A helpful model for missionaries’ encounter with people in other cultures was provided by Frances Adeney in the fourth annual Henry and Marion Presler Lecture on Christian World Mission on Oct. 22 at Louisville Seminary. Adeney is the William A. Benfield Jr. Professor of Evangelism and Global Missions at Louisville.
Adeney’s lecture, titled “The New Mission Worker,” drew from her experience as a missionary – or a “mission worker,” the Presbyterians’ strongly preferred term – in Indonesia. Her intent was to sketch and elaborate the process, termed by her the Spiral of Knowledge Acquisition, by which a mission worker ideally understands, learns from, interacts with and contributes to the people in his/her missional context.
As a biblical foundation, Adeney explored the remarkable and possibly traumatic process by which the apostle Peter undertook evangelism and table fellowship with the Gentile Cornelius in Acts, all at the urging of the Holy Spirit. Acknowledging connections between her thought and the hermeneutical circle of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Adeney outlined a six-stage process:
1. Recognize One’s Own Experience: This includes one’s own situation and life history, the mission worker recognizing that one’s own experience is contextual and therefore not definitive of others’ experience.
2. Bracket One’s Own Convictions: These include understandings, socialization, contextual assumptions, and theology. Bracketing our convictions, Adeney said, makes way for intuition, scripture, prayer and the insights of others.
3. Encounter the New Situation of Holiness: Here Adeney cited her initially disappointing experience of Advent in Java, where none of the Advent customs with which she was familiar were practiced. Realizing that her own experience of worship was culturally conditioned, she developed respect for the Javanese minority church’s emphasis on the atonement, even in Advent. It is crucial, she said, that the mission worker approach the new situation of holiness with openness.
4. Evaluate the New Situation toward Re-Engaging One’s Convictions: In her desire to adapt to her Javanese surroundings, Adeney said, she began to mirror Javanese ways of being: she became more indirect in her communication; she wore dresses, not slacks, to market; she walked slowly rather than quickly in order to avoid arriving with perspiration, regarded as unseemly by the Javanese. The danger in such mirroring, Adeney said, is that the mission worker becomes like a chameleon. “One of the best gifts the mission worker brings to another culture is one’s very difference,” said Adeney, a statement especially refreshing amid current emphases on the possibly disruptive effects of cultural difference in mission. “It is important to evaluate the new culture and re-engage one’s own,” she said. “In adopting everything one loses one’s own individuality and uniqueness. In adopting everything one loses the critical interaction between gospel and culture.”
5. Integrate Horizons as One is Changed by the Encounter: “Living with practices that are incompatible with one’s convictions can be devastating,” said Adeney. “Yet one’s own convictions also change.” Ministering in amid Islam in Indonesia, Adeney found herself adopting some of the practices of Ramadan. She did not adopt Islam, but her attitude toward Islam changed.
6. Develop a New Practice: This involves embracing new horizons and changing behaviors, Adeney said. A new practice develops for both the mission worker and the local people. The mission worker ministers in new ways with the people, walking with them rather than ahead of them. Working in a new context, the new mission worker develops innovative ways of working with people. (This listing of the six steps includes my interpretive articulation of what I heard and is not a verbatim reproduction of Adeney’s articulation.)
Obstacles to putting the Spiral of Knowledge Acquisition into practice, Adeney said, include personality resistance to personal change, and the natural human desire for safety. She cited an especially interesting example of holiness codes that can inhibit understanding other cultures: her own horror at seeing a Thai evangelist using a megaphone for gospel proclamation on a city street in Thailand. This sight offended her “more sensitive” view of how evangelism should be carried out, but in time she realized that it could be and probably was a culturally acceptable way to pursue evangelism in Thailand and that she could put aside her own sensitivity about the issue.
The process Adeney described could be better termed, I believe, a Spiral of Cross-Cultural Encounter and Interpretation. Inherently, the subject is not merely knowledge acquisition but the deep and complicated matter of interpreting a new culture, situating oneself in it, and developing authentic and mutual relationships with the people who express that culture. Indeed, Adeney’s own vignettes demonstrated this.
Following the lecture, a student asked whether contemporary missionaries – or mission workers – going out to other parts of the world today adopt this modality or whether they are stuck in older patterns. Adeney responded that it can be hard to move into a new paradigm and that sometimes the old paradigm continues. My own experience of training outgoing missionaries across the denominations (Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Reformed and Roman Catholics) is two-fold in relation to that question: First, most outgoing missionaries today are so sensitive to bad missionary history – both real and imagined – that they fall into the pattern Adeney describes quite naturally. Second, the process Adeney describes is not especially new, nor does it express insights unknown to our mission forebears. Rather, along the lines of Gadamer’s hermeneutical circle, it describes fairly inevitable stages of encounter, interpretation, identification, differentiation and re-integration that people experience as they are immersed in new cultures, whether they embrace such stages as a model or even resist them.