Posted by: ewoba | July 28, 2009

Cross-Cultural Mission: A Reappraisal

The twenty-first century is the century of globalization. This worldwide phenomenon has been in the making throughout the twentieth century thanks to unprecedented progress in our means of transportation and technologies of information and communication. Today our cultural diversity, political antagonisms, and economic inequalities have been brought to light as never before. We should expect this global awareness of our differences to continue. At the same time, world populations is more aware today of what unites and makes them citizens of the same global nation.

Christian ministry, especially the area of missions, faces the same ambivalent reality. In response to what we more and more call the global church, various views of missions, and at times quite different approaches, have seen the day. But they all have in common the idea that a biblical view and practice of mission should be in essence a cross-cultural experience. This phrase, “cross-cultural,” usually means that we must train missionaries to be skilled in cultural immersion in regions of the world whose language, customs, worldview, and other social features are more or less different than the culture in which the cross-cultural missionary grew up. The more the world turns into a global-village, the stronger the emphasis on cross-cultural missions. At a time of extraordinary global cultural awareness we witness an unprecedented emphasis on cross-cultural skills and cross-cultural mission. To point to one clear indication of how dominant this view has become, nearly all departments of mission studies in higher education institutions have adopted a new name for their program: Inter-Cultural Studies. To be sure the essence of their programs is not radically different than what mission schools have been teaching since the beginning of the modern missionary movement, but there is such a rekindling of the interest of various kinds of people for concerns that were once the core of anthropological and, to some extent, sociological studies. The new name of departments of missions in universities and seminaries reflects the distinctive accent of today’s approach to missions and mission studies, that is, mission is about leaving one culture and becoming part of another culture by learning its language, customs, social life and worldview in order to announce the gospel to the people of the new culture. So the basic conviction which nurtured missions for two centuries hardly has changed: typical missionaries, if they are to follow the model of Scripture, ought to be cross-cultural servants of the gospel.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this view of missions, but in an increasingly global culture such an approach to missions poses two problems. First, it makes the implicit assumption that our growing global awareness of cultural differences means that people are culturally more unlearned than in the past and therefore more emphasis on cross-cultural skills in missionary training is needed. Yet quite the opposite seems true today. There are more people around the globe who already are culturally literate in other cultures than at any time in history. These people share much more cultural common ground with one another than we often assume. A western missionary today would find in nearly any part of the world people who are educated both in the western culture and their own culture. These people provide cultural bridges for missionaries to engage in a serious evangelistic task right away in the foreign culture, so much so that many missionaries, if they were to adjust their strategy just slightly, would need minimum cross-cultural skills to be effective. The time for excessive investments in learning the language and culture of the “mission field” in order to have an effective ministry belongs, for the most part, to the past; the time for using our cultural common grounds and existing “bridges” for a more cost-effective and strategic missionary endeavor has come. If God, who is the Lord of the times and circumstances has provided us with what seems a modern day Pax Romana, at least culturally, we should be careful to not waste our time and resources in over-equipping our missionaries. Rather, we need to identify the resources that are already there in every culture and use them for the expansion of the kingdom. Once reached with the gospel or built up in their faith and adequately supported, these believers would be much more culturally sensitive and effective missionaries to their people and regions. At the beginning of modern missions and for about a century the model of cross-cultural mission promoted today was a necessity. The West and the rest of the world had very little in common. But this situation has radically changed, and with this change we need to adjust our vision and practice of mission.

Second, when examined in the light of the teaching of the Bible and the practice of the early Church, the current notion of cross-cultural ministry as a dominant philosophy and practice of mission appears poorly supported. This is surprising and should be concerning for everyone, given the strong emphasis we have put and continue to put on the old model. For two or three centuries we assumed that modern missionary models are rooted in the New Testament in general and Pauline missionary practice in particular. On closer examination, however, our view and practice of mission in the last two hundred years appear closer to the colonial and cultural agenda of western expansionistic movements than biblical models of mission: to export the cultural heritage of the West and impose it to the rest of the world. I am personally not too concerned about defending people’s cultural integrity, and I believe there is a sense in which cultures worldwide are evolving by a phenomenon of mutual influence and adaptation, so cultural changes are going to take place for one reason or another. And where they do not happen by the mere process of cultural encounters, they will take place with the arrival of the gospel which, by nature, is culturally transforming. The true and difficult question is always how much of cultural changes should be considered inherent to a genuine conversion process when the gospel reaches new people groups. In general, the answer to this question lies in the hand of the Holy Spirit and the newly reached people group, not the missionary. So cultural damages caused by missionaries to the evangelized is not my primary concern here. But while we are very grateful that the modern missionary effort was used by God to build his church in the Southern hemisphere, in Asia and, more recently, Eastern Europe, we must also assess our journey so far and correct ourselves where we have gone astray. Were the church at the turn of the nineteenth century particularly mindful to pursue a more biblical model for missions the face of Christianity worldwide today would be drastically different, and many of the problems that face us today may have never seen the light of the day. When we turn to the Bible and search seriously its counsel, what emerges is the missionary model that uses existing cultural bridges as described above.

Some would argue that the very notion of a biblical missionary model is questionable, and that we should be careful indeed to speak of such a paradigm. But there is an overarching approach to mission from Genesis to Revelation which shows God using resources common to different people groups to infuse new cultures with the message of salvation. The journey of Abraham, for instance, which I consider to be a missionary journey, never put him in a situation where he crosses into a new culture in which he would have been completely lost without a previous cross-cultural training. To be sure Abraham’s missionary experience may be seen as exceptional—he and his people were trained by God himself as first missionary family. Still Abraham’s example seems to have set the paradigm for the missionary task in the whole Bible, where God uses either the quasi-natural process of the migration of people to reveal himself to other people (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Elimelek’s family in the book of Ruth, etc.) or appeals to people who are already bi-cultural to communicate his message (Daniel, Ezekiel, Nehemiah, Paul, Timothy, Titus, etc.). There is a constant tendency in the Bible to limit the missionary involvement of any other believers to their own group, thus no cultural training was almost always necessary. Moses, Joshua, and most prophets pursued their ministry on culturally familiar ground. Jesus is certainly the missionary from whom we would expect to learn more about cross-cultural ministry, but we are left amazed by his faithfulness to Israel to whom he was sent, refusing even to be sent to any sheep other than the lost sheep of Israel. Salvation historians could have a different explanation for this, but from a missiological viewpoint this could tell much about Jesus’ philosophy and practice of mission. Clearly his message was for the whole world and certainly he had humanity in mind from the beginning. But he did not overlook the times and circumstances in which his Father had put him. Someone, by the name of Paul of Tarsus, fully Jewish and fully learned in Gentile culture, was coming. With his team and other similar missionary teams they will carry the message to the Greco-Roman world.

Speaking of Paul, we can argue that the same common ground principle characterizes his missionary practice. The synagogues and other Jewish worship places, with Jews and God-fearers, formed the context of his first missionary endeavor in virtually every town and village he visited. For the most part it was new converts from these people who led the new Christian communities to reach out to the local population and the region. We are yet to find in the testimony of the Bible and the practice of the early church anything similar to what we emphasize today as cross-cultural mission: an individual or family uprooted from their own culture and brought to a new culture where they struggle to take root linguistically and culturally in order to bring the gospel to the lost. This model is sometimes necessary, and again there is nothing inherently wrong with it. But I am amazed how it has become the dominant paradigm, and I am baffled that it has been claimed for centuries to be inspired by biblical views and practices of mission.

Those who have paid the greatest toll of modern-day view of cross-cultural missions are families. It is well-know that missionary kids are culturally uprooted kids, belonging neither to the culture of their mission field or the culture in which their parents grew up. This alone comes with its own set of problems. Many of them have instinctively followed a path closer to the biblical model of mission: staying in their adopted culture and perpetuating their parents’ missionary journey. Often this has been seen as a call to mission they inherited from their parents, but this is only partially true. These missionary kids are missionaries in a way their parents never were: truly bi-cultural or, more exactly, culturally closer to their adopted culture than their parents’ culture. As a result, the missionary kids’ call to mission comes not from their parents’ vision alone but more importantly from a deeper sense of what biblical mission should look like: witnessing to the gospel by using existing common grounds rather than creating them from scratch. God uses missionary kids in the cultures in which they grew up because they are people already prepared culturally for their task, and thus confirms the model we see in the Bible.

The sending church and the planted church have also paid, both, a toll to cross-cultural mission as the dominant paradigm and practice. Colossal resources have been used to maintain a system in which most missionaries begin to be effective only after ten or more years of cultural immersion. It will take them another ten years or so to be as effective as bi-cultural nationals and other bi-cultural people who could have served as bridges between the two cultures, facilitated the work of the foreign missionaries, and advanced the progress of the gospel. Meanwhile many errors are made and numerous frustrations created for both the mission and the church, with all that this situation entails. We may never eliminate disappointments in mission; but we can minimize them.

This reappraisal of what is commonly called and understood as ­cross-cultural mission does not ignore that some missionary endeavors have taken a path other than the dominant model, and that other missionary efforts have worked with a model much closer to the biblical view. We should not forget also that God has used the dominant model we criticize to build his church. But we are a people who are called to increasingly reflect the wisdom and the qualities of the God who calls us into mission, so we want to take time to assess ourselves and adjust our action, for the furtherance of the kingdom of Christ. We should not be afraid to let the Spirit of God take control of the church and build it as it pleases him; in fact, we should see to it that we do not stand in his way. When we do go astray he will bring us back on track, provided that we be willing and obedient. If the view of mission defended here is compelling, then we have another example of the importance of reading Scripture closely and seeking the guidance of the Spirit earnestly, so that we may present ourselves to God as servants who are approved, workers who do not need to be ashamed and who correctly handle the ministry of the gospel in all cultures.



  1. Elisee:

    Great post! You should consider becoming a professor of theology.

    The mission in the NT is as you describe. It seemed that God prepared the missionaries in advance: Paul, Apollos, Barnabas, Timothy, Silas, etc. all had very deep cross cultural ties; Paul and Silas had the added advantage of Roman citizenship. You are also right to point out today, that many of the same kinds of bridges exist today. There exists hardly a culture so remote, that they cannot be reached by someone who speaks English or French. I even know a Bayaka Pygmy who has learned French and works in Bible translation in the Aka language.

    One other factor remains: cross cultural missions is extremely difficult even after the years of training; especially, when the person intends to work in the developing world. We’ve known many missionaries who have burnt out after only a few years.

  2. I think I am just fine as an NT guy, so no need to become a theology professor. Burn out is always a risk for everyone in highly demanding and stressful environment, but it is even more so for culturally challenged people–I am a living example of this challenge since a few years now–so I am not surprised that missionaries suffer from it.

  3. Isn’t the New Testament a division of theology, especially evangelical theology? That would make you a professor of theology, n’est-ce pas?

  4. In that sense, yes–that’s why I am in a program called Biblical Theology, with emphasis on the NT.

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