Cultural Research as a Tool for Missionary Engagement

Missiologist and Bible translator, Eugene Nida, said good missionaries have always been good anthropologists. William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Robert Moffat all served about seven years before seeing their first coverts. We often cite this as proof of how difficult missions work in India, Burma, and China were, and that is certainly partially true. In fact, Judson compared winning a Buddhist to Christianity in Burma to “pulling out the eye tooth of a live tiger.

However, I believe that another explanation for the barren years of these men was because they lived in a time before we learned to appreciate the value of studying cultures and worldviews. They sought to minister among people as if they were still in England and Massachusetts. They had never been taught the importance of learning about other cultures.

Effective Missionaries are Sensitive to the Cultures Around Them

People are always building up trust or tearing it down, and sadly many missionaries are unaware when they are undermining their well-intentioned efforts. It is important to learn what people believe as we begin to reach, teach, and preach. It helps us communicate effectively and avoid the danger of syncretism—new believers simply adding Jesus to what they believed before hearing the gospel.

It helps us communicate effectively and avoid the danger of syncretism.

The time invested learning the rules of culturally appropriate interaction makes the difference between ending your career as a missionary with thirty years of experience and one who has had one year of experience thirty times. Be a learner and ask key questions to get inside the hearts and heads of your hearers. Qualitative research is the toolbox that contains all the necessary tools to learn the culture and worldview.

Qualitative Research is a Missions Tool

Good research helps missionaries answer basic questions in order to minister effectively among the peoples they serve. The following is a list of useful research questions to ask as you engage a new place and people with the gospel:

  • What peoples live in this area?
  • Where are they concentrated?
  • Are they indigenous, or did they come from another homeland? Did they come as immigrants or refugees?
  • What language do they speak? Which dialect? Is their mother tongue still a viable language or is it dwindling and dying out?
  • How educated are they, and how are they educated? Are they highly literate or primarily oral learners?
  • What stories would resonate with their worldview and powerfully communicate the Gospel?
  • Who are the gatekeepers and decision makers in their communities? What are their fears, anxieties, hopes, aspirations, superstitions, and values?
  • What are their traditional religious beliefs? To what degree do animistic beliefs influence their daily life, beliefs about death, and demonic interaction? Who are the traditional spiritual leaders?

Quantitative analysis typically refers to numbers, measurements, and percentages that one often sees in graphs, pie charts, or statistical analysis. It offers decision making, strategy setting administrators the information they need for a 30,000-foot big picture perspective of a country or region—such as the numbers of people who identify with various religions, languages spoken, ratio of men to women, etc.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, refers to information provided by boots on the ground. The questions above are answered by qualitative research. They are answered by getting to know the people in a village, participating in their lives, hearing their beliefs, addressing their concerns, and seeing past the numbers on a page. This research is helpful for missionaries who are seeking to minister to people in culturally appropriate and ministry-effective ways.

Battling Syncretism Through Research

Bible story-tellers cannot choose the right stories to share among a people without first knowing them and cultural distinctives such as their fears, views on sin, and religious beliefs. Missionary anthropologist, Paul G. Hiebert, believed that overlooking these crucial aspects may result in some of them praying a prayer and being baptized but the old religious belief not really going away.

In actuality, they pray to add Christ to the mix; and the old religion simply goes underground. It reappears in times of crisis, such as a sudden death or crop failure. The missionary who doesn’t know existing beliefs will not recognize syncretism among new believers merely placing a cross on top of generations-old religious beliefs.

Syncretism as a Result of Cultural Ignorance

Let me illustrate with a historical example. An indigenous people in the Andes historically worshiped the sun as a deity, the Inca leader himself as the incarnation of the sun, the earth goddess Pachamama, and they venerated the mountains. The tops of the mountains were especially holy as the head of the mountain and the closest spot to the sun. While many people continue this system of belief in mountain communities, a far more common form of it is found today.

When the Spanish Catholic conquistadors arrived, they enforced Christianity at the point of a sword. The people basically put on a Catholic shirt in response, but everything within remained the same. The lack of cultural awareness regarding these existing beliefs resulted in a folk Catholicism that confused the sun with God in heaven, the Inca as the incarnation of the sun god, and Jesus as the incarnation of the true God.

The Catholic veneration of Mary was blended into the worship of the earth goddess, Pachamama, and the religious places of offering on the mountains were confused with the shrines and chapels that replaced them. These people did not become Christians; they simply appeared to be so in order to appease their new masters.

Basic knowledge of cultural anthropology and tools of qualitative ethnographic research are extremely helpful for understanding people in order to devise effective strategies for evangelizing, discipling, church planting, and leadership training among them. The knowledge you gain will not only help you minister effectively, it will also help you mobilize new believers for missions and train them for culturally appropriate ministry.

Dr. David Sills is founder and president of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries as well as a missions professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. David joined the faculty of SBTS after serving as a missionary in Ecuador with the International Mission Board among the Highland Quichua people in the Andes. He has started and pastored churches in both the United States and Ecuador and is the author of several books including Hearts, Heads, and Hands. David and his wife Mary have been married for over forty years and have two married children and six grandchildren.