As a Corps Officer with The Salvation Army, an international Christian movement, living and ministering in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, this unit of Cultural Anthropology has provided me with “an informed understanding of the cultural ‘water’ in which divine-human interaction takes place” (Kraft 2011, p. 89). My current ministry context is a multicultural and multi-faith environment that demands an insightful and integrated cross-cultural perspective to appropriately wade into the ‘cultural water’ where Holy Spirit is already at work. Our church is currently supporting asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Egypt, engaging in inter-faith conversations with Pakistanis from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, forming partnerships with an Indian Christian group and working with volunteers from the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Fiji, Iran, Mauritius, Vietnam and New Zealand. In addition to my multicultural ministry context, I live in a neighbourhood with a Sri Lankan Vietnamese family on one side, an Indian family on the other and a Tongan family across the road. You could say that I am treading water in very deep ‘cultural waters’.
The study of Cultural Anthropology has significantly contributed to my current cultural context and cultural sensibilities by expanding my understanding of the lens of worldview, role of missions and a posture of learning. It is also providing me with a framework of thinking to observe and interpret the underlying meaning of people’s worldview that informs and shapes their cultural forms.
Understanding the deeper level of worldview and how it provides the lens through “which reality is perceived and interpreted” (Kraft 2011, p. 56) has shifted my focus in pursuing cultural change to below the surface of cultural forms to consider the underlying cultural assumptions and meanings. In a leadership context, this has provided me with insights and language to lead our church leadership team through a process to examine our current church culture and identify the inviolable values we need to establish to create a desired environment for mission and ministry. I used the worldview diagrams presented in class during week four to illustrate to our leaders where and how we need to influence change at this deeper level. The diagram illustrating the difference between the slow change (unobservable meanings) and fast change (observable forms) was particularly helpful to this process. In a mission context, I was also impacted by Kraft’s assertion that, “The Gospel is intended to influence and change people at the deepest possible level – the worldview level” (Kraft 2011, p. 57). This quote prompted me to write a blog post reflecting on the implications of a transformed worldview on evangelism. In this reflection on my blog I wrote the following:
“We are called to share a message of good news that transforms the hearts and minds of people towards a kingdom worldview, whereby their reality is seen through the eyes of God who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Such a transformed worldview provides a vision of a redeemed reality where despair is turned to hope, sorrow to joy, oppression to freedom, death to life!”
Reading ‘Anthropology for Christian Witness’ has caused me to rethink the role of missions as I have begun to examine human behaviour from a cross-cultural perspective and discover how that shapes the way Christians give witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The author Charles H. Kraft relays a story illustrating some of the misperceptions that are experienced by the messenger and receptors of the gospel when there are differing views of reality. He shares the prayer that was prayed for three missionary recruits who were preparing to go to Nigeria: “Oh, Lord, help these young men to realize that it is You who are taking them to Nigeria, not they who are taking You” (Kraft 2011, p. 26). What a powerful prayer that somewhat challenges the paradigm of many missionaries and evangelists who genuinely believe they are taking God to not-yet-saved people. To believe that we are taking God anywhere is to assume that God is not already there. In contrast, this prayer affirms that God is already present and that He sends us to go and join in where He is already at work. This radically changes the context, content and conversation of mission for me. To go where God is already present opens our eyes to a partial revelation of God, opens our ears to interpret what God has already spoken and opens our mouth to speak appropriately into the conversation a full revelation of God through the person of Jesus Christ. It also highlights the need for a different mindset by missionaries and evangelists to realise that “we who enter other people’s societies from outside need to behave as guests” (Kraft 2011, p. 229) and therefore enter the mission field from a posture of learning and humility.
Adopting a posture of learning in a cross-cultural mission context turns mission into a shared experience of discovery and growth whereby the messenger and receptors are mutually benefited by the interaction. This has become real for me over the past couple of months as I have engaged in inter-faith conversations with a Pakistani Muslim enquiring about Christianity. While I passionately believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and he holds fast to his Islamic beliefs, I understand that our respective beliefs about REALITY will be defined by a perceived reality from both of our religious and cultural contexts (Kraft 2011, p. 17-18). Therefore, engaging in these conversations from a posture of learning has required more listening than speaking on my part, which is not the intuitive posture for an evangelist or someone with my personality type! Kraft describes this learning role of cross-cultural witnesses: “As we work with the people, we need to find out what kinds of questions they are asking for which they are unable to find answers within their culture” (Kraft 2011, p. 125). I see a biblical alignment between this posture with that of Paul when he spoke with the men of Athens in Acts 17, speaking into what they didn’t know without condemning what they did know. Finding the questions the Athenians were unable to answer by observing their religious practices and identifying an altar to “an unknown god” (Acts 17:23) resulted in some of them reciprocating a posture of learning by saying, “we want to hear you again on this subject” (Acts 17:32). Adopting a similar posture as a cross-cultural witness with my Muslim friend has opened the opportunity for both of us to engage in each other’s faith perspectives and experiences and to see where the Spirit is at work. This reinforces some of my previous learning about Holy Spirit and other religions:
“We should watch for whatever Spirit may be teaching and doing among them. This posture creates the possibility of a dialogical relationship. We can enter into the faith of others and acknowledge truths and values found there. These are our fellow human beings, seeking truth as we are. God is reaching out, and people are responding. So let us watch for points of contact and bridges of communication” (Pinnock 1996, p. 205).
With this expanded understanding of the lens of worldview, role of missions and a posture of learning, I feel my physical and spiritual senses are heightened every time I interact with people from other cultures. From sharing a meal on the floor in an Afghan home, working side by side painting with my Sri Lankan friend, to discussing new ministry partnerships with Indian Christians, I am participating in a real life laboratory of application of what I am discovering through this subject. An added dimension to this personal and ministry journey is that I travel to and from Tabor College each week via Dandenong Railway Station on public transport, which presents me with a smorgasbord of cultural diversity. Each trip feels like an observation assignment as I try to identify and understand “the forms, structures, and patterns that humans use in the process of living” (Kraft 2011, p. 133).
As I write this reflection, last night I received a call from colleagues serving in a remote area of Australia who are feeling pressured to commence ministry among the aboriginal people of their town. They have no meaningful connection with the indigenous population, little energy or desire for cross-cultural ministry (due to other more pressing leadership demands), and are being asked to commence a ministry without knowledge of ‘felt needs’ among these people. This conversation demonstrated a complete contrast between the situation of my colleagues and everything I am learning through Cultural Anthropology. Ill-equipped leaders being coached to introduce forms of mission without an adequate understanding of the underlying cultural assumptions is a recipe for disaster. It is these conversations and the insights and experiences I’ve discussed in this reflection that fuel my passion to be an effective cross-cultural witness within my community and organisation. It seems to me the more diverse our community is becoming, the more complex the environment is in which to communicate the gospel. Therefore, old mission, evangelism and leadership paradigms will no longer suffice if we are serious about being effective cross-cultural witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The journey of cultural transformation continues for me as I seek to integrate this learning into my leadership and ministry in The Salvation Army – wherever that takes me!