Monday, July 11, 2016

Cultural Awareness... the key to effective mission and connection in todays world

You should "Read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other".

That quote has been attributed for years to the great German theologian Karl Barth. While the Barth Center has been unable to authenticate that he actually said it, the quote lives on in theological mythology, t-shirts and numerous quote books.

Perhaps because authorship does not matter. What matters is the reality of what is being said.

Stop and think about that statement for a moment. We are to have an awareness of what is happening around us. For the sake of the Gospel!

The Mexican Chupacabra

Years ago I was in Baja California talking to a family I'd known for years. They had made me breakfast at their very "rural house." As we talked, Gloria told me a few of their chickens had been killed recently, probably by the Chupacabra. The Chupacabra is a legend in the rural areas of Mexico. It's famous for killing animals, babies and causing all sorts of general mayhem. Think of it as the Mexican version of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot.

The truth of the legend did not, and does not matter. What mattered is that Gloria, and indeed, millions of Mexicans across the country were aware of the Chupacabra. 

Later that week I was walking with another missionary who knew Gloria and who had also served in her village for years. I shared with him her concerns about her missing chickens and that she felt it was the Chupacabra. I expected that we'd be able to share a little laugh together. What ensued has stayed with me to this day.

That missionary, after spending almost 20 years serving in Mexico, had no idea what the Chupacabra was. He said he tried to keep his focus on God and did not involve himself much with locals events, news or culture.

If I could've sued that missionary for malpractice I would have do so. How is it possible that a person serving a specific group of people for any length of time could be so willfully unaware of the things that animate, or matter, to that community? 

Recently we have faced a significant level of unrest in Oaxaca, primarily as a result of massive ongoing protests from the teachers union in that state. In response to a ton of questions about those protests, I decided to write an article providing some detail and background. You can read it here.

Thousands of people across the US and Mexico read that article, shared it and commented. But two specific Facebook comments stopped me cold. One said as he shared, "read this article, it is the ABC's of what is going on." I appreciated that a local thought I had a good understanding of the facts. But it was the second comment that really hit me... another person asked how it was possible an outsider like me could understand the issues and culture of Oaxaca as well as I did.

The answer is simple... it's my job! 

As a missionary, I need to know and understand the culture where I am serving. It makes me a better communicator of the Gospel and enables me to better love and understand my neighbor. I spend hours on this. Reading, thinking, studying. Because I believe effective mission demands it.

If the church is going to have a prophetic witness in the world today, I believe this approach can not just be relegated to missions work "over there." It must be part of how we act and live everyday in our local worlds too.

Being unaware of the happenings of the day, needing to catch up with happened last week, or choosing to ignore cultural events make us woefully unprepared to effectively communicate the Gospel in a rapidly changing world. 

Most of you will never be called to "the ends of the earth." But you are called to be a prophetic witness for Jesus in your local worlds. That means understanding the culture, knowing what is going on and being able to not just see both sides of an issue, but figure how Jesus fits into some difficult situations. 

If we really want to change the world around us for Jesus, the words ascribed to Barth are as relevant here in the US today as they are in my missions work in Mexico... 

Read the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other!


dmarks said...

We need more notes from you, Dave.

Dave Miller said...

Thanks DMarks...

Dave Miller said...

Check me on the travel side of Mexico at