World Missions and Cultural Anthropology

A reading for Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

by Paul G. Hiebert

(An article that was the introduction to Readings in Missionary Anthropology II, edited by William Smalley. Used under the educational "fair use" provision of the U.S. copyright acts)

The Christmas pageant was over . . . or so I thought.

The angels, dressed in pure white, had announced Christ's birth to Mary and Joseph. Their faces were brown and their message was in Telugu, for we were in South India. Half drunk, the shepherds had staggered on stage, half drunk, herding the smaller children on all fours like sheep. Not quite what I was raised to expect, but something I could explain in terms of cultural differences because, unlike Palestinian shepherds who were known for their sobriety and piety, Indian shepherds are known for their drink and dance. But the message was not lost, for at the sight of the angels, the shepherds fell to the ground, frightened sober.

The Wise Men and Herod had appeared on stage in regal splendor. South Indians are masters at drama which they use extensively for religious communication in the village. A preacher may attract a few dozen listeners for an hour, but the vivid enactment of a story always attracts large crowds late into the night.

Now we sat cross-legged and crowded as the shepherds, Wise Men, and angels gathered with Mary and Joseph around the manger. Suddenly, Santa Claus jumped out! With a merry song and dance, he began to give out presents to Jesus and the others. He was the hero of the pageant. And I sat stunned.

What had "gone wrong?" A case of syncretism, I first thought -- a mixture of Hindu and Christian ideas that one might expect in new converts. Some older missionaries had warned that if drama were allowed into the church, it would likely bring in Hindu beliefs. That wasn't what had happened here, however. Santa was a Western idea, brought by Westerners along with the story of Christ's birth. What had happened?

At this point, some anthropological insights can come to our aid. Studies in cognition show us how people formulate their basic concepts and how they organize these into larger systems of thought. In this case, it is clear that Americans have a great many ideas associated with Christmas. However, they divide these into two distinct conceptual domains into two different Christmases. In one domain, the sacred one, Americans place Jesus, Mary, Joseph, angels, wise men, and shepherds. In the other domain, Americans place Santa, reindeer, Christmas trees, stockings, and presents. Nor do they mix the two. Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer does not belong in the same picture, or on the same stage, with angels and wise men. Missionaries had introduced the Indians to the basic Christmastime images, but the separation of these images into two different cognitive domains had been lost in the process.

Ironically, the Indian worldview that treats all human experiences as part of a single integrated domain is closer in many ways to the worldview of the early Christians than is the sharp division we Westerners today make between the sacred and the secular. I began to wonder whether, in fact, we should not bring Santa and Christmas trees and science and "secular" occupations into the same picture with Christ. Have we gone astray theologically by confining Christianity to a few limited domains of our lives?

Cognitive theory raises an even more subtle question about the message communicated by the pageant. How did the villagers really perceive it? What did words like "God," "Jesus," and "incarnation" mean to them?

To answer this, we need to know how Indians organize their conceptual world. In their worldview, there is only one kind of life, whether it is in gods, people, animals, or plants. The only difference between them is that of degree. Gods have more life than people, and people have more than animals and plants. Gods are part of creation. They die and are reborn as people or animals, which may be reborn as gods. And gods appear frequently on Earth as incarnations to help humans defeat the forces of evil (Figure 1).

chart contrasting Indian and
Western concepts of life

The Biblical concept of God is quite different. In the Bible, God is infinite, eternal, and the creator. All other forms of life are categorically different. They are finite, temporal, and created. To worship any of them is idolatry and sacrilegious. In this view, "incarnation" does not mean God lowering Himself to join others like Himself, like a rich man joining the poor. It means God crossed the categorical difference between Himself and humans -- a difference of kind, not degree -- to become something He was not before, a human.

But how can you convey in a pageant the Biblical concept of "God" and "incarnation" so that they would be understood by an Indian villager? The Telugu words for "God" all carry the Hindu connotation of gods as part of creation. No word in the Telugu language communicates the concept of God as the Christians use the term. Should one then use the English word "God" or, better yet, the Greek word theos? But those are meaningless sounds to a South Indian villager. Should one use one of the Telugu words for God in spite of the fact that the villager will reinterpret the message in terms of his own worldview? How can you communicate across cultures without a loss of meaning?

Mission Anthropology

To answer questions such as these, some mission scholars have turned to anthropology and the other social sciences. In doing so, they do not deny the religious nature of the Biblical message or the spiritual nature of human beings. But they recognize that people are also human: their bodies are subject to physical and biological processes, their minds and spirits to psychological and sociocultural processes. The social sciences are the study of these processes. So long as mission involves human beings, these scholars contend, an understanding of the social sciences can help us have a more effective ministry.


There are a number of areas in which anthropology has helped us to understand the mission process. Two of the first to emerge were linguistics and communication.

Early anthropologists developed an interest in communication particularly in language, because they were often faced with learning exotic languages in order to study other cultures. For the most part, these languages lacked written forms, grammar rules, dictionaries, and teachers to give instruction. The methods that had been developed by the classical linguists for written languages were, therefore, of little help. Anthropological linguists developed techniques that enabled them to learn languages quickly and accurately without the assistance of language schools. From their work came some of the emphases of modern linguistics, which is the study of the basic nature and structures of human languages.

Missionaries faced the same language problems, and a number of missionary linguists played an important part in developing linguistic and translation theory. H. A. Gleason taught linguistics to missionaries at the Kennedy School of Missions. Kenneth L. Pike and his colleagues at the Summer Institute of Linguistics/Wycliffe Bible Translators pioneered work in linguistics structures. Each summer, they held intensive courses on university campuses in different countries, teaching prospective translators how to analyze a language in preparation for making accurate Bible translations.

Eugene A. Nida and the American Bible Society (later within the framework of the United Bible Societies) put together a team of highly qualified experts who have done significant work in translation theory and who serve as technical consultants to national Bible societies around the world doing translation. Nida and William A. Smalley also pioneered a second type of program aimed at teaching missionaries how to learn new languages. Under the sponsorship of a group of mission boards, they operated the Toronto Institute of Linguistics, a program in which candidates were taught methods for learning a language rapidly and accurately even in regions where language training schools do not exist or are inadequate. Similar programs have been developed in a number of schools interested in preparing people for overseas ministries.


At first, anthropological linguists treated languages as autonomous structures independent of the rest of culture. Later, they became increasingly interested in the problem of the relationship of language to culture. It became obvious to them that culture would be impossible without language and that language is molded by the culture of which it is a part.

On one level, the relationship between these two raised questions about how communication takes place. What happens in the communication process? What media other than language do people use? Which forms of communication are most effective in transmitting particular types of messages? And how is communication affected by its sociocultural contexts? A number of mission scholars such, as Nida and then Donald Smith (of Daystar Communications Institute, Nairobi), applied communication theory to the mission process with considerable success.

On another level, the relationship of language to culture raises the question of cognition. To what extent is thought molded and confined by the words of a language and the conceptual categories implicit within them? And how can language help us discover how people perceive their worlds? As we saw in the Christmas drama, how we form and organize our concepts into larger domains profoundly affects the message we convey.

Anthropologists in cognition -- such as Dell Hymes, John Gumperz, James Spradley, and Stephen Tyler -- developed "ethnoscience" for the study of cognitive systems. Its importance to Christian missions and all cross-cultural communication is obvious, for communication is not measured by what is said but by what the listener understands. Thus far, little has been done to apply ethno-scientific theory and methods to missionary communication, although an encouraging start has been made by Charles Kraft of Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena).

Cultural Differences

Another concern mission strategists faced was the problems arising out of human variation. Among other things, missionaries had to face the question of religious differences. How do you relate to non-Christian religions? Are they totally evil, and, therefore, to be wiped out? Do such religions contain partial truths on which the missionary can build? Such questions have led to extensive discussions.

Missionaries, like anthropologists, were confronted with other cultural differences. People in other societies built different types of houses, spoke different languages, organized different kinds of families, had different concepts of right and wrong, and believed in different values.

Such cultural variance causes experiential problems. People who move into a new culture face culture shock. Misunderstandings arise in missionaries' relationships with nationals, and missionaries face the long-term difficult task of learning how to live in a new society.

Cultural variance also raises some knotty philosophical and theological questions. It appears that all cultures "do the job". That is, they provide a basis for orderly, meaningful human life. How, therefore, can we judge one culture to be better than another? What criteria can we use to compare and evaluate customs? What right do we have to try to change other people?

For a time, many anthropologists staked out positions of total cultural relativism, holding that all customs of all cultures are equally good. However, such relativism raises equally difficult questions. Are, in fact, all customs equally good? For example, is magic as effective as modern medicine in curing diseases? Should we refrain from helping people if they desire it or if it is to their benefit? Are there no absolutes, no biological, psychological, social, or moral principles underlying all human life? Is there no Truth? Today, few anthropologists take a completely relativistic position with regard to cultural variance, but there is little consensus on what the criteria for evaluation shall be.

Missionaries have had to face questions of cultural variance. Many of them wanted to make people Christians, but does this also mean wearing clothes, using Western medicine, having one wife, giving up segregation based on caste or race, and giving up headhunting? If not, where does one draw the line between Christianity and Western culture?

The relationship of the Christian message to cultures is complex. On the one hand, the message must always be expressed in cultural terms in a language, cultural symbols, and behaviors that will, in part, mold the message. On the other hand, Christianity claims that its message is universal and transcends any one culture.

The theological question raised by cultural variance goes further. The events of the Bible took place in specific cultural contexts. How do we determine what the universal message is to be proclaimed to all people everywhere, and what part was addressed specifically to the people and culture of that day? To say all parts of the Bible apply equally to everyone is to evade the question. Few, if any, modern Christians put adulterers to death (Leviticus 20:10), or stone blasphemers (Leviticus 24:14). Not many practice the holy kiss (1 Thessalonians 5:26), require women to pray with their heads covered (1 Corinthians 11:13), or lend money freely without expecting its return (Luke 6:35).

Finally, cultural differences pose basic epistemological questions to missionaries and anthropologists alike. How do we relate to those who believe differently than we do but who also claim to have found the truth? As anthropologists point out, we must avoid uncritical ethnocentrism -- the tendency to automatically assume our beliefs and customs are right and then to use them to judge other people and cultures to be wrong. Being ethnocentric blocks understanding and communication, and in the end, each only stands up and declares they are right.

So, how do we relate to people if fundamental differences between us persist? Can we still accept others as persons and maintain relationships with them?


The recognition that fundamental differences exist between cultures led to an awareness of culture itself. As anthropologists began to study individual cultures, they found that these are not made up of odd assortments of customs. Rather, cultures are larger systems in which the parts are integrated in varying degrees into the whole and to each other. Moreover, the parts serve important functions. In other words, they meet important needs in the lives of the people and in the maintenance of society.

Scholars have pointed out that the holistic view of culture has some important implications for missions. For one, if cultures are integrated, changes in one area of culture often lead to significant changes in other areas of the culture. For example, converting to Christianity may affect people's economic, social, and/or political systems. Nor can we always predict just what these changes will be. The missionary, therefore, must be aware of negative side effects and deal with them.  He must be concerned with all dimensions of peoples' lives, or in making them Christians he may destroy their society and bring about their extinction.

A second implication springs from the concept of function. If the missionary eliminates or changes a custom, he should see to it that the essential functions served by that custom are met by some other means.  Otherwise, serious cultural disruptions can result. For example, the suppression of headhunting in New Guinea created serious psychological problems for the men because they could not become adult males in their society without taking a head. Consequently, Christian men often had to live their whole lives as "boys".

The third implication of viewing culture as an integrated system is that of indigenization. In order for an idea to become a vital part of a culture, it must be integrated into the systems of that culture. Not only must it be translated into the local language, but it also must find its expression in the practices and thought patterns of the culture. As Kraemer put it, the Gospel must not be brought as a potted plant dependent on the foreign soil of another culture. The gospel must be brought as a seed that is planted and raised in native soil. In that way, it will lose its foreignness.

The process of assimilating new beliefs carries the danger of syncretism in which the literal form of the message is translated into local terms, but the message's meaning is lost. For example, in the pageant referred to at the outset, the use of the form "shepherds" has lost the original meaning of "pious common folk." One might argue that it would have been better to use "farmers" in the pageant since, in South India, these convey more closely the meaning found in the shepherds of the Christmas narrative. However, the danger in indigenizing the message is that its meaning may be lost in a mixture of old religious ideas in the forms of the new religion.

Social Structure

The concept of social structure developed by the sociologists and the British school of social anthropologists opened an important new door for the analysis of the mission process. This is the study of how people structure their interactions. Without this structuring social order would be impossible, and life would turn into anarchy.

Social structures have been analyzed on a number of levels. At the lowest level, one can study how individuals relate to each other. For instance, how does a missionary relate to the people among whom he works, to the national converts, to other missionaries, to his home constituency, to his board, and to his family? Jacob A. Loewen, William A. Smalley, and William D. Reyburn used role theory to provide important insights into missionaries' relationships. Some work has also been done on how converts learn new Christian roles as well as on leadership roles in non-Western churches.

Social organization can also be studied in terms of groups and group dynamics. For example, how should missionary groups relate to national churches? Should the missionaries be members of these churches or retain their ties to their sending churches? How should churches be organized, and how do cliques, friendship networks, and kinship ties affect their operation?

So far, little has been done to study mission organizations, mission-church relationships, or church operations in terms of group theory. One of the critical questions facing modern missions is how to structure post-colonial relationships between sending churches and newly organized churches in which the integrity and autonomy of both are preserved. In part, this may be a theological issue. In part, however, it is also a matter of intergroup structure -- for contemporary development programs, governments and businesses face many of the same problems on the international scene.

Then again, social organization can be studied at the level of society as a whole. These types of analysis are valuable in planning broad mission strategy as Nida, McGavran, and others have shown. Questions raised at this level include: Should missions concentrate on the cities rather than villages or tribes, on regions of high response rather than on all areas equally, on the elite and upper classes rather than on the poor and marginal people? How should one respond when whole tribes turn to Christianity at the same time? And how do social structures such as class and caste hierarchies affect the growth of the church?

Recently there has been a growing interest in the structure and dynamics of human interaction below the level of roles. Anthropologists such as Max Gluckman and Fred Bailey looked at the strategies people use in their relationships. Students in the Transactional Analysis looked at attitudinal states within a role relationship. Both of these approaches deal with human emotions and aspirations as well as social structure and, therefore, provide a bridge between the insights provided by anthropology and those provided by psychology.


Many anthropologists have focused on particular areas of culture. Economic anthropologists began by analyzing economic institutions but have turned to the study of how individuals and societies create and use resources. These may be property, money, and material goods, or they may be time and effort. Although missions use such resources and their use generates a great deal of debate on the field, little has been done to apply theories of comparative economics to the mission scene.

Political anthropologists began with political institutions and have now broadened their interest to the uses of power (force, knowledge, wealth, etc.) and of political power (leadership and decision-making). With the exception of some studies on leadership, modern mission strategists have mostly paid far too little attention to power and politics. Orlando Costas and other third-world missions leaders have pointed out the critical nature of this issue on the international mission scene, and a few scholars, such as John Yoder, have examined the New Testament in political terms. However, these discussions will have to be broadened to include a cross-cultural analysis of political systems and how they operate. Otherwise, the judgments passed will be used on Western political biases. Work is also needed on the uses of power within mission organizations themselves to make us aware of how this dimension affects the operation of mission programs.

Anthropological studies in the area of religion and magic have had a more obvious relevance to mission. It is not surprising, therefore, that mission scholars have drawn on and contributed to theory in this area. In the anthropology of religion, the question of the ultimate truthfulness of a religion is not raised. That is a question to be answered by theology, philosophy, and comparative religions. What is asked is how religions function and how they relate to other areas of a culture.

Some anthropologists have turned to the study of world views the basic existential and normative assumptions people make about their worlds. What do they perceive to be the nature of reality, and what do they consider to be right and wrong? For example, behind the Christmas story lies a view of reality that assumes not only the uniqueness of human life and its eternal existence but also a linear view of time in which human beings live but one life and then face judgment. The human goal is heaven in which the individual is fulfilled. But the Hindu worldview assumes that time, like the seasons, repeats itself endlessly, that human beings die and are reborn innumerable times and that the goal of life is to merge back into the source of life and lose its individuality. The Westerner, influenced by Christianity, believes in progress and points to modern technological developments as evidence that this is taking place. The traditional Indian sees modern technology as a sign of the increasing depersonalization of life and, therefore, a sign of the loss of true values and the decline of civilization.

The basic assumptions a culture makes about reality are often so taken for granted that they are not made explicit by its members. But it is upon these assumptions that people build their concepts of the universe and their social orders. To understand people, we must understand their worldviews. Only then can we communicate with a minimum loss of meaning.

Other anthropologists focused on the nature of religious rituals and symbols and the place these have in the lives of people. In our rebellion against ritualism, we Protestants have often overlooked its importance in maintaining faith and transmitting religious beliefs. Too often, missionaries have been guilty of destroying a people's traditional symbols and rituals without providing them with meaningful substitutes. This is particularly critical in the case of non-literates for whom rituals are not only the reaffirmations of their faith but also the encyclopedias preserving their religious knowledge. As John Carman points out, when non-literate Christians are deprived of rituals, dramas, and dance, they may be left only with a lyrical theology rooted in the few hymns they know by heart.

Culture change

Planned change is central to the missionary task. In recent decades, anthropologists have begun analyzing how such change occurs. Early anthropologists were concerned primarily with the broad evolution of culture and with the diffusion of ideas around the world, approaches that raised theological questions but had little to say to missionaries in their work. Structural-functional approaches tended to view cultures as static. Change was seen as essentially harmful. Today, anthropologists and mission scholars are studying the nature of both planned and unplanned change.

One approach of interest to missionaries is revitalization theory. This is the study of the rise and growth of the nativistic and messianic cults that make up one of our day's most widespread religious phenomena. Over six thousand have been reported in Africa alone. Thousands of cargo cults and prophetic movements have risen in New Guinea and Oceania.  Hundreds of new religions appeared in Japan and the Philippines after World War 2. Some are attempts to return to old religious traditions in a search for identity and stability in the midst of the confusion created by rapid cultural change. A great many of them, however, are attempts to adapt Christianity to local cultures with results ranging from orthodox churches to bizarre syncretistic cults.

Other studies have been concerned with conversion and individual responses to religious change. What leads a person to convert, and what changes does conversion affect in the beliefs and practices of an individual? Some have been afraid to view religious experiences such as conversion in terms of natural processes. To do so does not deny their spiritual importance. However, as Thomas Aquinas expressed in his famous dictum, "Grace does not suppress nature." To this, Paul Tournier adds: "Man belongs to nature by the will of God, and no spiritual experience, no matter how profound it may be, frees him from his natural state." A better understanding of the processes of conversion would be valuable to missionaries.

A third area in the study of change, and the one on which missionaries have drawn most heavily, is that of planned change -- the study of how changes can be introduced most easily and with the least negative side-effects into a society. H. G. Barnett, Ward Goodenough, and others in the field of applied anthropology have written extensively on innovation and the acceptance of new ideas, and on resistance to new ideas and ways such resistance can be avoided. Applied anthropologists have produced a wide range of materials used in training programs for international programs, such as the Peace Corps, development programs, diplomatic service, and Christian missions.

Related to the study of change is that of socialization -- the study of how children are raised and taught their culture. Students of socialization in the anthropological field of Culture and Personality have analyzed the importance of child-rearing practices in maintaining a culture's beliefs and practices. Now, they are becoming aware that extensive changes can occur in a culture through changes in the socialization process. Both maintenance and change are important to missionaries and other agents of planned change, for they are interested not only in introducing change but also in transmitting the new ideas to subsequent generations. Attention has been given to this in schools, but the greatest amount of socialization occurs in the home prior to school age. A failure to develop an adequate socialization process in the home generally leads to the "second generation" problem -- the fact that second, third, and fourth-generation Christians are only nominal believers and often leave the organization.

Recent developments

A number of new areas of interest have arisen in anthropology. Cultural ecology looks at the relationship between a culture and its environment, expressive anthropology studies the arts and music, and mathematical anthropology attempts to understand human beings in terms of cybernetics and mathematical models. These are probably less important for missions than the rapidly expanding studies of complex and urban societies. Missions have been successful in tribal and peasant societies. With the world's rapid urbanization, missionaries are now looking for ways of reaching people in the turmoil of modern cities.

Past and Present

The relationship between Christian mission and anthropology in the past century has been one of ambivalence. On the one hand, they shared a common interest in people, and anthropologists even sought the assistance of missionaries who had lived for long periods on the field. On the other hand, the two groups have been suspicious of each other's activities. It may surprise some, therefore, that anthropology in Britain had its origins in the broad Christian humanitarian movement of the nineteenth century. After slavery was abolished (1807-1833), those concerned with social reform turned their attention to questions of the welfare of the native peoples in the colonies. In 1834 a split occurred on how to protect the rights of the natives. One faction, including most missionaries, wanted to immediately grant them the full "privileges" of Western civilization. The other faction wanted to study them before "raising and protecting them". From that point on, missionaries and reformers too often pursued programs of planned change without perceiving the cultural contexts in which this change took place, while the anthropologists too often proceeded to study the people with little thought to how this knowledge could benefit the people.

We must, however, avoid stereotyping an age. Old mission field documents show that many late nineteenth and early twentieth-century missionaries were deeply sensitive to the cultures and viewpoints of the people among whom they worked. A number of them -- R. H. Codrington of Melanesia, M. Leenhardt of New Caledonia, Henri Junod and Edwin W. Smith of Africa, the Wisers in India, and Father W. Schmidt and the Vienna School of Anthropology, to name only a few -- made significant contributions to anthropological knowledge and theory. Many others studied the ethnographic materials of their place of service.

After the Second World War, there was a growing interaction between missions and anthropology. This has been on a much broader scale than just the interest in linguistics that characterized the period between the world wars. Church-related colleges introduced anthropology courses, and journals like the Anthropological Quarterly (Catholic) and the International Review of Missions (mainly Protestant) carried articles on broader topics of anthropology and missions. A major impetus in bringing anthropological awareness to missions came through the work of Eugene Nida and the American Bible Society translations team members.

As Nida drew from his work in cross-cultural translations, he broadened his interest to the whole range of sociocultural anthropology. In the process, he wrote Customs and Cultures and Message and Mission, pioneering works that contributed greatly to interest in mission anthropology.

Another major impetus came through Practical Anthropology (later called Missiology, a journal that was edited by members of the translation team and other interested colleagues. This served as a forum for anthropological studies of the mission process. The quality of articles published in the journal is reflected in the fact that they found acceptance in departments of anthropology even on sescular university campuses.

Anthropology has now found a place in many schools and institutes that are training people for overseas global service.

Discussion questions

  1. How might the Christmas pageant that Hiebert witnessed in India help us grasp the challenges of cultural differences and the problem of syncretism in cross-cultural evangelism, discipleship, and church planting?
  2. What insights from anthropology might help missionaries better understand and communicate their message across cultural boundaries?
  3. How can understanding the concept of cognitive domains in different cultures help us further understand and interpret religious concepts like "God" and "incarnation"?
  4. How have linguistics and communication studies contributed to world evangelism, particularly in the areas of language learning and Bible translation?
  5. What philosophical and theological dilemmas do missionaries often face as they deal with cultural differences and try to evaluate customs? How can they best navigate the tension between cultural relativism and the universality of the Christian message?

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