Cultural Anthropology – a major branch in
the study of Anthropology – concerns the study of cultural variation amongst
human societies. The need for cultural anthropology in preparing missionaries
for cross-cultural work first gained strong recognition at the World Missionary
Conference in Edinburgh 1910 and, since then, much had been written about it.
This paper aims to analyse and compare
the views of Whiteman in his article “Anthropology and Mission”, with that of Van
Rheenen in his book “Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Studies”, and
Ligenfelter in his book, “Ministering Cross-Culturallly: A Model for Effective
Personal Relationships”, on the relevance Cultural Anthropology in Mission, for
both theological and practical reasons.
Incarnation was cited by all three authors as the fundamental theological
reason for cultural anthropology in mission. To reach out to humans, God sent
his son, Jesus, to enter into the human culture in order to effectively communicate
God’s salvation plan for humanity. Both Lingenfelter and Van Rheenen quoted
John 1:14 to demonstrate Jesus as the ultimate example of God’s cross-cultural missionary
– that he “became flesh and made his dwelling among us”.
According to Whiteman, the incarnation
demonstrated that God took “humanity and culture seriously” and argued that the
incarnation as a model makes the “important connection between anthropology and
mission”. In the same way that Jesus came into the Jewish culture on earth,
Whiteman propounded that missionaries must be willing to enter the culture of the
people they desire to serve – to make lifestyle adjustments to fit in, and to
understand their values and worldview. It was for this purpose that
anthropology would serve to provide invaluable insights that could help
missionaries in their endeavours.
To Van Rheenen, because God called on his
people to imitate God’s character, incarnation is more than a methodology or
strategy – it defined “the missionary’s existence in the world”. He asserted
that Christian ministry had to occur within cultural contexts, and missionaries
must therefore be equipped to understand the different cultures that defined
the people’s worldview, in order to identify with them in an empathetic and authentic
way like Jesus did. Therefore, in developing an integrated model of learning to
prepare missionaries, Van Rheenen presented the Missional Helix, in which Cultural Anthropology (termed as Cultural
Analysis) formed the second key element, after Theological Reflection.
Lingenfelter shared the view that as a
fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith, the incarnation has significant
implications on the approach to mission. However, in a slightly different take,
he was of the opinion that the incarnation of Christ was a divine act that
could never be replicated by humans. Hence, it was but a metaphor for us to
free ourselves from cultural biases. He urged for a shift from “incarnational
ministry” which he claimed implied the learning of a single culture, to one of “radical
discipleship” – to follow the example of Jesus in whatever culture we are
called to serve.
The incarnation of Christ was established
by all three authors as the theological connection for Cultural Anthropology
and Mission, although with slightly different postures. Whiteman used the
incarnation as a model for mission,
Van Rheenen stated the incarnation was the
very reason for the existence of mission, while Lingenfelter put forth the
incarnation as a metaphor of how
Jesus became one of us in this world, and therefore not an act to be imitated
literally as ‘humans could never “fully incarnate” into another culture’ like
Jesus did. In my personal opinion, all three authors were looking at different sides
of the same coin. The incarnation is indeed a fundamental Christian doctrine
that defines the existence of mission to communicate God’s salvation plan for
humanity, and it is a worthy model of how mission should be done. However, with
our human limitations, we will never be able to do what Christ did, but it
should not stop us from striving to be like him.
In tracing history, Whiteman demonstrated
that it took centuries for the application of Anthropology in Mission to move
from mere translation of scriptures into the concept contextualisation – where people should be able to “have the mind
of Christ within their own culture”.
Whiteman stressed that the lack of
cultural knowledge would result in missionaries falling into a blinkered
outlook and approach to mission. Failure to appreciate cultural differences is
contrary to the biblical concept of the cultural diversity of the Kingdom of
God as depicted in Revelation 7:9. He therefore submitted that to be
incarnational in mission, missionaries must be will willing to give up their
personal cultural preferences and biasness, including lifestyle, to reach out
to the people. At the same time, Whiteman warned that it did not require them
to try and “go native” as such attempts could be received with contempt.
Harriet Hill, in her article “Incarnational Ministry” which was based on her
personal experience, had also criticised attempts by missionaries to “go native”
as hypocritical. Whiteman maintained that missionaries, while learning to adapt
to local culture, must remain as a vessel of ideas and be able to present the
values the gospel would bring to the people.
In conclusion, Whiteman proposed seven
practices for missionaries to help them approach cultural differences: start
with the people where they are in their own culture; take their culture
seriously; approach them as learners to see the word from their perspective; be
humble and lay aside personal cultural ethnocentrism; willing to be vulnerable, and, to
identify with the people by living among them, loving them, and learning from