Should we force Christian Culture on others?

As missionaries, it is very important for us to go into foreign cultures and not try to appropriate their culture or to change their culture in such a way that it looks like our Christian culture. Our goal is not to make people who look like us. Our goal as missionaries is to make people look like Christ, to let their values reflect biblical values, not Western values. Old time missionaries often made the mistake of going into foreign cultures and thinking because they did church in a certain way, they worshiped in a certain way that that was the most godly way, that was the most holy and righteous way to worship God.

English missionaries, for instance, went into the middle of Africa and taught them to play organs and to sing western hymns in the English language and to wear smock dresses and things like that because that was what was important to them as Christians. That was a cultural expression of their reverence for God, yet it did not value the fact that the local culture actually was not at odds with everything that was in the Bible. There were certain things that were, and those are the things that needed to change. The way people dressed may have only needed to change in the sense of modesty, but they didn’t need to sing Western hymns. They didn’t need to learn English in order to please God.

Now, most of the time when I get on these podcasts or these video blogs, I run afoul of people who disagree with me on abortion. The comment section below will be filled with vitriol speech from people who think that I shouldn’t believe what I believe about abortion, and that I should leave women alone to make their own choices. I understand where they are coming from and disagree with them, but today’s podcast is more likely to run me afoul of some of the Christians who actually agree with me on abortion and agree with me in large part on missions. So I’ll say something that’s a little controversial for Christians and then I’ll try to explain it in a way that kind of diffuses this situation.

Our goal as missionaries is not to make Christians. Lemme say that again. Our goal as missionaries is not to make Christians. Our goal as missionaries is to make followers and disciples of Christ. Now, in the Bible, the word “Christian” was first used as a derogatory term. Later on it was appropriated by Christians as a way that we identified ourselves. In Revelation 7, when the end of time comes, as John looks into the future, he imagines tribes and tongues and peoples from around the world falling on their faces before the throne of the Lamb and bringing worship to him. In that sense, what I mean is we are not trying to make Christians. Our goal is to help people learn to become Lamb worshippers.

When we do evangelistic Christian missionary activity in Muslim areas, our goal is not, necessarily, to have people leave their Muslim culture completely, where they can never relate to any of their friends, neighbors, or family ever again. In other words, we are not necessarily trying to have them leave Muslim culture as we are trying to make these people within a Muslim culture, followers of Jesus Christ, and that which is displeasing to Jesus within the Muslim culture has to go. We want them to keep their culture and the reason we want them to keep that is because we don’t want them to come over here and start speaking English and dressing in smock clothing.

To Muslims, many times, converting to Christianity means, “Oh, now I have to eat pork like a filthy person. Now I have to drink alcohol because some Christians are okay with drinking alcohol. So now I’ve become a Christian, I’ve become a pork eating, alcohol drinking Christian.” The point is that we are not trying to make them like our culture. The point is we’re trying to make them a biblical culture to reflect Christ. Do they have to eat pork? No. They can retain their Muslim value of not eating pork and still be a Christ pleasing follower and disciple.

We get a lot of this from 1 Corinthians 9, “To the Jews I became as a Jew in order to win Jews…to those outside the law, I became as one outside the law, not being outside the law of God, but under the law of Christ that I might win those outside the law. To the weak, I became weak so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all peoples that by all means, I might save some.” We need to be very careful as we go into other cultures that we don’t teach them to become like us in our culture so they can express a biblical ethic. We want to bring a biblical ethic and apply it to the local culture.

This is why there’s a very important distinction in what Passion Life tries to do as a missions organization and what some other pro-life international organizations might do, and this is what is very important and central to our hearts. We want to teach the Bible and let people respond to how God feels about the Bible. We want to teach the Bible well. We want to not over exaggerate what the Bible says or underestimate what the Bible says. We want to help them understand through proper exegesis and proper hermeneutics how to understand what God is saying to all Christians of all time, and then to apply that to their culture.

For that reason, we do not necessarily go into all cultures and tell them, “Here’s what God says about loving life and valuing all human beings and protecting the unborn. Therefore, God wants you to plant a pregnancy help center made of brick and mortar in this area so that people can come and get counsel about saving their babies.” Not at all! If they choose to do that it is because that’s culturally relevant. I understand. That’s fine. We’ll stand behind it. It has been culturally relevant in the United States, but the Bible doesn’t say open a pregnancy help center. It says that we should value each individual human being from womb to tomb.

In some cultures, the best way of expressing a biblical value for life is going to be to set up a hotline for women to be able to call and make an anonymous phone call to have some sort of counsel or to set up a safe home. This is particularly needed for mothers who need somewhere to go and live for a few months until their baby is born so that their husband or their boyfriend doesn’t beat them. For some of them, it means that they’ll set up some sort of counseling ministry that goes door to door rather than brick and mortar.

My point is we do not presume to go into other cultures and say, “We as Western Christians know exactly how to apply the Bible and biblical values to your culture.” No, we say, “We are not experts in your culture. You are experts in your culture, and if you understand the Bible and you are willing to follow God and obey what the Bible says then the Holy Spirit will show you exactly how to manifest a biblical value of life within your cultural context that will be appropriate and most serving for all the people in your community.”

Missionaries, again, have made many mistakes by subconsciously imposing their cultural values on other people. And we try as best we can not to do that. We make mistakes. I’m sure there are mistakes that I will not realize I have made before I have passed away and I’m with God in heaven and can see things a little more clearly even in the past, but I can tell you every culture does this.

Some may read this and think that this is an American, white, wealthy desire to subjugate other people’s or other cultures. I can tell you every culture is prone to this with every other culture. When I lived in Asia, I was not good at living in the high altitude and the cold, and the place where we lived had scarce resources. We tried to make Western meals and there weren’t any spices to make delicious western meals with. The people taught us how to value using the intestine of the lamb for sausages. I’m not saying that I ever learned to love it, but I did learn to appreciate it because the local people had figured out how to use every part of the lamb.

It was not right for me to go in and say, “Americans, by and large, don’t like to eat lamb intestine, so I’m here to teach you how to not eat lamb intestine.” That would be foolish. It’s better for me not to mess with their culture to allow them to eat lamb intestine if it’s within the perimeters of what God allows people to do.

So in summary, today’s topic is a little prickly, probably more so for Christians than it is for the people who disagree with us on the abortion issue. But I just want to reiterate that as Christians and as missionaries, we always need to learn to value and respect the people to whom we are ministering, and to not try to make them like us, but to make them biblically based, scripturally informed, Christ-valuing lamb followers. We want to make people who are willing to obey the word of God in whatever way he shows them to do so. We should be willing to do the same in our culture.

I hope that is a challenge to you. I hope that it’s a challenge for you to go to the Passion Life website, to hear some of the stories of how people have brought a biblical ethic of life into their cultures, so that we, as Western Christians, can learn from them. We have lots and lots to learn from our brothers and sisters around the world. We hope that you’ll continue to join us and follow us even as we work through these difficult and sticky cultural issues. We’re praying for you. We ask that you pray for us as well.