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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Becoming One with Your People

Throughout our study so far, we have assumed that the ideal model for cross-cultural relationships is the incarnation. If so, the guideline for creating the biculture is identification. As missionaries we need to

identify as closely as possible with the people

among whom we serve, for in so doing we are able to carry the gospel farther across the bicultural bridge. The distance between cultures is often great. The farther we bring the gospel, the more effective will be its acceptance and the less distance the national leaders must carry it to make it indigenous in their culture.

Stephen Neill, a veteran missionary, calls us to become

adopted members of the society we serve.

We would then not be "missionaries," but members of the local church and brothers and sisters to the local Christians. We would be "missionaries" only when we return to the countries we have left. There we would serve as advocates for our adopted church.

We have already seen that identification can take place on several levels. On the surface it is a question of lifestyle. We can learn to like local foods, travel by native modes of transportation, and wear the national dress. We can adapt our time schedules and pace of life to that around us,

taking time to listen and learn from the people.

All this is important, but in the end we must recognize our human limitations. It may be psychologically and physically impossible for us to adopt the local lifestyle in full, although we can usually go further in doing so than we normally expect. Moreover, living like the people does not lie at the heart of identification.

We can adopt the local ways, yet still maintain attitudes of authority and superiority.

If we assume that missionaries must be the heads of institutions, we may refuse to serve under local administrators, doctors, or church officials.

At a deeper level we can identify with the people in their varying roles. We can take our place within the social organization of the local church as teachers, doctors, nurses, and preachers in positions assigned us by the national church and working with and under other local leaders. This identification, too, is important, since it helps break down the segregation between missionaries and national leaders that has characterized much of North American missions.

Even when we assume native roles within the society,

we may still carry unconscious feelings of superiority.

At the deepest level, identification must begin with attitudes: with a sense of love and oneness with the people and an appreciation for their culture and history. If these feelings are present, identification on the level of roles and lifestyle is much easier. If they are not, the people will soon know it, no matter how much we identify with them on the other levels. Our paramessages will clearly communicate to them any attitude of distance or superiority, which reflects a hidden contempt for them and their culture.

We are not called to introduce cultural innovations, except as these help the people and the churches. On the other hand, we should not stop culture changes when the people themselves choose them.

We must identify with the people in both their existing culture and their aspirations for a better life.

Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries

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