Mission Strategy Bulletin, New Series, Volume 8, Number 4


Jim Reppart


When I was a child in Sunday school we used to sing the song, "Be careful little eyes what you see. . . . Be careful little ears what you hear. . . . Be careful little feet where you go. . . . Be careful little hands what you do. . . . Be careful little mouth what you say. . . . For the Father up above is looking down in love. . . ." Now some 20 years later, as I am in the role of a missionary, I am reminded of those words. For a missionary is one who has been reduced to childhood once again. As a person in a different culture, he once again becomes a learner and an observer, full of questions, and prone to make childish mistakes. He is at the mercy of his hosts in this foreign culture. If he does not listen to his hosts, he may end up continuing in his childish mistakes, even escalating into greater offenses and thus ruining his credibility with the very people he came to teach the way of salvation. It has been the experience of a number of missionaries to go to the field, labor hard, preach repentance, baptize believers and yet still be known as "wicked" people by the nationals. Why is this so?

The missionary may be well versed in the scriptures, know 10 different ways to lead a stranger to conversion, have a complete knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, have studied hermeneutics, have a degree in missiology, preach great sermons, and still blow it as an effective example of a Christ-filled life upon the mission field. Why? Because the missionary's greatest enemy may be the very life-style that he lives, regardless of the externals that he attaches to himself. He may consider himself a champion against sin, and yet commit terrible sin in the eyes of the very ones he is trying to convert.

Much of this problem could be eliminated if we as missionaries would play the role of a child more often, seeking to know and understand the host culture along the lines of the little song we learned in Sunday school. Simple gestures can become a detriment to the beginning of a relationship. For example, in most of West Africa to extend the left hand to give or receive something is highly offensive. Parents specifically train their children to be right handed. The left hand is used for the more "dirty" tasks of life. It only takes one or two times for the missionary to be slapped on the left hand to cure this bad habit.

Sin and the Missionary

There are underlying assumptions that bring forth behavior in the missionary that are not as easily cured by a "slap on the hand". Most of these underlying assumptions come from "cultural baggage" that the missionary takes overseas with him, that when put on in the context of the host culture, become offensive and even sinful.

One such piece of clothing that comes out of these cultural bags is the American idea of privacy. To assert "rights of privacy" in the African context is not only at times offensive, but looked upon as an act of sin. Perhaps before going on with the illustration it would help to understand the African context for sin.[1] In the African's view sin is in breaching a relationship, or in doing something that may lead to broken relationships or unrest among the social unit. Sin is defined then, in a social context, much the same way that it was defined to the children of Israel in the laws recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The worst evil for the African is an act of witchcraft or sorcery where one seeks supernatural power for antisocial purposes. Harmony among people is what is sought by Africans. They try to be amiable, obliging, and hospitable to one another to avoid conflict and potential evil. A person who quarrels and bickers a lot, leading to social disruption, is looked upon questionably and may be labeled as one who participates in witchcraft or sorcery.

Thus in African culture property and possessions are shared for the common good of the social unit. In American culture we are more interested in the rights of individuals and the resulting privacy. Africans are people oriented. Americans are individually and thing oriented. We demand our rights of property and privacy. But this American "Christian ethic" is reversed in Africa. When I first went to Africa I would get very perturbed when people would cross my lawn. I would sometimes yell out the window, "Do you think this is a road?!" I would then be met with a look of bewilderment. I now know why. Now that I have participated more deeply in their culture, I'm aware of the stupidity and near sinfulness of my actions. Yes, to them it was a road. It was common territory, the shortest distance to their destination. In working with African church leaders, following in their footsteps, I have plodded through more backyards, sideyards, frontyards, and occasionally right through the parlor of a house to get to a house behind! Surely when I used to shout out the window the people probably thought, "What kind of devil does this white man have that he thinks he owns the very grass that grows around him?!"

The missionary's use of his vehicle is another "act of privacy" that may stab him in the back. As he drives down the road, he may be thinking, "This is my car. I paid for it. I'm not going to let all these 'freeloaders' take advantage of me." Or he may "spiritualize" the concept and say, "This is the church's vehicle. I must be a good steward of it and use it for the glory of God, not a taxi." In the meantime the people he refused to carry are thinking, "Why is he so stingy. He says that he's a Christian. Is this how Christians act? We could not act this way with our people. Look, his whole car is empty except for him." An ironic paradox, but true.[2]

In the midst of cultural tensions and frustrations the missionary may continue to express his "uptightness" in subtle ways that seem menial to him, but are abhorrent to the African. He begins to cringe when he sees visitors coming down the road toward his house as he thinks of the hours that may be wasted in conversation or palaver. He may not even invite them in, but speak to them on the porch or through the door -- a most cruel act of rejection.

Hostile feelings created by cultural tensions manifest themselves in some of the most entertaining ways. Frustrated missionaries chase crowing roosters out of their yards with an arsenal of sticks and rocks, scare children, shout at adults, lose their temper, and attack lizards and cockroaches with vicious determination. At a farewell gathering for some missionaries, an African lady told me that for a long time she did not like the white man, not even the missionaries. She went on to say that the missionaries who had lived on her street would not even allow a rooster to cross the lawn. It makes me feel rather unnerved to realize that a rooster can ruin one's whole hermeneutic process in conveying the Good News to a particular people.

Pride, Ignorance, Assumptions, Denial

Outside of pride or pure ethnocentrism, ignorance is probably the main cause for missionary persistence in a lifestyle that thwarts the ministry of Christ. It may never occur to the missionary to inquire as to what is proper behavior in any given situation, for after all, he came to teach the pagans right and wrong, and their moral obligations before God. If one would just inquire, he might be surprised how satisfying it is to know how to behave in a given situation. For example, I was always frustrated about the number of people who collected around our mango tree, stripping it of its ripe fruit daily. I would try to skirt the embarrassment by asking my worker to go out and tell the people to go away from the tree. He always seemed hesitant about doing so but I did not know why. After all, back home I could even press charges for stealing! Then one day out of frustration I thought, I had better inquire about this matter. My informant told me these rules. First, anyone is allowed to pick up the fruit that has fallen to the ground or pick one or two mangos within hand reach. Second, school children are allowed to even take a stick and knock a few mangos off the tree. Third, no one is allowed to climb the tree and shake it for harvest without your permission. He went on to say that I had better be careful for most people felt the missionary knew nothing about the proper behavior and would try to shake the tree, taking many mangos.

It wasn't long till I got to test my information. A young adult came and asked if he could have some mangos. I answered yes, as long as you don't shake the tree, for I had given this privilege to another person. My informant's prophecy came true, for within five minutes the young man was up in the tree shaking it. The test begins. I go out to the tree and ask him to come down. The young man looked at me with astonishment as I told him his own ethic which he had violated. The true test came when an old papa walking down the road came over to see if there was an exciting palaver to chime in on. As he listened, he looked at the young man and said, "The white man is right, you know." And he did know. For once I was able to maintain integrity through their own cultural system. I could walk away and not be known as obnoxious or even wicked.

Another way missionaries end up being odious to their host culture is by making the wrong assumptions. Again this is bred not only by ignorance, but also by the unwillingness to empathize and seek information from the host's point of view. In conversation with a missionary it was said that the "natives" were not strong Christians for they would not even try to make it to church on time in the rain! There are several assumptions being made here. One, a mark of a strong Christian in any culture is getting to church on time, no matter what the weather conditions. Secondly, it is assumed that the "native" could have easily made it to church on time in the rain if he really wanted to. From the missionary's frame of reference these assumptions are easily made. After all, all he has to do is grab an umbrella, run out to the carport, enter his vehicle, drive up to the church building, put up his umbrella, and walk a few steps into the dryness again. But what about the "native"? He's at a greater disadvantage. First, he may not have an umbrella. Even if he did, an umbrella is of little protection in a tropical rain. To him it is better to sit quietly waiting for the rain to die down and then proceed on to the building, as will the majority of his Christian brothers and sisters. If he had walked to church during the downpour, there would not have been anybody there to worship with him. Besides, one can hardly hear each other when the rain is beating on the roof. (Of course there might be somebody there, probably the missionary with his vehicle and umbrella. Together they could "faithfully" worship God!)

Sometimes it is not a lack of empathy that breeds bad assumptions but just a general lack of in-depth study of the people. For example, a missionary said concerning his field that there was no word for love in the language, indicating that the nationals really didn't understand the concept of love. Upon superficial observance of the nationals, one might think that this is true and even collect evidence to prove it. But one could do the same concerning our own culture even though we do have the word love. Upon close observation of the nationals of whom the missionary was speaking, two things could be noticed. The language he was speaking of was Pidgin English, which is a trade language. True, its vocabulary did not contain the word "love," but there was never a purpose for that word in a trade language. On the other hand, in their own native tongue, the nationals not only had one word for love, but several!

Wrong assumptions based upon superficial information can lead to a superior, paternal attitude and a view of the nationals as people incapable of grasping "deep" concepts and attitudes, people who are basically irresponsible and have to be taught the better way of life. This smacks of neo-colonialism and if sustained, the missionaries will continue to be targets of nationalism.

Another way missionaries thwart their ministry is by refusing to participate in the host culture. I learned this lesson from an old woman. My wife and I were working in church development in a village. Everyday an old woman with leathery skin, but full of vitality, would come visit us. Upon one of the early visits she brought me some plantain as a gesture of hospitality. Up to this point I was under the impression that it was best to generally avoid "native foods". Besides, she needed the food more that I did so as graciously as possible, I refused it. The lady sadly turned and walked away. A few hours later she was back. This time the plantain was cooked and ready to eat. In her wisdom and determination she was bound to teach me a lesson. She took a plantain in her hand and moving it up to my mouth, peering out through those deep brown eyes she said, "White man, never deny food!" With that, I took my first bite and discovered that there is no gracious way to refuse food from a hospitable African. To do so is to deny your participation in their life. It is a breach of relationship. Since that day I have learned that African food is not an inherent evil of their culture. Rather it is an open door to learning. For just as most of my own values and insights in growing up came from around my mother's kitchen table, my greatest insights into African life have come while sitting around the cooking fire, eating yam fu-fu and gound-nut soup. Usually if a missionary denies himself these opportunities, he ends up speculating in the void. This is a dangerous route, for as pointed out, one can build a whole case upon wrong assumptions and end up displaying wicked behavior or sinful attitudes.

There are other areas of lifestyle that could exemplify cross-cultural boo-boos of the missionary that stifle his ministry. Areas such as use of money,[3] concept of time, and role expectations,[4] to mention a few. Verbal abuse is a very sensitive one in the African scene. Without knowing it, missionaries, sometimes in frustration, exhaustion, or pure anger, say words that may be difficult to retract. Sadly, sometimes in ignorance we, the missionaries, don't know that we should retract them. Again I can use myself as an example. After a long, tiring trip, some missionaries and myself were changing taxis. This was the last leg of the journey. But first we had to bargain for the fare. This particular taxi park was noted for its loud, boisterous palavers over taxi fares. This time was no exception. Now West Africans enjoy a good palaver session but I was in no mood for it. As the palaver crescendoed over a 15-minute period, I finally resigned to the price and said under my breath, "just get me out of this dirty place." That did it. I had crossed the line from ethical palaver into sin. Africans can give and take in palaver for hours, even at the top of their lungs, but verbal abuse or insinuated verbal abuse is not tolerated, for it is a breach in relationships, a potential for evil. Immediately after my statement, the driver pointed his finger at me and said, "Look, we can palaver all day about the price, but don't you think we are a dirty people." With that I apologized and quietly took my seat in the taxi.

In conclusion may it simply be said that we as missionaries might do well to do a little less "preaching" and a little more confessing. We may try to justify ourselves by saying nonchalantly, "well at least God understands". But on the other hand, we may do well to remember that Jesus grew up in "wisdom and in stature and in favor with God AND MEN" (Luke 2:52). And we cannot deceive ourselves in thinking that MEN of our host culture do not notice our ways. One African author noted that he would like to write a book for missionaries entitled, Guide to Missionaries with these three chapters:

I. How to Establish Real Brotherhood

II. How to Get to Know African Pastors

III. How Not to Be in a Hurry[5]

So, "Be careful little hands, what you do. . . . For the Father up above is looking down in love. And if He looks down with love, surely He expects the missionary as His ambassador to look with love, characterized by empathy and compassion. We as missionaries must do so if we are to speak the message from God with integrity.

[1]For a good discussion concerning the African view of sin, see: Byang H. Kato, Theological Pitfalls in Africa (Kisumu, Kenya: Evangel Publishing House, 1975), pp. 40-45; John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (London: Heinemann, 1969), pp. 204-212; Benjamin R. Ray, African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community (Englewood Cliff, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1976), pp. 131-153.

[2]William D. Reyburn gives good insight into the missionary problems of material versus spiritual in the article "The Spiritual, the Material, and the Western Reaction in Africa." Readings in Missionary Anthropology II edited by William A. Smalley (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1978), pp. 77-82.

[3]See Albert Buckwater, Joseph E. Grimes, William D. Reyburn, "How Do I Adjust to Giving?", Readings in Missionary Anthropology edited by William A. Smalley (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1974), pp. 292-301.

[4]See William D. Reyburn, "Identification in the Missionary Task," Readings in Missionary Anthropology II edited by William A. Smalley (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1978), pp. 746-760.

[5]Bengt Sundkler, The Christian Ministry in Africa (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1960), p. 96.

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