The kernel and the husk
by S. E. Horwood, Captain –
For many who have been able to engage in cross-cultural travel and relationships, one fact is imminently clear. All people don’t see or know God the same. This has certainly been my experience, and I believe I am richer for it. It is becoming a central guiding principle as the Body of Christ begins to look more Eastern, African and Latin than it does Western or Northern.
In previous generations, of course, this was not the case. Missionaries used to be exclusively from the “global north” and they believed they had what the “natives” needed. Their communication of the gospel was very one-way, and although it was moderately adapted (principally translated in the local language and dialect), they believed they brought with them the essence of the gospel. Unfortunately, the essence of the gospel (commonly called the kernel), was always wrapped up with a western context (called the husk). Consequently, the missionary would plant a church in Africa that looked very similar to the church in America.
For example, a friend from Zimbabwe recently told me that when he was growing up he was very poor. When he prayed, he always saw God as a provider, Jehovah Jirah. For many families around the world, they absolutely rely on the rains for a good harvest, and on a good harvest for their food for the year. That was his case. But then he moved to America. Now he rarely prays prayers for provision. God looks different to him today, than when he lived overseas.
This principle is also seen in the story of Joseph. When he became the prime minister of Egypt, after years of separation from his family, they came to seek his assistance. He had become so fully acculturated into an Egyptian context (speech, clothes, manners, customs, etc.), his brothers and father did not even recognize him. The Book of Genesis finishes with Joseph caring for his family. From a Western perspective that story speaks of God being present no matter how badly people and life treat you. But for someone raised in the East, the story says that no matter how powerful Joseph became, he never forgot his family. It was a different viewpoint on the same Scripture text. It was a perspective that traditionally puts a higher value on community and family.
The church benefits from learning how other cultures understand God, read the Scriptures, pray, worship, express emotions and relate to one another. In short, we all benefit when we transcend the limitations of our culture, and seek to understand what Jesus “looked like” in another culture. After all, every culture personalizes the reading of the Scripture, “He became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is what an incarnational Christ means.
Fortunately, contemporary Christian reflection on the communication of the gospel acknowledges how difficult it is to preach and teach the gospel without bringing one’s own perspective of that gospel. Recognizing that Jesus is seen differently across the seas and across the town can help us be less judgmental. Our lives, speech, and ministries are so culturally, ethnically and socially packaged that what makes sense to us is foreign and irrelevant to “outsiders.” But Jesus is still very real to them also. African Americans should worship very differently than European Americans because they come to their faith from a different history and with different struggles. Koreans, Latinos and Chinese all understand church, relationships and God a little differently. One isn’t any better than the other; it is just different. But it blesses us all to try to understand how expansive God is.
We have such a tremendous breadth of ministries crossing numerous borders in our territory. How much richer and more textured would our corps be if we crossed barriers in our communities to learn how others see and understand God? Not only would we spiritually grow, but we would be preparing ourselves for the day we will all sit down at the banqueting table, where all the nations will be dining together!