Force for Good:
By Peter Amsterdam
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“I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”—1 Corinthians 9:22 NIV
Successfully becoming one with the people we try to reach with the Gospel often has to transcend adopting a certain manner of dress or speech while in public or when with visitors. It means taking it to the next level by having a lifestyle that is in harmony with the local culture and is not perceived as offensive or unappealing to the very people we are trying to reach. The following excerpts highlight the ways in which the life of a missionary needs to harmonize with the local culture as much as possible:
Now, what principles will guide us as we adopt the local way of life? Well, in the first place we will certainly want to become familiar enough with it so that we feel at home in their homes. If we find their way of sitting uncomfortable, and their food unpleasant, they are not going to enjoy having us as guests. …
It is also in their homes that we may become really acquainted with them, and learn to know their needs. When we have become familiar with how they eat, how they sleep, how they work, how they play, what they like, what they dislike, what they hope, what they fear, how they think, how they feel—when we really understand them, then, and only then, will we be able to present the Gospel to them in an adequate way.
In the second place, we will want to live in our own homes on the mission field in such a way as to make our neighbors feel at home when they come to call on us. The fundamental attraction will not be externalities and material things. Even though I live in a little hut that is identical with their own, if in my heart I just do not like to have them around, they will know it, and they will not be attracted to me. But if not only the love and the welcome are there, but also a way of life that corresponds to their own, the approach will be made still easier.
This does not mean, of course, that I will unthinkingly accept all local standards. The fact that everyone else chews betel nut does not mean that I will take it up. But I will want, as far as possible, to live the sort of life that it would be suitable for a native Christian to imitate.1
It’s helpful to ask yourself whether your neighbors or visitors feel comfortable and at home when they visit you. Is your way of life so foreign that they can’t relate to it or envision it as something they could adopt or see as fitting with their culture?
The real deal
Cultural adaptation is not meant to be simply a show for visitors. Nor is it about pretending to be something or someone you’re not. It’s about taking up the challenge to “become all things to all men,” or as one translation of the Bible puts it, “trying to find common ground with everyone.”2 It’s about love in action, and a willingness to change and adapt because you genuinely love and respect people.
Cultural adaptation also means finding the methods and means that will be the best and most effective way to reach people in your city, state, or country. It takes adapting your presentation of the message, your manners, your dress, and your speech, if necessary, to effectively reach the people of that country or culture. If you are trying to launch a charitable project, for example, it means that you’ll seek to find out from knowledgeable sources or social action groups what is needed and adapt your approach accordingly. Likewise, you’ll strive to ensure that the way you present the message is culturally acceptable and will not unnecessarily offend people.
Cultural adaptation does not mean being like everyone else and doing what everyone else does. It allows for being different and unique, and for finding a niche where you can stand out with your skills and experience. You still want to showcase the things that you have to offer, so that they can benefit the people you are trying to reach and the work you are trying to do. Cultural adaptation provides the balance between blending in and presenting things in a way that people can accept and tolerate, while being innovative and striking a responsive chord with the audiences you are trying to reach.
As we strive to broaden our relations with others and bring more people into our circle of friendship, being culturally sensitive is an important element.—Adapting to people, rather than expecting them to adapt to our lifestyle and culture; showing a respect for the local culture, working within the framework of expected manners, behavior, and etiquette as much as possible; being perceived as a contributor and an asset to the community, and not just pushing our own program and agenda.
One of the more predominant failings of foreign Christian missionaries has been their promotion of Western culture as equated with Christianity, and even in some cases with receiving Jesus. This approach has turned many away from the Lord. It has also caused some people to fear Christianity, for fear that they would lose or betray their local culture.
It is so important for you to do all you can to become one.Some of the major and most obvious ways arethrough learning the language, eating the food, and dressing appropriately, but there are also other ways—like taking time to understand the culture and the needs of the people and then adapting your speech, altering your thinking, your habits, and even your personal preferences to better relate to them.
The Jesus we know and love “became all things to all men,” and that’s why we have the gift of salvation today. He did the ultimate in becoming one when He took on frail human flesh and lived and died among us. He loved us so much that He became one of us, so that we could understand Him, relate to Him, and know His love.3
Cultural sensitivity and adapting your presentation to become one is not meant to be an accommodation to the things which need to be changed, particularly those that are ungodly, inhumane, or that cause hardship and inequality in a society. Not everything we do and value as Christians will be in harmony with the status quo.
Many missionaries have taken on controversial causes for the betterment of people, which ultimately brought about important social change.—Missionaries such as Gladys Aylward in China, who helped to overturn foot-binding, or William Carey, who was instrumental in seeing the edict passed prohibiting sati (burning widows on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands), or Mary Slessor, who saved twins from being killed, or Mother Teresa, who worked with the outcasts of society, or John Goheen, who campaigned vigorously for literacy and agricultural reform in India, to name a few. But in each of these cases, they first became one with the people of the nation so that they could more easily reach the people the Lord had laid on their hearts to help without being perceived as a threat.
Missionaries may be involved in charitable works that address a social problem that needs highlighting, and in such a case, the Lord could call them to be a force for change. As Christians, “becoming one” doesn’t mean that you passively accept the wrongs of a society or don’t fight for causes the Lord calls you to fight for. Becoming one does, however, make it easier for people to understand and receive the message and to accept and even welcome your presence and contribution.
An important goal in cultural adaptation is establishing relationships—forging friendships, networking, collaborating, and welcoming people into our hearts and lives, while also entering into theirs. This allows people to bridge the differences between their lives and our lives and lifestyle as committed Christians, and in some cases, as foreigners. Becoming a force for good in the community will depend on people’s perception of you and your actions. For this reason, your respect for local customs, your dress code, manner of speech, how you care for your property, etc., will often be scrutinized, and if they don’t match up with people’s expectations, this can work against your witness, to where your talk and your walk don’t add up in the eyes of the local community.
It pays to be sensitive to others and conscious of how your actions will be perceived, as well as to be as considerate as possible of their customs. The goal is that people will welcome you as a positive influence—a force for good—in their neighborhood or community.
It is important to understand and be sensitive to the culture of your mission field. That means being aware and respectful of the mentality of the people, their history, customs, traditions, national holidays, and cultural expectations. Having an understanding of their main religions and political system is also important. It’s also wise to stay abreast of important news and events happening in your city, province or state, and country, so that you are aware and knowledgeable, and so that your actions and words are not out of step with issues of significance to your country.
As many of us move into new spheres of influence in society, whether through our mission activities, building community, school, work, or other new ministries, taking the “becoming one” concept to the next level can be very beneficial. It can be the key to opening new doors of opportunity to reach and minister to the many people the Lord has prepared for us to meet and work with.
Let’s do our part to open our hearts and homes to a closer relationship and friendship with the people the Lord brings into our lives. Let’s ask the Lord to help us to truly become one with the people He has called us to minister to, and pray that this will result in greater opportunities to reach the people in our country.
Originally published January 2011. Adapted and republished May 2013.
Read by Simon Peterson.
1 Mabel Williamson and the China Inland Mission, Have We No Rights? (Chicago: Moody Press, 1957).
2 1 Corinthians 9:22 TLB.
3 Maria Fontaine. Originally published February 2009.