One message many cultures

One message many cultures: how do we cope?

Attempting to enforce one's own culture in religious instruction hinders the advance of the gospel.

Borge Schantz, Ph.D., professor emeritus and retired from Newbold College, lives in Denmark.

If I followed your advice on health," exclaimed a poor widow to the missionary, "I would exhaust my monthly pension in three or four days."

The missionary, a keen health reformer, had enthusiastically urged on her a comprehensive list of foods recommended in the writings of Ellen G. White. Well-trained in Western eating habits, he never bothered to indigenize his knowledge to the local culture. He failed to realize that equally healthy ingredients of a balanced diet were available within her budget at the local market.

About this time a new field president arrived and conducted his first workers' meeting. One of the national pastors asked the foreign leader if he would permit them on Sabbath to wear national dress. Many previous missionaries had insisted that black suits and white shirts with ties were the only proper pulpit attire, even though this was the tropics and traditional costumes were modest as well as more comfortable than Western suits. The re quest caught the president off guard, but after some reflection he decided there was nothing wrong with local dress. After all, paintings of Jesus portrayed Him as wearing clothing similar to the customary dress of that region.

A more serious example of cross-cultural confusion is something that happened to a civil servant we will call Mr. Ibrahim. One of the few Christians in a predominantly Muslim area, he was a keen Bible student with a special interest in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Mr. Ibrahim was also skilled in evangelizing people of his culture.

One day when the missionary perused the records of church members in his district, he discovered that the name Ibrahim was not on the books. Surprised, the missionary visited his home to learn why. With some sadness, Mr. Ibrahim acknowledged that he had never been baptized. A few years earlier when he had become a Christian and accepted the Advent message, he was a polygamist with two wives.

The missionary attempted to solve the problem by suggesting that Mr. Ibrahim divorce one wife and join the church with the other wife. Mr. Ibrahim readily agreed that the ideal Christian marriage was monogamy. The missionary promised to advise him about which wife was expendable after visiting the home and observing the family.

Seeing the harmonious relationship in the polygamous family, how all the children related to both wives, the missionary concluded that this husband of two wives would commit a great sin by divorcing either of them. Such an attempt to rectify a less than ideal situation would create something worse. Bound by the SDA Church Manual, however, the missionary did not feel free to baptize Mr. Ibrahim.

These incidents, different as they are, share one common denominator: the failure of many church leaders to under stand the significance and power of local culture. 1 The Christian message must be clothed in the cultural dress of the people to whom it is proclaimed. Neglecting this reality has hindered church growth, hampered church planting, and produced superficial Christians.

The three cases I have shared could be augmented by legions of similar incidents related by missionaries around the world representing all Christian traditions. However, since the Adventist Church is one of the most widespread Protestant denominations, we should be especially sensitive to the crippling effect of enforcing cross-cultural methods in our evangelism.

Concepts that influence

Let us examine four concepts that affect our ability to evangelize in variant cultures. Then we will review some models that reveal principles for cross-cultural communication. Finally we will at tempt to establish some principles for an Adventist contextualization methodology.

1. Concepts of language and words. People think that when they understand the words they hear, they also get the right meaning. Such is not always the case. Difficulties lurk within in one's own language in a monocultural situation; how much more when we go across cultures to explain Bible words, idioms, and images set in an ancient Middle East culture. We take many biblical metaphors and illustrations for granted. For instance, the Good Shepherd of John 10 effectively illustrates to us God's loving care. How ever, to the Hausas in northern Nigeria, the shepherd is a symbol of poverty and weakness. Therefore scriptural idiom must be interpreted adequately to convey the intended meaning.

Another biblical symbol, Revelation' s prophetic dragon, accurately communicates to Christians in Western cultures Satan's enmity against God and His people. In China, however, the dragon carries a completely different meaning. In the past it represented the emperor himself. Even now it remains a positive symbol portraying authority and good luck. In the Year of the Dragon (1988), Chinese parents thought that children born that year would receive special blessings.

In these two cases, biblical language and concepts must be explained and reinterpreted before they can be applied.

2. Concepts of time. The biblical concept of time is linear. Because of the Judeo-Christian heritage, we in the West have acquired this sense of time, a concept of history, a responsibility to the present, and a meaningful future. Such a concept, however, is foreign to many non-Christian traditions, for instance, African tribes, among whom we baptize many. Explaining to the African the biblical concept of future is not easy, for the simple reason that events that have not happened have no meaning.2 The Indian worldview considers time as cyclic, a continuum of life and death in an unending and uninterrupted pattern of existence and nonexistence.3 In such a culture, teaching prophetic time is not easy. And yet events connected with time spans involving the pre-Advent judgment and Christ's work in the heavenly sanctuary remain essential and must be proclaimed.

3. Concepts of morals and ethics. Hebrew and Greek manuscripts comprising the Scriptures are translated carefully into many languages, preserving intact the original ideas. However, people who listen to the biblical texts will naturally interpret them through their own cultural grid. Certainly this is the case in matters of priorities and ethics. A Bible teacher in his class had students from both Third World and Western backgrounds. When they discussed the story of Joseph in Egypt, the teacher asked what was the most important lesson to be drawn. Stu dents with Western backgrounds suggested that Joseph's refusal to commit adultery with Potiphar's wife was of extreme significance. This response came from the Western preoccupation with sexual sins and marital infidelity. How ever, some students from cultural areas where family loyalty and solidarity are uppermost might emphasize Joseph's active concern for his father and brothers during the famine.

Even the Ten Commandments must filter through the cultural understanding of the reader. The fifth commandment, for instance, bids us "Honor your father and your mother" (Ex. 20:12).* To a Chinese Christian, this command enhances the traditional parental role of authority in where their offspring live, whom they marry, what occupation they choose, and how they arrange their wealth. For some American and European Christians, the same commandment seems to allow them to place their elderly parents in retirement homes, preserving the highly prized Western concept of independence.

4. Concepts of soul-winning methods. In Western thinking, organization and money are important in all aspects of life. Even when dealing with strategies for evangelism, Western Christian leaders end up discussing how funds should be raised and spent, and which level of church administration is responsible for each of the different outreach programs. Actually, Western churches have "institutionalized" the spiritual gifts of evangelism, administration, and contribution. In many non-Western areas experiencing real evangelistic growth, institutionalized strategies are not so important at least not on the grass-roots level where soul winning happens. To those Christians, what count are people and the Holy Spirit. They regard witnessing as an integral part of their church membership. In their mind, evangelism is not dependent on specialists, finances, and organizations important as these are in their proper places. Jesus Himself talked about money, hardly as a means of evangelism, though; His concern was its competition with God for control of the soul (Matt. 6:24). Evangelism occurs naturally because a converted person is always prepared to witness when and where circumstances make it possible, regardless of financial conditions.

How do we as Adventists relate to all this? Are we prepared to accept the fact that the various cultures of the world have differing interpretations of biblical teaching? We believe in one church, one doctrine, and one common financial pool. We have one "eternal gospel" to give to "every nation, tribe, language and people" (Rev. 14:6). Is it permissible to adapt aspects of this special message to the many different cultures? Are there tenets of biblical teaching and our Adventist application of it that can be negotiated? Is it even possible that some of our "biblical beliefs," to a certain extent, have been influenced by cultural factors pervading the place and time where and when they were formed?

Three models

Let us briefly study three models where Inspiration seems to reveal some principles for cross-cultural evangelism. These could serve as guidelines for Adventist global mission.

1. The Example of Jesus. On earth Christ became one in culture and custom with the people He came to save (see John 1:11-14; Phil. 2:5-11). His lifestyle, practices, language, and illustrations were immersed in Palestinian culture, Jewish traditions, and a Hebrew worldview. And even here He seemed to focus more on Galilee than Judea. He intended, no doubt, to establish a stronghold in one homogeneous unit before commissioning His followers to branch out.

Consider Christ's visit to Sychar and His conversation with the Samaritan woman, where He made a clear distinction between a divine absolute and the Jewish cultural norm. First, we notice that He spoke to her freely, contrary to accepted Jewish custom. He could never have had a similar encounter at the well in Jericho. There, rabbinical practice prescribed that "a man should hold no conversation with a woman in the street, not even with his own wife, still less with any other woman, lest men should gossip." 4

The disciples, returning from buying food while Christ waited at the well, "were surprised to find him talking with a woman" (John 4:27). Perhaps they equated Jewish customs with divine ab solutes. Jesus did follow Jewish customs when they did not contradict moral absolutes, knowing that unnecessary deviation in minor matters would hinder His ministry among traditional Jews. Samaritan customs, many of which no doubt differed from Jewish customs, were not necessarily in disagreement with God's law. Divine truth can be expressed in many different ways according to cultural forms, and we should be generally accepting as long as the essence of the gospel truth is undisturbed.

In this outstanding example of cross-cultural ministry at Jacob's well, Jesus showed that morals and ethics are not to be interpreted by a single cultural form. His experience with the Samaritan woman provides profound insight into proper methods of personal evangelism.

2. The example of the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul was the missionary par excellence. His upbringing in the Diaspora and his mastery of several languages contributed to his successful cross-cultural ministry and adaptability. To this we must, of course, add the guidance and working of the Holy Spirit.

Paul accommodated himself and his message to the various cultures, even religions, of his prospective converts: "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I be came like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God' s law but am under Christ' s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings" (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

This passage reveals Paul's preparedness to sacrifice personal privileges for the benefit of those he sought to win for Christ. In customs and matters of lesser importance, Paul adapted not only him self but his message, as well. He was willing to let less significant issues in cross-cultural and cross-religious matters remain unchanged in order to present the more important biblical universals.

In the apostle's missionary experience, there is an interesting case where he applied his principles of cultural adaptation. Jewish Christians outside Palestine had problems accepting Gentiles who were uncircumcised and ate meat sacrificed to idols. Their alarm intensified as the gospel spread outside Jewish society.

The danger of a schism in Antioch necessitated a special council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35). Among other things, church leaders decided that Gentile converts should "abstain from food sacrificed to idols" (verse 29).

The Jerusalem Council was held in A.D. 49. Eight years later Paul in writing to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor. 8), made the question of eating meat sacrificed to idols a matter of individual conscience and interpersonal strengths and relationships in Christian fellowship. Do we here detect guiding principles for cross-cultural ministry? Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 pro claims divine absolutes, such as only one true God (verse 4) and brotherly love (see verses 12, 13), that apply universally to all Christians, but he distinguishes them from cultural variables, such as eating meat sacrificed to idols. Are we prepared to take a similar stand when the Adventist message crosses cultures?

3. The example of Ellen G. White. In 1895 Ellen White wrote: "The people of every country have their own peculiar, distinctive characteristics, and it is necessary that men should be wise in order that they may know how to adapt them selves to the peculiar ideas of the people, and so introduce the truth that they may do them good." 5

This statement, written at the time our church really was getting involved in world mission, calls for missionaries to adjust their message to their targeted society. She does not say that Adventism with its concept of unity should expect different nationalities to adopt one special "Adventist world culture." Instead, gospel workers should adapt themselves to the peculiar ideas of the people. In other words, cultural differences require different methods of presenting the truth.

Ellen White further stated: "The worker in foreign fields will come in contact with all classes of people and all varieties of minds, and he will find that different methods of labor are required to meet the needs of the people. A sense of his own inefficiency will drive him to God and to the Bible for light and strength and knowledge.

"The methods and means by which we reach certain ends are not always the same. The missionary must use reason and judgment. Experience will indicate the wisest course to follow under existing circumstances. It is often the case that the customs and climate of a country make a condition of things that would not be tolerated in another country. Changes for the better must be made, but it is best not to be too abrupt." 6

Ellen White reveals in such statements that she had an instinctive anthropological sense. She did not assume it possible to transmit the pure message of the Bible without modification for the hearer. Jesus Christ in His incarnation completely identified Himself with us so He could communicate God's message, yet He did not lose His own identity. While becoming human, He did not cease to be God. In our striving to adapt our selves to the peculiar ideas of the people, we too must retain our identity. Missionaries must empty themselves of all except their personal authenticity.

Adventist contextualization

Now let us consider some ideas about meeting cross-cultural challenges. Western Christianity assumes that many of its customs are spiritual absolutes even though they are not mandated in the Holy Scriptures. Among these customs are church architecture, church dedications, dress styles, worship format, manner of prayer, male-female roles, clergy-laity roles, funeral rites, wedding ceremonies, church officers, church budget, frequency of Communion services. These elements of our church life have their proper places we could hardly imagine Adventism without them. However, let us remember that Western culture has placed its stamp on many customs that Inspiration neither enjoins nor condemns.

Contextualization is a must for effective missionary service. The word came into use in 1972, although the principles involved have been implemented wherever God's message has been preached across cultures. Contextualization means literally "to put into context." In a practical sense, it involves presenting the gospel within the framework of local culture. Comprehensive Contextualization takes into account all factors that constitute a relationship between one community and another, including social, economic, and political matters.

In contextualized cross-cultural communication, the dynamics of gospel proclamation are multidimensional. At least three cultures should be understood:

1. The culture of the Bible. In the Holy Scriptures we have an expression of God's eternal will for all humankind. It is of extreme significance that the biblical teaching be rightly understood in its original setting. The teaching and stories of the Holy Scriptures must be understood in their ancient west Asian setting. In this respect, studies in such disciplines as biblical backgrounds, archaeology, and ancient history are of great importance.

2. The culture of the missionaries who bring the gospel. The missionaries must come to terms with their own worldview and value systems. They must know how to assess objectively the difference between what in their own experience is biblically based and therefore must be retained and proclaimed and what in their own experience is culturally based and therefore can be left behind. The apostle Paul, in his missionary work in the Roman Empire, had to decide what were God's universals that bound everyone everywhere and what was Jewish culture and therefore not binding on Gentile believers.

For the Adventist missionary, Sabbath-keeping is a case in point. The Bible teaches that the Sabbath is a memo rial of Creation, a day of rest when no work and trade are allowed. In honoring this absolute, however, standards of con duct will differ somewhat from Godthaab in Greenland to Georgetown, Guyana. The climate will certainly influence Sabbath afternoon activities. Nevertheless, in both places the biblical precept for right Sabbath keeping must be maintained.

3. The culture of the receptor people. Appreciating the importance of under standing cultural presuppositions and customs is what this article addresses. Missionaries must have an interest in the people they serve, which requires that they study local culture and religion. Recent advances in comparative religion, anthropology, and sociology enhance our appreciation of factors that influence society. These factors include legal, educational, religious, economic, political, and sociological dynamics of a community. All these are significant in applying the Advent message to a particular culture, since any emphasis on Christian wholism touches on health, education, welfare, stewardship, and other realities of life.

A note of warning is appropriate here. Christian churches are tempted to lose hold of pure doctrine and objective ethics when they accept uncritically that God's Word is always and at all places culturally and historically related. The Contextualization process definitely raises some problems. Adapting biblical teachings to the cultures of the world will bring the communicator into contact with elements that are false, evil, and even demonic. The sad result of going too far is a damaging syncretism, forcing opposing religious elements to coexist.

What principles do we apply in this Contextualization process? By what guide lines do missionaries accept or reject cultural customs? As already mentioned, biblical absolutes and not local culture must be the determining factor in Contextualization. The gospel is both an approver and a judge of cultures. Prob ably most cultural traits can be accepted and successfully used as vehicles for the Christian message. However, in all cultures, including our own, there are customs condemned by the gospel, and what is rejected by the Scriptures must be rejected by the missionaries and national leaders.

Another consideration is the adoption of a cultural element that disturbs oversensitive consciences. Here we are really dealing with the "weak brother" problem in 1 Corinthians. Paul said he had liberty of conscience to eat meat offered to idols, yet he did not exercise that freedom in order that he should not cause offense to someone else. The weak conscience should be respected, but it should also gradually be educated to be come strong.


The task of bringing God's eternal gospel to the nations of the world presents a demanding challenge in adapting to the many cultural groups. Yet such Contextualization is the most significant single element in effective evangelism. This element facilitates the transition of new converts from previous experiences to Christianity. It also increases the number of converts, since they can join the church without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers. All this is in harmony with the New Testament Jerusalem Council, where James, the spokesperson, concluded: "It is my judgment, there fore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19, emphasis supplied).

The time has passed when the missionary/minister/theologian can remain insensitive to cultural factors. We cannot preach and teach in the same way to every audience, be it African or Armenian, Muslim or Buddhist, Catholic or Confucian. The Lord of mission must grant us wisdom to differentiate between universals that must be proclaimed worldwide and the optional variables of Western culture.

* Bible quotations in this article are from the New International Version.

1. For the purpose of this article, we will define culture as an integrated system of beliefs (about God or reality or ultimate meaning), values (about what is true, good, beautiful, and normative), and/or customs (how to behave, relate to others, talk, pray, dress, work, play, trade, farm, eat, etc.), and of institutions that express these beliefs, values, and customs (government, law courts, temples or churches, families or schools, hospitals, factories, shops, unions, clubs, etc.), that binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security, and continuity.

2. John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (New York: Anchor Books, 1970), pp. 19-23.

3. Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincot), 1976, p. 358.

4. Quoted in The Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952), vol. 8, pp. 529, 530.

5. Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), p. 213.

6. ____, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 468.

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Borge Schantz, Ph.D., professor emeritus and retired from Newbold College, lives in Denmark.

June 1992

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