Learning Culture: 5 Implications for Missionaries

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Most aspects of culture are learnt in early childhood before you know how to reason. You learn everyday things like how to greet; how to dress; what, when, and how to eat; when to go to bed; how to say “no” politely; and how to relate to strangers, friends, and people in authority.

Your concepts of family, friendship, relationships, property, privacy, time, and space are developed through parental training and reinforced through social interaction.

Rules of proper behavior are reinforced through sanctions. You learn additional skills in connection with schooling and career training. All these ideas and skills help you to make sense out of life and solve daily problems.

In the end you feel that life is “normal” as long as you can integrate what you learn into your cultural frameworks of understanding.

Three Observations

Culture is a total way of life and therefore pervasive.

There is no society without culture. Culture is a people’s design for living affecting every aspect of life. It functions like colored eyeglasses through which we filter what we perceive.

We don’t really notice the glasses until they get dirty, or until we start using other glasses. Moreover, you can’t change one aspect of culture without affecting other parts as well.

Culture makes life meaningful to its people.

It provides a society’s answers to the basic human questions all people face. These answers give meaning to life and provide an integrated logic to those within the culture even though they may seem strange to outsiders.

Culture makes communication possible.

People communicate with each other in various ways. Culture creates the symbol systems (e.g., language, gestures, signs) people need to communicate with each other in an understandable way.

Culture is reflected in language. Thus, without knowing the language of a people, missionaries will be limited in their understanding of the new culture.

What we have learned about culture has many implications for Christian service. Here are 5 implications for missionaries.

  1. Different is not bad. Each culture operates according to its own innate logic. We must be careful not to condemn people whose customs are not like ours as if they deliberately chose a perverted way of life.
  2. Cultures resist change. Since culture embraces all aspects of life, we need to be aware of the fact that we come to a people who already have a set of answers to their questions and a way of life.
  3. The gospel is a change agent. Before we can effectively minister in a new culture, we must first seek to understand it within its own context. Missionaries have often introduced changes without knowing how cultures change.
  4. Change in one aspect affects the whole. When introducing change, we must ask ourselves how this change will affect the total life of the people. Think of a car. You can’t change one part without affecting the condition of the whole system.
  5. Scratch where it itches. Because no society is perfectly integrated, Christians may find openings for witness in the problems and questions people cannot answer from within their own culture.

Culture is a more or less integrated total design for living in a given society and tends to resist change unless old answers to basic questions are no longer seen as valid.

What are some questions in your society which you feel are no longer adequately answered and can therefore become bridges to share Christian answers with people from your culture?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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