I was getting ready for the upcoming Biblical Seminary class on Anthropology, reading a course textbook, Charles H. Kraft’s Anthropology for Christian Witness (published by Orbis). This work, first published in 1994, is an indispensable work for understanding culture from a missional perspective, and therefore is essential reading for anyone who is committed to a thoughtful communication of the gospel and an effective kingdom mission. However, it does show its age. Our world has changed in some dramatic ways since he penned this work--in a word, globalization.

Kraft states a major purpose of anthropological studies as safeguarding our Christian witness from “the enemy within us--our own ethnocentrism” (xiii). A great benefit to understanding culture is that we begin to be self-critical in matters of cultural presuppositions--a vital skill in engaging cross-culturally. He goes on to explain, “One of our major aims in this approach to the study of anthropology is to learn to protect the people of other societies from our own inclination to make them like us” (2). The application for the missionary from the West is obvious, but Kraft also had this to say for international students from the Two-Thirds World: one, the study of anthropology can help you overcome the cultural inferiority complex that arises from being a student in a western education system; and two, it can give you the corrective needed against looking down on the traditional segments of your own home culture (3-4).

These are wonderful words from a major figure in contemporary missiology reflecting on the checkered history of modern mission that anyone who is involved in cross-cultural ministry needs to heed seriously. But in our globalizing world, where various cultures (outside the traditional Western hegemony) are ascendant, the applications need to be made even more broadly than to Western cultural chauvinism. For instance, should the same warning against ethnocentrism be sounded to missionaries from South Korea, who are now found in every corner of the globe? What about its application to the immigrant pastors from Western Africa ministering in Queens, New York, one of the most diverse places in the world? And what of the African-American and Hispanic Christians living and serving in North American urban neighborhoods which are now home to increasing numbers of new immigrants from places such as Cambodia, Middle East, and others? After all, Western white culture does not have a corner on ethnocentrism, just as it does not have a corner on biblical theology.

This is not to say that the legacy of the recent Western predominance in Christianity does not loom over the global church’s present-day missional endeavor--to deny its influence would be to deny reality. But there is much that anthropology can teach every one of us about our own brand of ethnocentrism, no matter what part of the world we come from or what culture nurtured us. And it is crucial that we struggle with our own ethnocentrism, especially now when we are confronted by a global world in which diversity is the norm, if we are to have a credible Christian witness. It is a tragedy that Christianity is too often being promoted and practiced as a tribal religion when in fact it is a uniquely global religion, with a unique appeal to our global world.

The good news is that Christianity is a global religion par excellence. Translation is built into its Scriptures (as Lamin Sanneh has pointed out so well, contra Islam which does not allow for translation and sees only one culture--the Arab culture--as sacred); Christianity’s redemptive history is marked by God’s covenant expanding, gathering and including all nations; and Acts as the history of the first Christian mission is a story of the gospel traversing cultural barriers, a trajectory that the church is to continue on until the consummation of history. This global nature of Christianity challenges our ethnocentric tendencies, which we all have within us, and turns us outward to embrace the other. It is a blessing of the gospel.

So, anyone want to sign up for future Anthropology classes?

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as a lecturer of Urban Mission at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission 


0 # None ya 2012-09-02 16:34
Your last paragraph is a load of lies, Islam does not teach that at all, it is the complete opposite. Religion and culture in Islam are two different things, and as prophet Muhammad said, "there is no difference between an arab and a non-arab, or between a white and a black, but instead only through piety." So no, the arab culture, by no means is held as sacred; it is the religion of Islam, and it teachings of tolerance for others that is held SACRED. Please learn your facts, and stop spreading lies about others, you yourself should reflect on your ethnocentrism coming from your religion/ beliefs.
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0 # Ali 2013-02-16 16:55
Muhammad said 'There is no difference between a Black and a Red.' His slave Zaid ibn Hatitha, whom he adopted, was brown. Muhammad freed 60+ slaves(but also enslaved women after battles). Bilal, the Muezzin, was a black slave who was freed after converting to Islam. Muhammad was of light skin, met many people of different cultural backgrounds(who converted), and preached his faith to all(Jews, Christian, pagans). He never once said the Arabs are superioir.
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0 # Kyuboem Lee 2013-02-18 07:04
Ali and None ya: Thank you for visiting this blog; it isn't often we get Muslim visitors here. I regret that my choice of words caused offense. By no means do I wish to suggest Muslims are any more racist/ethnocentric than Christians; certainly, and sadly, we find too many examples of bigotry carried out by those who claim to represent Christ (and those who claim to represent Muhammad). Nor do I wish to suggest Muhammad taught ethnocentrism. As you rightly point out, he promoted tolerance in many ways. And, as you rightly suggest, I should reflect on my own ethnocentrism, for we are all guilty of this, myself included. I want to express my respect for Muslims and their faith; I would certainly like to learn more from my friends and neighbors, and am open to correction.

My intended desire was to simply say this: the Christian Scripture uses multiple languages, and sets a trajectory for constant translation into many languages (and therefore many cultures), whereas the Quran is to be preserved in Arabic. Lamin Sanneh has said this in a much more elegant way than I have, in his books, Whose Religion is Christianity? and Translating the Message.

Certainly, Christians have struggled to accept the implications of this global trajectory of their own gospel message. The Scripture itself records the first Church's coming to grips with the new paradigm and its own ethnocentrism. (See the Book of Acts, esp. Ch. 15.) The struggle has not ceased to this day, and the Church is continuing to be called out of its ethnocentric tendencies by the gospel message of Christ, including myself.
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