Angelina Zimmer, CGO Office Administrator
Language may be the most dividing factor worldwide. Without the ability to communicate the Gospel “how can they hear?” Following closely behind language, culture is another dividing factor. Once the truths of God’s Word have been translated into the language of the people there is yet this cultural barrier.
I come from the island of Yap in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Our culture is Asian in nature. We respect our teachers with the utmost admiration. Through stories, our elders teach us the lessons they have acquired through the journey of life. They tell us narratives of how we came to be on the island. Through a story our culture and history is preserved, being told and retold to countless generations.
When the Gospel comes into such a culture it must be done such a way so that the people not only understand the words of the story but also comprehend the meaning and weight of our propitiation at the cross.
When someone on the island has committed a crime of murder in another village, he can be held and beaten by the family of the deceased, villagers, and any others until his own family produces a stone. He is unable to defend or free himself.
This stone is not the typical rock that lines the ancient jungle paths nor is it any kind of special stone or diamond. This stone is a form of currency and could weigh more than 8, 000 pounds.
Depending on the size of the stone, the family of the man who was murdered will either accept or reject the stone.
If the stone money is accepted, the murderer is released and can freely come and go throughout the village as he desires.
No more mention is made ever again about his crime.
His debt has been paid in full.
Once the stone has been accepted the complete history of the stone and how it has been passed down from person to person is told to its new owner. Hence, Yap is known as the “Island of Stone Money.”
The Gospel story can be seen and understood through this cultural practice.
We have committed many crimes against a Holy God and will not be released for all eternity. We are unable to defend or free ourselves. But, Christ is that acceptable payment and when the Father accepted Him in our place, we were released to walk boldly before the throne of grace.
No more mention is made ever again about our crimes. Our debt has been paid in full.
We are bought with a price.
Nick Mauer, Coordinator of Outreach & Evangelism
Here’s a number for you: 1,700,000,000.
That’s about how many people live in the eight countries that comprise South Asia: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
That’s. A. Lot. Of. People.
Maybe numbers like 1,700,000,000 are boring to you. Do you know what’s not boring? Faces—each of the faces represented by that number. Each of the 160 million Bangladeshis. Each of the 180 million Pakistanis. Each of the 1.3 billion Indians.
The weathered faces of hardworking cobblers on the streets of Mumbai are not boring.
The delighted faces of giggling children chasing ducks in a rice paddy outside Dhaka are not boring.
The soft and wrinkled face of an aged great-grandmother in Islamabad, looking protectively into the eyes of her newborn great-granddaughter…these faces are not boring.
Each is fantastically interesting. Each of their lives is tremendously complex—it would literally take you a lifetime to understand one of them fully! And each of them is deeply loved by God. These things are true of people everywhere. People are people wherever you go, and they are complex, and God loves them deeply.
What we want to do today is focus on the 1,700,000,000 people in South Asia. What are they like? I’m literally chuckling as I type because generalizing about billions of people is a fairly impossible task!
My experience with South Asian culture comes from a combination of interactions with South Asians in the United States, conversations with missionaries to South Asia, and my own travels in South Asia. I’m not an expert. At all. But I do love South Asian people, culture, and food. And I long to see a throng of them—Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bhutanese—worshipping before the throne of Jesus Christ forever, filled with unspeakable joy. I hope you do too. This post is to help you love, understand, and reach out to South Asians wherever you meet them. There is so much that could be said, but here are some suggestions and explanations to start you off.
1.Relationships are H-U-G-E.
When I traveled in one South Asian nation, I was struck by how differently people interacted depending on their relationship. I was surprised, for instance, that strangers passing on the road would walk right past each other without any acknowledgment. In stark contrast, friends enjoyed extended greetings, long conversations, and slow partings.
Once, when I took some time to invest in a younger friend, he declared me to be his brother, and has prayed for me and checked up on me since then. When I taught a class of South Asians, I had to turn down many invitations to travel to their homes and visit them.
In the U.S., we like what I’ll call “milquetoast relationships” – relationships with some distance, not too intense or costly. We (hopefully) wave to the jogger on the road and chat with the cashier, but isn’t that often all we do with our “real” friends too? If you’re befriending South Asians, you’ll need to do more than that—invest in deep relationships because they’re really important!
2.Expect the best if you are the guest (and then return the favor).
A South Asian friend once told me about an American who visited him for a meal. The American arrived at his house and, upon seeing the massive and elaborate spread of food prepared for dinner, exclaimed, “Wow! Do you eat like this every day?!” My friend was deeply offended. Do you know why? He explained it to me this way: “I wanted to tell that man, ‘Of course I don’t eat this way every day! Do you think I would serve you the common food I eat every day?!’” In his mind, the question called his hospitality into question.
When South Asians show hospitality, they do so with lavish generosity. Be aware of that, notice it, express humble gratitude, and reciprocate. Genuine hospitality is the way to build Gospel bridges with all people, including South Asians.
3.Be aware of “face.”
I’m not talking about your eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. “Face” is a term that cultural anthropologists and sociologists use to refer to the image of ourselves that we project to other people. We all do this to some extent. In certain cultures (primarily Asian), preserving this “face” is an extremely important social concern. Whereas being embarrassed in America would be uncomfortable, being shamed in South Asia could be socially devastating.
In America, outwitting your conversation partner (correcting a mistake, turning their words back on them, etc.) can be commendable and may even earn you a “Touché!” or a pat on the back. In cultures that emphasize “saving face,” however, tripping up your conversation partner could be humiliating for them—especially if he or she is socially above you (in age, status, or rank). Embarrassing your hosts by pointing out a flaw in their hospitality—especially in front of others—would be the same kind of thing.
Be careful not to cause your friends to lose face unless it is absolutely necessary (for example, when confronting them about their sinfulness when presenting the Gospel). Face is a big deal.
4.If you are going to challenge their religion, try to demonstrate that you respect them.
As with many people groups across the globe, much of a South Asian’s identity is connected to his or her religion. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is, obviously, primarily Muslim. The Kingdom of Bhutan has traditionally been ruled as a “Buddhist theocracy.” Nepal is officially a secular state, but until 2007 it was a Hindu monarchy. Modern India was founded as a secular state, but even there, a significant minority calls for Hinduism to become the national religion. My point is that religion is not an inconsequential or private matter that a person feels freedom to consider on his or her own. The pressures of family, peer groups, society, and even the government can all play a part in a person’s religious decisions. A decision to abandon Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism often leads to ostracism, persecution, and even death in certain instances.
If you want to talk to an Indian, Pakistani, or Nepali about Jesus and the claims of the Gospel, it will be advantageous to establish trust by showing genuine interest and appreciation for their culture, language, and family. Then when you challenge their religious beliefs, they will hopefully see that you’re not attacking them, their country, or their family. The Gospel will create offense (just read Acts), but we do well to guard against causing offense ourselves.
5.South Asians are, per capita, the least-reached ethnic/culture bloc.
Lots of Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese, etc. know the Gospel and several million profess faith in Christ. But far more don’t. The lion’s share of unreached people groups (UPGs) are found in South Asia. The global center of the human population is located along the Pakistan-India border. We’re talking about a lot of people. Ask yourself this question: “What can we do—what can I myself do—to help bring more of these 1,700,000,000 souls to know and worship King Jesus?”
When you befriend a South Asian, you are doing something significant. When you share the Gospel, you are doing something momentous. You are loving one soul that Christ also loves. And think of the ripples that could be created throughout South Asia by your one friend coming to Christ and telling family, friends, and coworkers. May God grant this to happen.
I close with a favorite stanza of Chris Anderson’s text:
Look to the Throne for the sake of His name;
Think of the throng who will share in His reign.
Some for whose souls we pray
Will share our joy that day,
Joining our song for the sake of His name!
 3,374 UPGs out of 6,945 total worldwide, according to joshuaproject.net. A people group is generally defined as a ethno-linguistic group within a given geopolitical region. An unreached people group is any of those groups that are <5% Christian (any tradition) and/or <2% Evangelical.
Shadrach Nyeko, Graduate Student
When I first arrived on campus my freshman year, I was bombarded with a series of questions ranging from whether or not people wear clothes in Africa to whether there were lions hanging out in my backyard at home. Some people think that Africa is one big desert while others presume the whole place to be a rainforest. With all these misconceptions, Africa still remains one of the most stereotyped places in the world.
Many people in America have the idea that Africa is one massive country with no innovation or modern technology. That everyone is poor and disease ridden living in grass-thatched mud houses in the middle of nowhere. That there are wild animals everywhere and war is the norm – men carrying machine guns on the back of pickup trucks. While I will not take time to address all of them, these misconceptions seriously distort the understanding of African culture, and consequently skew our approach to discipleship (helping others follow Jesus) in this beautiful continent.
Africa is a continent of vastness and variety. The fifty-four internationally-recognized countries harbor at least 3,000 ethnic groups who speak an equivalent number of languages. Each country consists of many tribal groups whose different cultures are expressed in their language, music and dance, arts and crafts, clothing, folk tales, food, and religion. And although there are many similarities between the cultures in a given country and even across national borders, my attempt to examine the cultures of this vast region is still more or less a generalization. Because I was born and raised in Uganda, I will only speak with reference to the three main East African countries – Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.
One of the biggest drawbacks for those who have had a desire to minister in East Africa is the notion that Africa is not safe. The assumption is the whole continent is full of radical Muslims and rebel groups killing anyone who happens to be present.
In actuality, however, approximately 80% of all Ugandans and Kenyans identify themselves as Christians and 9% as Muslims. “Christian” here is defined in the broadest sense. It’s only Tanzania where there is a significant measure of persecution that records 30% Christians and 30% Muslims. With the exception of a few radical Muslim groups in Tanzania, most of East Africa is safe and free of religious persecution. There are no active rebel groups or “hostile tribes.” Tropical diseases like malaria do exist but treatment is readily available for most people. East Africa may not be as safe as the United States, but safety is certainly not a valid excuse for refusing to minister there. For those who are already serving there, it’s good to be careful but you would be more effective approaching the people with love and confidence as opposed to fear and reservation.
“… perfect love casteth out fear …” (1 John. 4:18).
Another integral part of East African culture is hospitality. The African traditional society highly values relationships perhaps mainly because a person’s sense of identity resides more in the community than the individual. Whereas this trait is not unique to East Africans, effective discipleship recognizes relationships come before tasks in this part of the world. Elders are highly respected and the responsibility to take care of children belongs to everyone hence the saying “it takes a whole village to raise a child.” This means that when you approach the East African people with the Gospel, you might want to target entire families, and communities as a whole as opposed to individuals in isolation.
In addition, the East African people are very expressive, and this aspect of our culture is more apparent in the music and dance, art and crafts, clothing, and language. Because this is so, the vigor and energy is not absent in the local churches. And for one coming from an American fundamental Baptist church, it may be easy to assume that the entire church in East Africa has succumbed to the extremes of the charismatic movement along with its health and wealth gospel. This preconception may cause undue criticism and therefore hinder effective discipleship. It is true that the church in Africa has been heavily influenced by the charismatic movement, but I believe it’s more important for those incoming to focus on Scripture – teaching doctrine. Bible schools, for that matter, are a huge need.
“…Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you …” (Matthew 28:20).
In conclusion of this unofficial incomprehensive compendium, something must be said about the effect of foreign influence on the culture of East Africa. There is an Acholi saying that goes like this: “opuk ma bedo inget bye doko kwa,” which means “the tortoise that lingers around an anthill will inevitably become brown.”
Beginning from the time of colonialism, explorers and missionaries, all the way to the current era of entertainment and popular media through the internet and other means, no one society has remained the same. East Africa is not an exception. If you visit an average protestant church in any East African city today you’ll quickly find some of the songs sung are indeed English Western songs. Beyond that, people are always listening to music, watching movies, and reading books from the western side of the world.
Therefore, one seeking to share the Gospel among East Africans, especially the younger educated folks, must realize that some their thinking has been heavily shaped by what they’ve seen in movies from the western world. Many a time these youth are heavily misguided in their thinking because they end up believing that life for everyone in the West is exactly like what they see in the movies. These notions of greener pastures on the other side have to be dispelled for the Gospel to take precedence.
All in all, we are different but the same. The same sin struggles only manifest in different ways. We have the same enemy, and the same Savior – Jesus Christ, the Savior of all men.
“…and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matthew 28:20).
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.