The negative and positive values of cultural anthropology

Anthropology for the Christian missionary

A Reading for Cultural Anthropology

by Alan Tippett (Original version appeared in Introduction to Missiology. Edited and used under the educational "Fair Use" provision of U.S. copyright acts)

Many otherwise conscientious Western Christians fail to distinguish between two different attitudes expatriate missionaries take toward culture. Paul deals with both attitudes in his letters to Timothy and Titus.

  1. Leave the old behind! -- There is a wealth of Biblical instruction about the need for would-be Christians to discard behaviors of their old way of life: moral evils such as murder, lying, fornication, blaspheming, greed, false accusation, lust, and so on. Bad behaviors of unregenerate human beings may be either individual or collective. Paul says such old ways must be discarded when conversion to Christ occurs.
  2. Pick and choose! -- Paul's writings contain references to behavior patterns that Christians are not expected to discard (though they may justifiably be expected to transform them). These are the accepted behavior patterns of organized society -- what the anthropologist calls the social structure. It is important to distinguish between the bad customs that converts must discard and the social structure within which they must operate.

Missionaries who oppose neutral social structures take on a grave responsibility for which they have no biblical precedent or injunction. To be sure, social structures change constantly, and Christianity may certainly influence those changes. However, remember that the Apostle Paul's approach seemed to be: "What is God's will for me in this situation? How can I win these people for Christ within their structures?"

In his Pastoral letters, Paul urges Christians to pray for "kings and rulers and those in authority" for the worthy motive that people may live in peace, which he considers "good and acceptable in the sight of God" (1 Timothy 2:2-3). Paul tells Titus that civil powers should be obeyed (Titus 3:1). On another social level, we find references to the structured family, which Paul recognized when he gave rules for governing the home (1 Timothy 3:4-5, 12) and rules for husband/wife relationships (Titus 2:5). Paul recognizes the responsibilities of master and servant as a two-way process and religious duty (1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9-19).

In maintaining community peace, Paul recognized the useful function of law as a controlling force: "We know that the law is good if one uses it properly." (1 Timothy 1:8). He also recognized that societies tended to be stratified and that people from each stratum had responsibilities to maintain the balance of society. Those in the favored groups were especially expected to help the less fortunate. The fact that an individual was rich rendered that person responsible for community service (1 Timothy 6:17-18). Paul's reasoning on the classification of widows' need for hospitality by the church shows his awareness of social stratification and responsibility (1 Timothy 5).

In 2 Timothy, Paul uses a series of allegories grounded in the social groupings of his day. He recognizes the rules for the life and training of the soldier (2 Timothy 2:4), and the athlete (v. 5) and the patterns of cultivating and harvesting used by the farmer (v. 6). Such allusions make it clear that, for Paul, religion is clearly not isolated from life but operates within the world of human culture.

This picture emerges from the Pastorals:

What then is the will of God for missionaries within the structure of the society He sends them to evangelize? As Christ was sent "into the world," so He sends His servants "into the world" (John 17:16). The question then is: To what extent should the missionaries identify themselves, and how should they identify themselves? Should they change the cultural patterns or win those structures for Christ? Are they there primarily to establish Western denominational organizations or to help an indigenous Church to emerge within its own way of life? Or is there some middle ground in which those indigenous churches can be part of international fellowships?

If these are valid questions, then every missionary needs training in anthropology, especially those aspects of anthropology that involve family and other social structures and interpersonal relationships.

Louis Luzbetak spoke of cultural relevancy as "an important apostolic principle." A full understanding of the cultural context is necessary because -- wittingly or unwittingly -- the missionary is an agent of culture change. Anthropological understanding is necessary for the missionary's spiritual guidance and social action. Luzbetak attacked the idea that cultural anthropology is merely a side branch of missionary training. He insisted that it is "an essential aspect of missionary formation." A missionary without a good knowledge of the cultural context, said Luzbetak, is a dangerous "expert."

The negative or corrective value of anthropology

Missionary work is always set within specific cultural contexts, which are different for each missionary. So, here's the basic question: What does anthropology have to say to missionaries working in cross-cultural situations?

Firstly, the study of cultural anthropology can be corrective to bad policy. Sadly, despite spiritual enthusiasm and worthy purposes, missionaries have sometimes made tragic mistakes. Sometimes, by winning one convert, they have turned the remainder of the whole village against them. Eugene Nida's classic book Customs and Cultures highlighted this problem.

There are five ways in which poor missionary technique can hinder the work of the Holy Spirit ( putting out the Spirit's fire, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:19). Each hindering mistake would be worth a whole chapter in itself. Put all together, they would make a discouraging volume.

1. Mistakes of Misunderstanding
Mistakes of misunderstanding are caused by ignorance of customs and by treating people of another culture as if they were just like people in the missionary's hometown. Value patterns, courtesies and discourtesies, orientation to life, attitudes toward work and personal relationships, felt needs, and the meanings of idioms vary greatly from culture to culture. Until people really know each other, they are liable to make mistakes of misunderstanding.

There is a classic story of 19th-century British administrators in Ghana whose ignorance about and attitude toward a golden stool led to a series of wars. The ramifications of this historical event were applied to Christian missions by Methodist missionary Edwin Smith.

Smith believed that the form in which Christianity was expressed in any culture should be appropriate to that culture, and he opposed the belief that traditional customs were necessarily wrong from the get-go. It distressed him that people actually believed a person could not be both Christian and African. He was quite aware that foreign features could be accepted and adapted by Africans, but he was adamant that Africans should be the ones deciding what to accept, adapt, or reject.
2. Mistakes of Offense
Mistakes of offense spring from different values placed on things and approaches by the missionaries and the people whom they seek to win. The most common mistakes grow out of clashes between missionary individualism and tribal or family collectivism. If an evangelical missionary wins only one convert out of a tribe and thereby builds a barrier of the whole tribe against that person, so that no church can be planted and the lone convert remains isolated, the most likely thing is that when the tribe is eventually won to faith in Christ, it will turn to Roman Catholicism or some other denomination because this evangelical missionary gave offense. Thus, a denominational issue is introduced as a permanent schismatic effect. Another cause of offense is a blatant disregard for pagan taboos when people are still pagan.
3. Mistakes of Causing Opposition
There are mistakes by missionaries that wind up creating active opposition. The pagans are thus not just indifferent to the Gospel but move to be actively hostile. A missionary can cause this by failing to observe the cultural paths of communication, by ignoring community officials -- chief, priest, and elders -- or by approaches threatening the solidarity of the group or disregarding indigenous rules of protocol.
4. Mistakes of Imposition
A common missionary methodological mistake has been the unneeded imposition of foreign forms and practices, especially denominational patterns. This can include organizational machinery, leadership patterns, worship patterns, foreign ethical values, modes of dress, financial patterns, and missionary supervision and controls. Such imposed patterns hinder the emergence of an indigenous church. Once they have been established, it can be well nigh impossible to change over from a dependent mission to a self-reliant church.

Frequently the missionary -- especially after three or four generations of Christian influence -- is blind to these impositions, but many enclosed foreign churches with congregations of 50 to 100 Christians after 100 years of missionary work can be evidence of the same old story: "killed by foreign imposition."
5. Mistakes of Void Creation
Finally, there are mistakes that create voids (Eugene Nida calls them vacuums). This happens when social practices, cultural mechanisms, and economic procedures of pre-Christian times are discarded, and no functional substitutes are provided in their place. The resulting unmet social needs-- originally met by pre-Christian cultural patterns-- can lead to discontent in the second generation. Many nativistic movements resulting in great loss to the Church have flourished because of such void creation.

I have mentioned five specific types of obstruction to church planting and development that can be caused by bad missionary methods. The list is by no means exhaustive. Good anthropological training would help missionaries avoid these mistakes.

The positive or directive value of anthropology

Secondly, on the positive side, knowledge of cultural anthropology has value for the missionary who will use it. Let me mention how.

Anthropological training helps a person to understand the significance of a pattern in a community, how the pattern is composed, what classes of people form the society, and how people (individuals and groups) interact and interrelate. This helps one know how things ought to be done or said to gain a sympathetic hearing. It is a good thing to know the correct and courteous procedure. How do I give? How do I receive something? How do I ask, act, respond, resist, complain, praise, or interact without offense? To do and say things with the correct procedure is half the battle in gaining rapport.

If individuals enter into a missionary situation as foreigners, as representatives of a Church from the West, and do things in the Western fashion, they may be seen as agents of the West itself with all its unhappy attributes and its questionable history. If, on the other hand, missionaries adapt to their target people and operate through their cultural patterns, the form and procedure of the church they plant will likely be more indigenous than Western. One of the positive things cultural anthropology has to show us is to approach the people we seek to win for Christ within procedural patterns that are theirs and not ours. The first step in identification is to accept as many indigenous forms and procedures as can legitimately be retained as Christian.
What are the indigenous methods and mechanisms for the communication of ideas? What is the approved decision-making body? How are issues needing major decisions presented to the tribe, group, family, or whatever unit is the decision-making body? What characters have been institutionalized within a society for this role of communication? Are there traditional heralds, mediators, orators, or spokespersons through whom a case is presented, or may individuals speak for themselves? How is a new message traditionally presented? Does one go first to the chief of the tribe or the head of the household? Or does one call together the whole group for a public meeting? What kind of a council exists for decision-making? Who has the right to admit a person to the community so that he can communicate at all?

These are particularly important questions for new missionary ventures into tribal or hamlet societies, thousands of which are open for evangelization today. If you communicate through normal channels, people know what is being done and can concentrate on the message or matter presented for decision. If you do not do this, you can become an obstruction as a person. You will be regarded with suspicion, and public feeling will be weighted against the acceptance of your requests.
Proficiency in the language
Cultural anthropology would also indicate the need for missionary proficiency in the language of the people for effective communication. This is necessary for:
  1. The communication of the Gospel to the individual in conversion
  2. The translation of Scripture
  3. The effective conduct of Christian worship
  4. The regular instruction of new converts in the faith
  5. The composition of hymns, catechisms, or other aids

In all these cases, theological concepts have to be expressed with the possibility that the faith of future generations will be adversely influenced by the selection of unfortunate terms. Missionaries must become so proficient in the relation of custom and language that they do not wind up creating heretical beliefs for their successors. The selection of the wrong word for God or the term for the Three Persons of the Trinity can lead one into polytheism, or the terminology used for Holy Communion may have pagan overtones. It is not good enough to allow some other person to do one's translation. If a person is to be a missionary, he or she is obliged to see that the communication is effective. The matter of meaning is extremely complex when we start to investigate it.

Cultural anthropology has explored both linguistics and the relation between language and culture (ethnolinguistics), and these resources are available for missionaries.

By studying innovation as the dynamics of a culture change, anthropology has taught us much that is relevant to religious conversion. Why do people change their traditional religion? Do they accept the new religion with the same meanings as those intended by the advocates? What are the motivations for such decisions? What factors suggest that people are ready for large-scale innovation change -- or, in other words, are "ripe for conversion"? This branch of theory and research has much to give the missionary. It is an area opened up by Barnett's research on innovation which made use of some conversion data.
Quite apart from these basic concepts, which are relevant to missionaries and help them understand the processes being used by the Holy Spirit, there is a tremendous wealth of methodology that cultural anthropology has made available in our day. These include techniques for observing and recording data, resources for study (including many fine surveys), documented material on the meaning of change and behavior, classified knowledge of whole culture patterns, devices to aid the learning and exploration of foreign languages, and mechanical aids for communication, both individual and group.

The anthropologist and missionary are not the same. The former observes and records culture change while the latter tries to channel it in a specific direction. Cultural anthropology is no substitute for the Christian mission because it only asks why; it does not do (though it might suggest what to do). It does, however, offer tremendous resources, methods, and information to consecrated missionaries in their church planting and building up of converts in the new faith.

Cultural anthropology has a great reflex value for missionaries. It widens their outlook and knowledge. It opens new horizons of biblical understanding and reveals Christ for who He is -- our Universal Contemporary, bigger than the Graeco-Roman world or Reformation theology, bigger than geography, time, or language. Granted, individuals may discover this without cultural anthropology, but cultural anthropology will develop their capacity for it, and help them to recognize the warnings and opportunities of the cross-cultural situation where their missioning is performed.

    -- Note: Some minor editing was done by Howard Culbertson,

Afterword: How It Can Help

Cultural anthropology can play an important role in shaping and enhancing global Christian world missionary work by providing insights into diverse cultural contexts. This understanding enables missionaries to approach their cross-cultural ministry with sensitivity, respect, and cultural humility in ways that foster meaningful connections and relationships with local populations.Moreover, cultural anthropology helps missionaries navigate the complexities of culturaladaptation (sometimes also called "acculturation"), thereby facilitating effective communicationand contextualization of Christian teachings and values within diverse cultural frameworks. By integrating cultural anthropological perspectives into their mission work, Christian missionaries can better address the needs and challenges of different cultural contexts, ultimately fostering more authentic and sustainable forms of engagement and transformation.

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