My way or the highway


by Geir Engoy –
Cross Cultural Ministries

Is the American dream the same as Christian reality? How is the ‘pursuit of happiness’ compatible with biblical ‘joy never ending’? Does ‘freedom for all’ contain the same essence as does the freedom found in Christ? Are we guilty of–unconsciously?–thinking that those who adopt Western ways are somehow more Christian?


We will at all times seek to be knowledgeable of, sensitive to, and discerning of the differences in the cultures and sub-cultures we serve.

I was attending a conference on cross-cultural issues. One of the presenters, an American seminary professor, taught for many years in India. In an effort to contextualize his presentation, he wanted to produce a course on Indian theology. Because of the traditional Western-oriented teaching by Western missionaries, the local students and professors were unable to produce material for such a class. Everything they knew about Christianity had been taught from a Western point of view! The lecturer expressed irony over the fact that he, as an American, taught the locals about their own theology.

It is a sad indictment on us when members of other groups of people equate our Western culture bound traditions with the Gospel. We have not done enough to correct this misconception. Therefore, we do well to examine carefully–as in the first paragraph–how we allow things which “made this country great” to overlap into definitions of the Gospel. Ethnocentrism occurs in all cultures, and we err by making acceptance of Western culture a prerequisite for sharing the Gospel.

Does this have any relevancy to what we do in The Salvation Army? Do we allow native and ethnic peoples to implement theology through their own world view, instead of merely recycling Western implants? We often provide our answers to their situation. If we make the effort to listen to their questions first, we will often find that they are asking different questions which will require some serious thinking and working out on our part. Surprisingly to some people, the best results will come when we cooperate in this endeavor. We may have more biblical knowledge, but members of our target groups certainly understand their own culture and what makes them tick better than outsiders do.

There is danger for The Salvation Army if we impose on ethnic minority groups Western ways of doing theology, which often came in response to circumstances in the distant past.

We may argue that we have 50 or 100 years experience in Christian ministry and know “how it works”–and assume that the same approach will work equally well in all cultures. We may have 50 or 100 years’ Christian experience in our culture, but in the culture of our target group we have limited experience, and even less with Christianity within their culture.

Christianity in the West is expressed through a Western worldview, which is marked by progress, individualism and materialism. These concepts are not easily grasped by people who have a different worldview, where other ideas are normative.

One of the hallmarks of Christianity is that there is no nationality or human made culture at its root. Consider a contrasting example; Muslims believe that God dictated the Qur’an to Muhammed in God’s own language, Arabic ­ and translations into other languages fall short of the “real thing.” We, most of whom have no idea about Arabic language and a very limited and stereotypical knowledge of the culture, believe that Arabic is just like any other human language. To Christian believers, the Bible contains the Word of God whether it appears in Greek, Pohnpeian, New Norwegian, or Arabic. That Word may be expressed through any culture and be as “valid” as in any other. God delights in expressing himself through our cultures. He delights in touching our reality where we are.

Because of this, theology springing from the same source will wear different clothes. That is why we need to be involved in cross-cultural ministries: To help each other recognize Christ’s face reflecting different colors, cultural expressions and languages.

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