Mark Vowels, CGO Director
This week, we will consider the second missions mistake – ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the assumption that my culture is better than the culture of others. A connected idea is paternalism, which is treating others like children in need of guidance and care in all aspects of life because they do not share my culture, technology, or education.
Yet the glory of the Gospel is that it is transcultural. Following Jesus is not about where you were born – it is about where you are going. The goal of missions is not to reproduce ourselves – it is to reproduce Christ. When the Apostle Paul traveled to Corinth or Ephesus or Thessalonica, he did not endeavor to reproduce in local converts the patterns of Jerusalem Christianity. He taught them to follow Christ in their own environment, not to merely reproduce what was familiar to himself.
In order to follow Christ, new believers in any locale do not need to experience Christianity in the same way I did in my Christian journey. That is, they do not necessarily need to engage with the same worship style, the same music, the same summer camp adventures, the same Christian activities, and the same style of preaching. Our goal must never be to reproduce our own experience with the idea that it is superior to theirs. Our goal must be to authentically represent Christ and permit the Gospel to produce genuine, New Testament Christianity arising from the soil of their culture and reflecting their application of the Scripture to their situation.
Far too often, even today, we assume that our expression of Christianity is the standard which should be applied to all people everywhere. So we send missionaries who teach people how to be American Christians in Africa, or China, or South America, all the while forgetting that the body of Christ is intended to be a beautiful mosaic of peoples from every tribe, tongue and nation who are becoming Christ-like within the fabric of their own culture. Christianity in places like Timbuktu should not be a replica of Christianity in places like Greenville, South Carolina. Both should be authentic expressions of Christianity developed within their respective cultural settings which effectively reach into their respective societies.
The danger of promulgating ethnocentric attitudes is that it results in a local form of Christianity which is culturally foreign and therefore difficult to reproduce. If a missionary believes that in order for Christianity on the mission field to be authentic it must be a replica of his church back home then he will be consigned to remain in place until he can sufficiently “Americanize” converts who will continue to practice their faith “correctly.” This explains in part why it is so common for missionaries to plant a church and remain there as the pastor for decades. Further, if becoming a Jesus follower is perceived as embracing foreignness, an obstacle to the Gospel is established which has nothing to do with its core message.
Hudson Taylor, who was a prototype of contextualized missions, ate and dressed like the Chinese because so many there viewed Christianity as a foreign religion. He wanted to demonstrate that one could be fully Chinese and also fully Christian. So when a ethnocentric mindset missionary today seeks to replicate on the field the forms of Christian expression that were familiar to him at home because he
believes they are “better” or “more biblical” or “more godly”, he is in reality working against the essence of the Gospel itself because the Gospel is not perfected by any particular culture.
The days of carrying organs into the jungle so that people could “properly” worship Jesus are gone. We don’t expect missionaries to build red brick buildings with white columns and steeples so that people can fellowship “properly.”
Yet far too frequently, missionaries today continue to harbor the notion that the only proper way to follow Jesus is to recreate the experiences of their homeland by importing as much of their culturally conditioned Christianity as possible. They believe they are doing right. They believe that everyone should experience Jesus just as they did. But they fail to recognize that the goal is not to make Timbuktu like Greenville or Christians there like Christians here.
The goal is for Christians everywhere to be like Jesus.
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.