures. That because it is in the context of these world views that our message will wind up being decoded and evaluated. One reason why much missionary communication has been monologic (i.e., one way: missionary to respondent) is that missionaries have failed to becoe conversant with world views other than their own. In ignorance of what happens in the decoding process, they have simply "related" the gospel. In such caes, one can get the impression that the motivation has been to deliver the soul of the missionary rather than to save the souls of those hearers.

Such was not the case, of couse, with Christ and His apostles. Our Lord did minister almost exclusively within the confines of Judaism's world view. It is clear, however, tat He adapted to the interests, needs, and "points of view" of its various sub-contexts. For instance, Jesus did not talk to the rich young ruler in terms of the new birth, or to the woman of Samaria in terms of "selling what she had and following" Him, or to Nicodemus in terms of the Water of Life. All three approaches were valid ways to present eternal divine truth. However, those images and symbols would not have been nearly as powerful if they had been interchanged among the three different contexts.

In the same vein, Peter and Paul adapted the presentation of their message to the world views of their respondents. A comparison between Peter's message on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36), his message in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:34-43), Paul's messages in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:16-41) and his message on Mars' hill in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) will reveal those two men's profound appreciation for the differences between the world views of Jews and Gentile God-fearers as well as between the world views of monotheistic Jews and polytheistic heathen.

So, how can missionaries from one world view effectively communicate with people of another world view? How can they make a persuasive case to non-Christian respondents who are seeing things through the colored glasses of their own respective world views? There are at least three possible avenues to pursue:

First, expatriate missionaries could invite their non-Christian respondents to lay aside their world view and to temporarily adopt the Christian world view in order to understand the gospel message.
While this approach is theoretically possible, it is highly impractical. Why? Well, comparatively few non-Christian respondents would be able to do this. They have never been called upon to do so — much less are they prepared to do so. It is as though their colored glasses have become an integral part of their eyes. Of the few who, by virtue of education or association, are able to change glasses, there would be only a few inclined to do so.
Second, the missionaries themselves can try to temporarily adopt the world view of their non-Christian respondents. Then, by reexamining their message in the light of the respondent world view, they may be able to encode the message in a way that it will be meaningful to people in that culture.
While this approach is not easy, it is both possible and practical. Complete communication may not be attainable. Perfection seldom is. But effective communication is possible if missionaries take the initiative and pay the price. And authentic missionary motivation is to communicate a message, not simply dispense it.
Third, missionaries can invite their respondents to meet them halfway, to exchange one lens for another and try looking through one eye, so to speak.
This has been a popular approach to the problem. Traditionally, the study of comparative religion has been undertaken by missionaries in order to find points of contact or establish common ground. Sadly, upon closer examination, many such presumed points and places have turned out to be mirages. Others seem to have some kind of reality to commend them, but upon close examination the "reality" turns out to be religious quicksand. That is why Hendrik Kraemer insists that one must have a "totalitarian" understanding of religion. B this, he means that the separate parts of any religion must be understood in terms of the whole or totality of it. In terms of the glasses analogy, we need both lenses. Otherwise we risk distortion.

With approaches one and three having limited validity and practicality, the second approach — the contextualization of the message by the missionary into the world view of his respondents — seems most in keeping with the cross-cultural missionary calling and with the realities of global cultures. Missionaries can be evangels to other human beings only when they understand deepl the God of whom they speak as well as the true nature of the human condition. With God's ends in view, the wise expatriate missionary will begin with a cultural group's starting point. What those people believe concerning the existence and nature of reality, the world around them, and human beings in relationship to the whole is of utmost importance in thinking about how to communicate the Gospel to them. Recognizing those beliefs and tailoring the message to speak within a particular world view shaped by particular beliefs must be a key priority of missionary communication. This process can and ust affect the source, substance, and style of the missionary message.

The missionary as source of the message

Identification is not so much a matter of dressing a certain way or eating certain foods as it is a matter of entering into the experiences of a cultural group with understanding. To do this, one must know what lies behind those experiences. One must take other people's world view seriously. We do that when we study other world views deeply enough to begin to understand them. For example, an understanding of world views enables an expatriate missionary to account for the attraction which neutrality holds for the Indian, the fatalism of the Muslim, the affection which Ibero-Americans have for the Virgin Mary, the ethnocentrism of the Japanese, and the inclination of many peoples to see sin in less serious terms than does the Bible, or simply add another deity to those they already worship, or to honor the ancestors.

A careful study of the Chinese world view, for example, may enable one to see why the Chinese said that Japanese military occupation forces in the 1930's and 1940's were "killing" the earth. According to Chinese myth, the man-god Pan-Ku was born from the Yin and Yang. He sacrificed himself and thus became the substance of creation. His head became the mountains; his hair became the trees; his breath the clouds; his veins the rivers; and his voice the thunder.

Careful study will help an expatriate missionary to Chinese people understand why a corpse is laid out in a direct line toward the door, and why bridal parties take a circuitous route to the marriage ceremony. The traditional belief was that evil spirits cannot turn corners. Therefore, the bridal couple taking a devious route cannot be followed by evil spirits. In the case of the corpse, if the spirit were to become a werewolf, it would walk straight through the door and not remain in the house.

By demonstrating an understanding of such beliefs, expatriate missionaries gain integrity and credibility in the eyes of their audience. The missionary's purpose is not to impress or entertain people. Instead, good missionaries will seek to demonstrate that they have considered indigenous alternatives to God's revelation in Christ and that they are not religious hucksters who are simply hawking God's Word (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:17 LB). Ideally, the expatriate missionary will come to be seen as someone who can be trusted, as someone who understands. The need for this kind of missionary insight may perhaps be even more important when the rationale for a particular custom or ritual has been forgotten while the custom itself remains.

We take other world views seriously when, in the second place, we make every effort to empathize with their adherents. Missionary communication is not enhanced by an arrogant show of superiority, or by ridiculing or downgrading other views, or by repeatedly pointing out inconsistencies. I once heard about a missionary who carefully studied the Shinto myth for the sole purpose of holding it up to ridicule. To make his point, the missionary pointed to the slanted eyes and rounded features of indigenous gods and laughed at what he regarded as signs of the gods' provinciality. Such an approach may have served that missionary's ego. However, it betrayed the Kingdom. To be sure, the weaknesses, inconsistencies, and inadequacies of false systems of philosophy and religion are not to be overlooked. However, missionaries must deal with other religions at the points of their strength. Examples of strength are numerous. The contributions of Buddhism to the arts of China and Japan are a matter of record. The attraction of Hindu inclusivism in a divided world is incontrovertible. The fascination with which many view mysticism and transcendental experience is evident in the West as well as the East. Adherents of some other religions are more appreciative of the world around them than are many Christians who ostensibly believe that the world is a gift of Almighty God. That many an atheist exhibits much less of materialistic outlook than many Christians goes without saying.

We must learn to deal with the best case that non-Christians can make, rather than only trying to knock down their weakest case. Otherwise, we succeed only in pricking balloons and knocking down straw men. Dealing honestly and sympathetically with the best case that any form of unbelief can make, and then showing the desperate human need that remains and how it can only be met by the true God and His redeeming Son is the "more excellent way."

Wuth this kind of approach, we can identify with people in their searching. We also are sinners. It is possible that we too gave our best efforts and tried thinking through life's perplexing questions only to discover that our best fell far short and that we were simply poor sinners in need of the only Savior and Lord. Millions of the world's people believe they have "never seen a sinner." Their world views siply do not have such a category. And so when missionaries come to them, they are often seen as "saints" who are somehow better than other people. The missionary too often comes as a "religious man" whose record of past sins has been wiped out and whose present sins are as invisible as the missionary can make them.

There is a better way. Missionaries must present themselves as sinners saved by grace. They sinned against God in their own world view by rejecting the Creator and Redeemer of men. Yet, they wound up being captivated by God's truth and love. Such a context makes missionaries more faithful communicators of the Christian message. Moreover, they will be recognized as people of goodwill who have the best interests of their respondents at heart.

These are some of the ways an expatriate missionary wins a hearing and authenticates the Gospel. Our approach must take us beyond sympathy to empathy, even when that may exact a heavy price.

World View and the substance of the missionary message

The Christian message is universal. It is for all people irrespective of race, language, culture, or circumstance. Some have naively assumed that this ends the matter. The reasoning goes that, if one knows what the gospel is, all that remains is being motivated to deliver it. To be sure, there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (Ephesians 4:5-6). But without betraying that unique message in any way, the gospel writers and preachers of the New Testament demonstrated a remarkable variation in their communication of it, not only in style but also in substance.

Think about the ministries of Christ, Peter, and Paul. In each case, the communication pointedly referred to the basic spiritual need of human beings in their state of sin and alienation from God. In each case, however, this universal need was particularized differently:

In the New Testament, cross-cultural missionary communication involved either making a case for Christian claims from the Old Testament (in the case of those who held to the Judeo-Christian world view), or filling in information about God, His world, human beings, and history in the case of those who come to the table with non-Judeo-Christian world views. In discourses at Lystra (Acts 14:15-17) and on Mars' hill (Acts 17:22-31), Paul begins with the Creator God who was unknown to those Gentile polytheists. Paul's approach is meticulously laid out in the first chapters of his letter to the Romans.

We conclude, therefore, that while generic statements can be made concerning the substance of the gospel (such as in 1 Corinthians 15:1-9) and the spiritual need of a human being as a sinner (e.g., Romans 3:9-18), the communication of these truths in specific situations involves a contextualization process which includes definition, selection, adaptation, and application.

1. Definition. One disastrous aspect of humanity's sin was that human beings did not retain God in their knowledge. As a result people's understandings have been perverted in precisely those areas where divine revelation is crystal clear. The true God is excluded while false gods abound. People distinguish between good and evil in some way, but not in accordance with the biblical view. A majority of people believe themselves to be immortal in some sense of the term, but the forms of immortality vary greatly with world views. Geoffrey Bull's reflections on presenting Christ to Tibetan Buddhists illustrates that point well:

The expansion of the Tibetan language came with the growth of Buddhist philosophy; thus words used often represent two distinct concepts. We take up and use a word in Tibetan, unconsciously giving it a Christian content. For the Tibetans, however, it may carry Buddhist content.

We speak of God. In our minds this word conveys the concept of the supreme and Eternal Spirit, Creator and Sustainer of all things, whose essence is Love, whose presence is all holy, and whose ways are all righteous. For the Tibetans, the word god means nothing of the kind. We speak of prayer, the spiritual communion between God our Father and His children. For Tibetan Buddhists, prayer is a repetition of abstruse formulae and mystic phrases handed down from time immemorial. We speak of sin. For them, the main emphasis is in the condemnation of killing animals.

When I was at Batang I saw a Buddhist dramatic play. One of the chief sins depicted was the catching of fish. When I asked the significance of the "transgression" I was told, "Oh, fishes mustn't be killed, they can't speak," meaning, I presume, that they utter no sound. It is a common sight to see a man, when killing a yak, at the same time muttering his "prayers" furiously. Gross immorality is also condemned by the most thoughtful lamas, but rarely publicly.

We speak of the Savior. They think of Buddha or the Dalai Lama. We speak of God being a Trinity. They will say: "Yes, god the Buddha, god the whole canon of Buddhist scripture, and god the whole body of the Buddhist priesthood." We speak of man's spirit being dead in sin and his thus being cut off from God. They cannot understand that. A person, they say, is only soul and body. What do you mean by a man's spirit? When a man dies, they believe his soul escapes by one of the nine holes in his body. "We know nothing of his spirit," they say. We speak of a revelation from God, His own Word which we are commanded to believe, but they know no word except the vast collection of Buddhist sayings, which only one in a thousand even vaguely understands. Those who have studied them believe that only in the exercise of the human intellect, in meditation and contemplation over a very long period, can one begin to enter into the deep things of the "spirit" — what "spirit" though, perhaps few of them realize.

We Christians, of course, speak of the Holy Spirit as a gift of God to the believer in Christ. They say. "What nonsense! As if a man could obtain the Holy Spirit as easily as that." Of course, I would point out the other aspect: That it is not so much our possessing the Spirit as it is the Spirit possessing us. On acceptance of Christ, the believer is born of the Spirit. Yet, it may be but slowly that He will obtain full sovereignty of the heart and will. This is dismissed as being contrary to the concept of God being a Spirit. We speak of the Almighty power of God and yet of humans as being responsible to Him, particularly in our acceptance or rejection of His way of salvation. I was told by Buddhists that this was a "lower doctrine," cause and effect as a fatalistic law being widely propounded by the lamas.
      — When Iron Gates Yield, originally published by Hodder & Stoughton, 1955. Moody Press edition, pages 97-99

Missionaries who take the Fall seriously, then, must stop and define terms. They must define terms in ways dictated by the distance between divine truth and cultural error. The process must proceed by comparison and contrast. This process may seem too painstaking for Western missionaries who are used to "instant" everything — from instant cake to instant coffee to instant conversion. But the missionary should know that to build Christian conversion on non-Christian world views can be like trying to build skyscrapers on sand. Mission fields are overly populated with men and women who have been ushered into the heavenlies without knowing why they got on the elevator. Once back on earth, they have no intention of being taken for another ride.

2. Selection. We must realize that the missionary only gives a partial message in each particular situation. Christ commanded us to teach people to observe all things which He commanded (Matthew 28:20), but He did not intend that we deliver everything in one sitting! As a matter of fact, Christ never did that Himself, nor did the apostles. Selection has always been necessary! Thus while missionaries communicate nothing but the truth, they only can communicates the whole truth over a period of time. Understanding comes with precept taught upon precept and line upon line.

It was an awareness of the need for selection that prompted some missionaries of the past to avoid the Old Testament passages which narrated Israelite wars. The missionaries' rationale was that the people were already too warlike. Of course, it would be both fallacious and faithless to think that the exploits of Israel could be forever neglected. However, in every case, care should be exercised in selecting culturally appropriate expressions of God's message to man. Let polytheist be told of the power of Christ, not just to save souls, but to subdue all things to Himself. Let the polytheist hear that the "unknown God" has revealed Himself to human beings. Let the Confucianist know that the only superior Man is the Son of God and Savior of men who recreates people and makes them into better husbands, wives, children, friends, and citizens. Let the Muslim see that God is love and also hear why God can be just and the Justifier of the one who believes in Jesus. Let our Jewish friends hear once again that Christians believe that God still has a great future for them as a people and that a new day will dawn for any Jew who will look long enough at Jesus of Nazareth to see who He really is.

3. Adaptation. Sensitive of gospel communication defines terms and makes a careful selection of content from the larger revelation of God. Missionaries also carry on a closely related and continual process of adaptation. The sensitive missionary notes the special concerns occasioned by the particular world view and adjusts to those concerns.

For example, in Hindu-Buddhist or Taoist contexts, there is little point in attempting to demonstrate the sinfulness of human beings by noting that people are liars. In a culture where all propositional statements (and especially those of a religious nature) are considered mere approximations, very different versions of reality are not always seen on a truth/lie scale. In those cultures, however, selfishness and covetousness are already matters of great concern. Is there any biblical ground for labeling these fundamental human weaknesses as sin? There most assuredly is such a basis. Then we can all agree that selfishness and covetousness are indeed evil. And we can point out how God looks upon these evils and deals with them.

The missionary does well to answer problems posed, but not answered, in false belief systems. When problems of an other-worldly nature were put to Confucius, he answered very matter-of-factly that he hardly understood this world and should not be expected to know about another world. On the basis of their own world view, Marxist Communists are hard-pressed to give a satisfactory answer as to why extreme sacrifices should be made by the present generation for the generations yet unborn. Many Hindus must sometimes recoil in despair when faced with the seemingly numberless existences required of them to effect their final emancipation from the wheel of existence. Christ has real answers for these issues and His ambassadors will deliver them.

Adaptation also requires that we answer objections that respondents can be expected to raise vis-a-vis the Christian message. The literature of Nichiren Buddhism, for example, makes much of the point that a person who knows the truth will die peacefully and with happiness apparent in facial expressions. That Christ died on a cross while repeating the words of Psalm 22 in an anguished cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46) causes Buddhists to question whether Christ Himself knew the truth. A brief apologetic before the problem is articulated can go far to disarm the objector.

Finally, the missionary should also be alert to watch for special entry points to non-Christian systems. For example, Confucius said:

"A holy man I shall not live to see; enough could I find a gentle-man! A good man I shall not live to see; enough could I find a steadfast one! But when nothing poses as something, cloud as substance, want as riches, steadfastness must be rare."3

Lao-tze said that "he who bears the sins of the world is fit to rule the world." Such quotations furnish the Christian communicator with opportunities that should not be overlooked.

4. Application. As is the case in all communication, the missionary message becomes most compelling when it moves fro being general to being personal. In the final analysis, we are not speaking to disembodied world views but rather to the minds and hearts of people whose actions and decisions are shaped b those world views. Can we make the message of Christ compelling to them? We can and we must. It is in application that we say, "You are the man" (2 Samuel 12:7).

Of course, ultimately the Holy Spirit must apply the Word. Geoffrey Bull tells the story of a Tibetan Buddhist military governor who refused to be moved by the most obvious refutation of his own faith.

I was surprised how even a man like the Dege Sey believed in reincarnation. In that regard I witnessed a rather amusing incident. He told me how they had to be very careful, for even one of the domestic animals might be his grandmother. I was about to make some mildly humorous comment as to the general treatment of dogs in Tibet, when the words were taken out of my mouth and far more eloquent sounds fell on our ears. From the courtyard came the piercing squeals of some pitiful canine, which had been either kicked or battered with a brick bat. The Dege Sey, who was generally quick to see a joke, sat quite unmoved. Incarnation as a concept is readily accepted by Tibetans. However, when we assert there is but one incarnation of the Living and True God, "The Word made flesh," [that assertion] is totally unacceptable to them.
      — When Iron Gates Yield, originally published by Hodder & Stoughton, 1955. Moody Press edition, p. 99

Application is a function of knowledge. However, it is also a function of faith. It is not according to the usual bent of human nature to admit that one is wrong or to agree with God that we are sinners — especially helpless sinners whose only hope is in divine grace. When God's truth is faithfully and lovingly applied, however, there will be a response throughout Adam's race if that truth is presented intelligently and in dependence upon the Spirit.

World View and the style of the missionary message

A "contextualized content" requires the accompaniment of a "contextualized style." Style can best be thought of as the personal imprint of the source upon the message. Its ingredients vary with the communication medium, whether that be linguistic or non-linguistic, and therefore we can speak of style as it relates to sermons, lectures, magazine articles, books, drawings, or films and even to the way in which people live out their Christian faith. Style can be studied in relation to the source, message, code, and respondents. It should be evaluated as to correctness, clarity, and appropriateness. Style is that part of cross-cultural missionary communication in which the source's understanding of his respondent culture, his powers of imagination, and his skill in the use of symbols are given most reign and can be put to great service for the Kingdom. The flip side of that is that a style out of keeping with the respondent culture does the Kingdom a disservice.

Think for a moment of the respondent culture I know best: Japanese. To contemporary Japanese, much missionary communication (as reflected not only by expatriate missionaries but by Japanese pastors and workers who simply duplicate Western patterns) seems to exhibit a lack of style, though it is not so much a lack of style as a foreignness of style that is the problem. There are numerous colorings of the Judeo-Christian world view as it has come through the Western filter that immediately stamp missionary communication as un-Japanese. These colorings include directness, brusqueness, matter-of-factness, lack of awe or sense of mystery, oversimplification, narrow scope of interest, aloofness from everyday concerns, and insensitivity to the feelings of the audience.

On the other hand, the missionary to Japan who, by his demeanor and speech, communicates the greatness and holiness of God, a deep appreciation for the beauty of God's world, and the mystery of Christian teachings such as the Trinity, the incarnation and the atonement will find that his audience will be "at home" with the message.

In summary

The Christian message is abiding and universal. It is for all people of every time in history and of every culture on earth. Nonetheless, the cultural contexts in which God revealed it and to which the missionary delivers it are distinct and varied. These contexts should not be thoughtlessly superimposed upon one another. If Christian meaning is not to be lost in the communication attempt, contextualization must be a guiding principle.


1James F. Downs, Cultures in Crisis Glencoe, 197, 36-37
2Normal L. Geisler, "Some Philosophical Perspectives on Missionary Dialogue," in David Hesselgrave, ed., Theology and Mission, Baker, 1978, 281
3The Sayings of Confucius. The Harvard Classics. 1909-14. VII, 24.

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