A confluence of cultures
By Emmanuel Akawu
A missionary family once lived among a Muslim people group for some 21 years. When they first arrived, they couldn’t differentiate between the names of people, places, animals, and foods. Everything was strange, yet, they had a mandate to put God’s Word into the hands of this people group for their own salvation, and for them to carry it to the rest of their people. How were they to proceed?
A tale of cultures
Any attempt to plant churches among unreached people faces the reality of the missionary’s culture, the recipient culture, and biblical standards for culture. Whilst the missionary must be careful to avoid exporting his culture, he also has the responsibility to plant local churches that are relevant within the context of the recipient culture, and at the same time, biblically sound. This means honouring the local culture yet encouraging conviction and transformation where the culture departs from biblical standards. How successfully this goes depends on how well the missionary has shed off his own culture (for Christ’s sake), how much he has been transformed by biblical values, and how deeply he has studied and humbly accepted the recipient culture.
Reflecting on our Lord Jesus, He came from heaven where He had the nature of God and knew all things, yet He took on the nature of humanity and placed Himself within a specific culture— Jewish culture of 2000 years ago. Born as a baby, He who knew all things had to learn a language and a vocation, and submit to and obey earthly authorities (Jn. 1:14; Lk. 2:46, 51-52). He varied His message presentation to suit His audience by using parables and analogies that resonated with them (Matt. 4:19; 13:13). He was sensitive to the government of the day vis-a-vis God’s Kingdom (Mk. 12:17). Following in Jesus’ steps, Paul declared his willingness to become all things to all men so that by all means, he may lead some to Christ (1 Cor. 9:22).
The absence of adaptation could be responsible for the presence of the Gospel among many peoples in Africa but with little or no transformation, whilst many more reject the message altogether and are therefore still unreached. May I further suggest that many remain unreached because the Church has not discovered or taken time to contextualize the Gospel in ways that resonate with the redemptive analogies in their cultures? The Word of God, when clearly understood, has the power and potential to redeem and transform any life.
The missionary family devoted the first eight months to learning the culture and language of the Muslim people group. They attended the few indigenous churches around to listen to sermons and pleaded that there be no interpreters for their sake.
The Gospel brings hope, peace, deliverance, victory, and more.
They visited markets, archives, building sites, farms, fishing sites, bus stations, and listened to the local radio. They gathered available Christian materials about the people, witnessed rites of passage ceremonies, and much more. Their approach was to pick up the sounds, gestures, and the structure of the language. Despite the absence of a formal language school or language teachers, in no time, they spoke the local language and understood proverbs and parables.
Learning the language and culture of a people enables an understanding of their worldviews, behavioural patterns and experiences. These remove barriers, foster effective communication, and facilitate the planting of contextualized assemblies of God’s people.
Today, many in Africa and around the world await the precious message of God’s redemption from sin. According to Joshua Project, approximately 17,428 unique people groups share our world, yet over 7,400 of them are still unreached!
The Gospel brings hope, peace, deliverance, victory, and more, with historical evidence of many traditions and cultures that have experienced the transformation it brings. However, this is no guarantee that people who newly hear it will readily embrace it merely by copying what has worked elsewhere. The nature and efficacy of the Gospel require an adaptation to enable it settle well and accomplish its intended purpose.
Emmanuel Akawu was a CAPRO partner in the 1990s before becoming a full-time staff. He has served in several positions and places, mostly in Nigeria and Malawi. He was the National Coordinator for CAPRO Malawi from 2005 to 2022. His family is currently on sabbatical and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.