A Lifestyle To Reach the Most

The problem with every culture is that it is in fact a spectrum of subcultures. Sure, there are broad trends that group these countless subcultures under valid, larger headings. But city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, family to family, culture varies. Not only does it vary, but it also changes over time. This leaves the missionary (or any Christian really) who hopes to do good contextualization in a difficult spot. How do we get an accurate picture of said culture and then how do we choose a missionary posture within it so that we can reach the most?

“Learn from the locals,” might be the given response to the question of how to get an accurate picture of a particular culture. But again, the problem is, which locals? Darius* is a young college-educated city kid from a tolerant middle class family. Harry* grew up in a village, worked as a shepherd boy, and now lives in a neighborhood full of his violent fellow tribesmen and Salafis. Mr. Talent’s* father is a powerful retired general. They live very well-off in a more liberal part of town. Ask these three local men separately what their culture says on a given topic and you are likely to get three very different answers. Does this mean we reject any data from them as invalid? Not at all. But neither do we treat it as carved-in-stone cultural law. Instead, we can take note of it and place it on the cultural spectrum. “Some locals do things this way.”

By carefully placing the some there, we save ourselves from being thrown later when another local contradicts our original cultural informant. We also in this way prepare our minds for the flexibility needed to engage an actual living culture, with its many shifts, variations, and complexities. Yes, we learn from the locals, but we do so by treating their cultural advice as one true part of the picture – a picture that will take a long time to fill out. Their feedback is valid and important, but not sufficient for getting a final picture of the broader culture. It’s worth noting here that locals are just like us and tend to project their own personal subculture as authoritative over the rest of their culture. We need to be aware of this, as often they are not, even as none of used to be aware of our own propensity to do this. In time, self-awareness and cross-cultural friendships will chip away at this.

Learn from the locals, yes, but make sure to learn from all the locals, including those that contradict each other. Together they represent a snapshot of this living, morphing societal system of values, customs, and behaviors that we call the culture.

So then, how should we choose to live within this spectrum of subcultures? Much here depends on one’s particular goal. But for missionaries like us who desire to see healthy churches planted that will reach their own people, we want to find a lifestyle that is accessible for as many locals as possible. This means we will avoid the poles, intentionally not living like the most traditional and not living like the most liberal. Even though in Islamic societies, the latter is usually more comfortable for us. And even though others might assume that going full conservative is the really radical and effective thing to do. Instead, we aim for somewhere in the middle, the kind of place where we can have friends from among the social-media-shaped youth as well as the Salafi-leaning Islamic families.

This means our wives might sometimes get teased by their single university friends for not showing more skin, but they will still be able to befriend the girl in the hijab, even though their hair is not covered, because their clothing still communicates the reputation of an honorable and modest woman. In a society where female appearance is extremely important, dressing for the respectable middle gives them access to almost the entire spectrum of local women.

This may also mean valid lifestyle differences among missionaries. My family eats pork – when we can get it smuggled in that is. Other families choose not to. Both of us have chosen to eat or not eat because we believe that will help us with gospel access to the greatest number of locals.

The key is to attempt to make these lifestyle choices intentionally, rather than an easy default to what we prefer or even a default to what one local friend says. The longer we live in a given culture, the more we will be able to make these contextualization choices in an informed way. Newer missionaries can get worried about their living situations being too Western or too local, but they should relax. If they are studying the language and culture and making local friends, they’ll be in a great spot to find their own posture a couple years in.

We want the gospel to be the stumbling block, not our lifestyle choices. That means we need to understand the culture in all its messy diversity. Embracing the idea of the culture as a spectrum can help with this. That understanding of the culture can then lead to clarity regarding any unnecessary stumbling blocks that need to be removed, and what kind of proactive lifestyle needs to be embraced for access to the most.

No one gets this perfect, but the beauty of a culture’s messy diversity means that even your cultural faux pas might be taken as a positive by at least some locals – even if they’re the rebels. And there is some measure of relief in that. God’s sovereignty often turns our blunders into our breakthroughs. Perhaps those cultural rebels will be exactly the ones you are supposed to reach.

*names changed for security

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

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