Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why Ethnography is Vital in Missions

I just came across this quote that I saved some time ago. It is by two German architects who were working on the restoration of Nepalese monuments:
Deficient planning is all too frequent.  Western experts usually have but a perfunctory acquaintance with the cultural presuppositions of the countries they are working in.  Their counterparts from the developing countries, often western-trained, sometimes do not wish to appear traditionalist; equating tradition with backwardness, they too readily yield to suggestions which set their own cultural heritage at nought.
 The only escape from this dilemma is to present the axioms of a culture in a comprehensible way, and to work out some of the implications these axioms will have to the community that shares them.  An attempt to disentangle an incomprehensible conglomeration, and to show the system behind a mass of seemingly disjunct facts, might help experts to realise that very good reasons usually lie behind what are, apparently, queer and peculiar patterns of behaviour. (Gutschow, N., and B. Kölver 1975.  Ordered Space, Concepts and Functions in a Town in Nepal.  Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, p. 6)
Gutschow and Kölver are concerned that Western experts involved in heritage restoration don't give themselves to really understanding the culture of the community that hosts them. Their local partners, furthermore, are concerned that they will appear to be uneducated and ignorant if they challenge the experts. And so the sensitive restoration of a national treasure ends up looking like a dog's breakfast.

It reminds me of so much that goes on as mission. Dedicated foreigners who have degrees in theology and mission partner with local believers (who, by virtue of their relationship to the foreigners are marginal to their community) to plant churches in an unreached community. Six months language study with minimal acquisition of local cultural understanding is followed by action on a grand scheme, drawn up in a foreign clime, funded by generous supporters, and approved by the local workers (who are they to challenge the latest ideas?). 'Queer and peculiar patterns of behaviour' are dismissed as false religion. The opportunity for careful contextualization is foreclosed.

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