23. Seeing Through Another’s Eyes

Learning to be an effective change agent for Jesus Christ in another culture is the goal of a missionary. This can be mistakenly reduced to methods of communicating the gospel message which do not reflect sufficient appreciation or validation of the existing culture. Cross-cultural ministry is not a matter of learning a new language to express a pre-established gospel message.  New concepts must be learned which are shaped by values and beliefs that have their roots in different assumptions about the world.  Understanding people from other cultural backgrounds is not a matter of logically assessing reactions and preferences according to one’s own understanding about the world, but learning to think and act within a different perception of reality.  Only then can the communicator of the gospel recognize how the cross is relevant in the cross-cultural setting. 

There are two books that I have found particularly insightful and helpful for the person who seeks to relate to others in a productive and more than superficial way across cultures.

Gifts and strangers by Anthony J. Gittins, 1989. New York: Paulist Press. Anthony Gittens is an anthropologist at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago who does a masterful job of exploring the sociological implications of gift giving for cross-cultural communication of the gospel. After outlining the mechanics of gift-giving which involves the three obligations of giving, receiving and repaying, he points out that evangelism is giving a gift, the gift of the gospel. If this gift is not received, then we must ask why it has not been received and not jump prematurely to the conclusion that the people are rebellious sinners. Perhaps the Christ we have presented deserves to be rejected, because the values and truths that ought to be present in the message have been mis-communicated. "Perhaps the gift seems meaningless, or inadequately contextualized, or useless, or inappropriate, or embarrassing" (p. 106). Even the most well-meant gift will be rejected if its nature and purpose are not carefully clarified. Those missionaries sensitive to contextualization will not pass judgment on those who don’t respond, especially if they don’t know why there was no response. When the gift is not accepted in its present form, then the donor must consider other implications as well. Maybe the gift was correct, but the packaging was not. As Gittens (p. 107) goes on to say, "we have talked to people, but have often talked down. We have listened to people, but often selectively. We have craved relationship with people, but often only as givers. we may well have set ourselves to learn from people, but primarily and paradoxically as their teachers. We have brought a clear message to people, but often in the wrong language."

In addition, cross-cultural workers must recognize the role of the stranger as defined by the setting in which they live.  Strangers must allow their hosts to fulfill the role as understood in that culture and earn credibility and trust according to the established rules.

This book is an eye-opening analysis of cultural relationships that will help clarify much of the struggle that the cross-cultural worker experiences.

Strange Virtues by Bernard Adeney, 1995. IVP. Bernard Adeney teaches at Universitas Kristen Satya Wacana in Java, Indonesia. This book focuses on cross-cultural ethics and in the process has provided us an excellent overview of how culture affects many issues in the life of the cross-cultural worker. Anyone who has been frustrated when living in a foreign context will find much that resonates and clarifies in this book.

Although academic in places the author provides sufficient true life illustrations that explain the points being made. Cross-cultural church planters would do well to consider his comments on "Practicing Theology in Cross-cultural Experience" which emphasizes the reality that theology is dependent upon context. The "Bible and Culture in Ethics" section outlines the importance of story in the Bible to convey meaning as opposed to limiting the approach to a more rationalistic mindset of working from first principles. "Strange Communications" has a fascinating section on nonverbal communication that will greatly assist those is cross-cultural settings to appropriately evaluate cultural difficulties and comprehend why misunderstandings occur.

The difficulty of the Christian missionary in dealing with other religions is honestly and insightfully considered in the chapter entitled “The Ethical Challenge of Other Religions.”  He describes his approach as epistemologically pluralist, inclusivist when exploring the mystery of grace and exclusivist when dealing with the ultimate truth of God in Christ.  A positive and profitable emphasis is given to a dialogical approach towards other religions as providing the appropriate arena for both learning from and challenging other belief systems.

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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development