One of a missionary’s most challenging issues is the relationship between worship and culture as they plant indigenous churches. Two extremes exist: on the one hand are missionaries who simply impose American culture on the foreign church; on the other hand are those who indiscriminately adopt the native culture in their worship.
Several years ago my wife and I had the opportunity to speak at a conference in Curitiba, Brazil. While there, I spent some time talking with a man named Rober (pronounced ”HO-ber”), who grew up in the Tikuna tribe in the Amazon jungles, and my conversation with him proved very helpful in answering this difficult question.
Christian missionaries reached Rober’s tribe about a generation ago. Prior to that, the Tikuna’s culture was filled with rites, ceremonies, and music that communicated their values of spiritism, witchcraft, and other expressions of paganism. When the missionaries first arrived, they witnessed a young girl endure a rite of passage ceremony in which all of her hair was plucked out. This ceremony was accompanied by days of drunken orgy, drumming, and ritual music. Such was the Tikuna’s indigenous culture. (You can read about one of the first missionary’s work with the Tikunas in Port of Two Brothers by Paul L. Schlener.)
I asked Rober if the missionaries imposed their culture upon the tribal people. His answer was simple: No, the missionaries did not change their culture; the culture of the Tikuna tribes was changed by the gospel. He said, “Little by little we realized that our culture did not fit with what the gospel teaches.”
After the gospel permeated Tikuna culture, the villages that were “Christianized” saw marked changes. They began to dress differently. Their music, rites, and ceremonies changed. Rober said they still observe some of the holidays that they once did, but these days are now treated more as times to instruct their children about the kinds of things they used to do and how things are different now. Their old culture was an expression of their pagan value systems; the gospel changed their values, and therefore their culture changed.
This real life example flies in the face of popular missiologists’s definition of “contextualization” today. Did the missionaries contextualize? Well, certainly. They converted the Tikuna language into a written form and translated the Bible. They didn’t make the natives wear suits to church, although their dress certainly changed. They communicated the gospel to the Tikuna culture, and as a result, their culture changed. Ironically, some may say that those changes look “western” or “European.”
But this doesn’t mean everything changed. Certain kinds of weaving and jewelry craft continue to this day. Rober said he believes it is actually the Christianized villages that are really preserving the wholesome “folk” culture of the Tikuna’s, not the un-Christian villages. The pagan villages are forgetting these beautiful artistic skills because they are enamored by another kind of culture, a truly imperialist kind: pop culture.
American culture has already “invaded” the tribes, and it is not because of the missionaries. Rober related that natives travel hours to secure TVs, radios, and generators, they hook up elaborate antenna systems, and they hunger to partake of whatever pop culture they can through those media.
So to insist that American missionaries should try to somehow “preserve” indigenous cultures fails on two points: First, some indigenous culture is debase and expresses pagan values that contradict gospel living; second, most indigenous culture has already been invaded by American pop values anyway. Pop culture destroys legitimate folk cultures. There really are very few purely indigenous cultures anymore, and where there are, they are probably so cut off from any gospel influence as to render them entirely anti-gospel.
The really interesting thing is that when Rober was growing up, as he listened to a Christian short-wave radio station, sometimes the station played classic hymns, and sometimes it played Contemporary Christian Music. Rober said that his favorite music to listen to was always the hymns because they just seemed to best express Christian sentiment, though at the time he could not understand the words because he could not yet speak Portuguese. His conclusions came not from some radically conservative, American imperialist missionary. No, when Rober surveyed the music of his own culture, western pop culture, or the western Classical tradition, his regenerated heart discerned “western,” “Classical” hymns to be the best expression of Christian values and worship.
This enlightening discussion with Rober confirmed something that had already been growing in my understanding: In missions endeavors, the issue is not whether western culture will invade the indigenous culture; western pop culture has already permeated most of the world. The issue is that many cultural forms (both western pop expressions and pagan indigenous idioms) do harm to the gospel and must therefore be rejected in missions endeavors.
And as Rober so eloquently yet simply expressed, it won’t be western imperialist missionaries who change the pagans’ culture—the gospel will handle that all on its own.