Our Honduran landlord recently had our house painted. The painters worked in a typically Honduran way, which in the United States would be viewed as lazy, sub-standard, and unacceptable. White paint was on black paint, blue paint was on white paint, paint was on windows, and there were few straight lines or right angles. While it may be difficult for Americans like me to accept, the way the Hondurans painted the house is not wrong—-it just is. Why do we in the United States insist on straight lines, right angles, and paint that stays in one place? Yes, I know, you’re screaming at your computer screen, “Because it’s the right way!”
This type of cultural bias is one of the most complicated issues facing cross-cultural missionaries. The gospel is neither American nor Western, which is why it is imperative modern-day missionaries not revert to tactics of the late 19th century and try to impose our “superior” culture on the people we have been sent to serve. Though the gospel changes cultures, messengers of the gospel should never seek to modify a culture to make it more like their own. As believers in Christ we are called to sacrifice our old biases and adopt a perspective that determines right or wrong based on God’s revelation.
Difference Between Customs and Sin
It is crucial that servants of the faith not confuse culture customs with sinful choices. The culture of a people defines their common characteristics—-dress, food, music, language, sense of time, and so on. In contrast, sinful choices to go against God’s will are not necessarily shaped by cultural influences. Missionaries should not attempt to alter culture, but neither should they tolerate sinful choices. Those facets of a culture that do not contradict biblical truth should be left unmolested.
As full-time missionaries, our team has hosted more than 500 short-term missionaries. When they come to Honduras they often see things through a culturally biased perspective. Visitors on short-term missionaries often ask such questions as, “Why are Hondurans so lazy?”, “Why do they drive so badly?”, “Why are Hondurans always late?” These questions originate from the belief that our culture—-no matter what culture we are from—-is superior to another. While this is a normal human bias, it can be an unhealthy attitude in cross-cultural settings. As a cross-cultural missionary one must look at cultural differences and say, “It’s not bad, just different.”
As a missionary, I struggle every day to not view the culture I live in through a gospel-centered mindset rather than through North American eyes. The more I become familiar with the Honduran culture and fall in love with the Honduran people, the more I see how I regularly analyze Hondurans from an American perspective. This is unfortunate. The culture of the United States is just as sinful as any other. We in America often fail to heed Scripture’s call to change our viewpoint and analyze the world based on Christ’s standards.
Christians are called to not love this world (1 John 2:15) and to not conform to the world (Romans 12:2). The apostle Paul tells us the message of the missionary is supreme to the missionary himself. Paul did not get mired in cultural differences. In order to share the gospel he adopted the ways of the people to whom he preached (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Paul tells us that Christians become new beings when they enter God’s family. As brothers and sisters in the faith we leave behind our old culture, class, and beliefs (Colossians 3:10-11).
In his book Love in Hard Places D. A. Carson writes,
What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together because they have all been loved by Jesus himself. They are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.
Missionaries are not sent to change cultures but to deliver the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. When we as cross-cultural missionaries get bogged down in cultural biases we miss the point of missions. While we deliver the good news of Jesus we should celebrate and enjoy cultural differences without passing judgment. Christianity is global, and our multi-ethnic family should rejoice in diversity and proclaim our unity in Christ. Let’s not burden the purity of the gospel with our sinful biases.