I have recently been thinking about a serious problem in the reformed movement and conservative evangelicalism more broadly. It is actually not a new problem but an old one. The novelty factor, it seems to me, is that it is affecting some reformed ministries quite spectacularly. It is not just an American problem. We in Britain can be just as guilty. The problem is this: we have become negligent of our duty to be cross-culturally aware. We think we can do cross-cultural ministry without a single hour of training in intercultural communication. We send our pastors off to Ouagadougou to do pastor training without giving them any lessons in contextualization. We fund the translation of our finest books into Telugu without first seeking to understand how the Telugu mind works. And we set up seminaries in Burma without the slightest crumb of knowledge of how Karen or Kachin tribes people best learn. Shame on us.
How did we get this way? Here are six possible reasons:
1. We think it is enough to emphasize human universals: we are all made in God’s image; we are all sinners; Jesus is the only hope for all people. Those are all true. But it is not enough. The commission of the Lord Jesus was to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). Put that way, he meant that discreet nations rather than the general mass of humanity, have significance. It does an injustice to the Lord to neglect that by only emphasizing the universals and ignoring the particulars.
2. We have not mined the riches of our theological heritage. So we have an undeveloped theology of human creativity. The biblical doctrine of creation tells us that humans were given a mandate to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:27-28), creating culture from the stuff of creation. That includes language and customs, art, music, architecture. So the rich diversity of the manifold peoples of the earth is something God designed. Reformed people should know this. It has been a significant element in a robust Reformed theology since Calvin. We should recognize that diversity. But we don’t. Or won’t. I am not sure which.
3. We assume that, because truth is one there is only one biblically permissible worldview. This is false because worldview is, in fact, formed out of an interplay between one’s heart commitments and the environment in which one works out one’s salvation (Phil 2:12). So the world’s peoples look at the world differently from each other. They perceive time differently. They perceive space differently. They are more or less field-dependent, more or less collective, communicate in more or less indirect ways. Which means that the straightforward declaration of the truth is not as straightforward as we may like to imagine.
4. We assume that to teach the Bible all you need is to study the Bible. This is false because the communication of a message involves both a source and a receptor. In order for communication to be effective there has to be attention to the receptor as well as the message and the source. So we mustn’t take a sermon that we preached in Birmingham and preach it the same way in Bangalore. But you say there is only one Bible. Indeed, but when you take that Bible and you create a message you enculturate that message in your culture. That means it is no longer just the Bible. It is the Bible in your cultural idiom.
5. Personal confidence is confused for godly conviction. It is good to have strong doctrinal convictions. The problem is, though, we often confuse a strong doctrinal commitment for godly conviction rather that what it really is, ungodly self-confidence. We are naïve about ourselves. Whereas those we disagree with must be foolish and self-deceived we are not. We are triumphalistic, not humble. We assume we must be right on all our finer points of doctrine because we are right about the basics. Or because so and so celebrity pastor says it is. Where is the godly self doubt that should lead us to question ourselves? We have fallen into the Corinthian pit of self-deception (1 Cor 3:18).
6. We forget we are in a spiritual battle and that the enemy of our souls has a vested interest in the failure of our ministry. That failure can be accomplished in many ways. One way is by fooling us that we don’t need to pay attention to local matters, that what is good for Manchester is also good for Maputo. Another way is by lulling us into a false sense of our own effectiveness leading us to think we can do this with professional ease. So we don’t pray like we should.
So how should be fix this problem? We need to remind ourselves that we might not be right about everything after all. We need to get down on our knees and examine our hearts and repent of the pride that leads us to such hubris. We need to get a biblical view of the particular, take the trouble to give heed to it, and be more modest about the expectations we have of anything we do cross-culturally, especially if we don’t make the in-depth, long-term investment in language and cultural acquisition that is every bit as serious as our biblical and theological learning. I fear the reformed triumphalism of recent years is every bit as ugly as the charismatic triumphalism of a generation ago. May God have mercy on us.