Several years ago, Denise and I were showing a short Wycliffe film about Papua New Guinea to a church group. The film began with a “sing-sing” or big celebration of New Guineans dancing, acting out dramas, and feasting. The people wore traditional clothing…lots of grass skirts, gourds, bird of paradise feathers, and bark cloth. The rest of the movie depicted day-to-day life doing Bible translation in a New Guinea village. During the question and answer time afterwards, a person asked, “At the beginning of the movie the people wore their native clothing but after the missionaries came they wore ragged Western clothing. Did the missionaries make them change their dress in order to get the Bible in their language?” I explained that the traditional costumes are worn during special occasions and were not everyday dress. The people wore more western clothes like shorts and T shirts and “lap-laps” (a wrap around big piece of cotton fabric) for comfort and practicality. Really, it’s more about function and comfort than missionaries insisting on western clothing as a demonstration of piety.
Showing respect for the host culture while having impact as an outsider is a huge issue in missions. Oh my goodness. Carelessly imposing Western cultural values on indigenous groups is the ultimate missions’ no-no. Before most missionaries set foot overseas they have been thoroughly indoctrinated about cultural respect, cultural relevance, and cultural sensitivity. Most of us are actually probably a little too paranoid about making cross cultural mistakes. I recall walking with Denise in a village on PNG’s North Coast and she got a horrified look on her face. She said, “Oh…we shouldn’t walk beside each other. Women never walk with men in PNG.” I told her that it was probably not too offensive to the locals since they have probably noticed we aren’t from around there. I was pretty sure the cause of Christ or the social balance of the group would not be harmed by a stroll beside my wife.
Most of us take cultural relevance for granted here in the US. We unconsciously recognize what’s appropriate and what’s offensive without much reflection. I recently attended a Leadership Summit put on by a big Midwestern evangelical church and the event oozed with American cultural values. Most of the speakers were under fifty years of age, they were attractive and thin, their clothes were fashionably casual, they had all built big businesses, churches or ministries from meager beginnings, the media was impeccable, the timing of sessions came off like clockwork, and there was a tasteful smattering of color among the white presenters. I’m not knocking the event…it worked and was successful mostly because of the intentional focus on American cultural relevance. It worked so well that no one noticed the lack of Scripture use because the American values made the content feel safe and reliable.
All of this raises a few questions for me. I wonder why we don’t puzzle as much over being culturally relevant to God? We rightfully put a lot of energy into being sensitive to our own and other’s cultures, so why aren’t we as concerned about offending the Heaven’s cultural values? What would we look like if we entered His domain with sensitivity and intentionality? How would we sound if we were singularly focused on being inoffensive in the presence of Almighty God? What if we were as mortified to make a cultural faux pas in the courts of Heaven as we are of stumbling over the sensibilities of strangers? Something to think about…
You all have a culturally sensitive fortnight.