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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Advice for New Missionaries

This morning's sermon from Acts 21 compared the advice given to Paul as he came to the Jerusalem church to that the Babwisi would like to give new missionaries.  In the Bible, there is tension between the ancient culture of Judaism from which the first believers are emerging, and the question of how much of that culture should be part of non-Jewish Christian practice, and which pagan rituals are acceptable or unacceptable for Christians.  It is fascinating to consider these cross-cultural issues which arose from the very beginning, and to see that most of the direct written-in-Scripture commands of the new Kingdom are heart-level principles about love and humility and service and obedience and holiness . . with the specific application to various cultures left to councils and consensus of leaders.  In Acts they decide (1) it is good for Paul to participate in a traditional Jewish vow ceremony so people can see he respects the old laws and ways, so the Gospel does not negate all pre-existing traditions, (2) the believers from other cultures should not be required to become Jews, so the Gospel does not create a monocultural standard, and (3) there are a few things that the leaders deem worth taking a stand against in the prevailing Greco-Roman culture like sacrifices to idols and sexual promiscuity, so the Gospel does impact certain aspects of every culture it enters.  So much of the New Testament deals with the practical outworking of these issues, with where to draw the lines, and who gets to draw them.  Respect for the old ways (even recognizing God's presence in them), embracing diversity, and taking a stand against evil:  finding the balance between these three values threw the early church into turmoil, and continues to haunt missionaries today.  

So the preacher's advice to new missionaries was this:  
1.  Know our culture.
2.  Bear with us because we are poor and not so much educated.
3.  Learn our language, either Lubwisi or Lukonjo.
4.  Know our beliefs, because sometimes we believe in these small gods.
5.  Know what type of food we eat.

And his example was, that if you come to a home and find the kanumba (small shrine to ancestral spirits) out back, do not kick it down.  Instead, sit and talk to the owner, and be patient, until he decides on his own to dismantle it.  Excellent advice.  It is always a danger to think we see the evil in another culture, and find too many things that fit the third category above.  Instead we should look for more ways to honor the culture, to enter, to redeem, to strengthen its uniqueness. until the believers themselves sort out which aspects of their past were oppressive and wrong and should be left behind.  God is merciful, both to us missionaries who have over-westernized too much of the world  by painting in clear black and white strokes,  and to indigenous Christians who cling to their views in tones of grey.  

And lastly, it was a fascinating morning, because almost any other sermon I've heard on these Acts/Galatians type passages have interpreted them in light of a defense of salvation by grace (you don't have to be circumsized, or it's 20th century American religious equivalent of morality, to be saved) rather than as a defense of preserving old cultural ways (it's OK to keep circumsizing, to shave heads and pay vows, that Christianity is compatible with most aspects of cultural tradition).


Reach Out Honduras said...

Awesome post... and timely for our family heading into missions this year in Honduras. Beautiful reminders of sensitivity and selflessness.

Blessings to you!
The Waits Family

Dan said...

Jennifer, who preached that sermon? That is really mature Biblical stuff. I was deeply impressed. Tell them to keep at it.
Dan from an iPhone in Madrid