Summary: Social Hindrances in Cross-Cultural Evangelism


Introduction - Without realizing it many people fail to enter or grow in the kingdom of God because of social barriers. Many well meaning Christians have created unnecessary obstacles for millions of people who could be a part of God’s family if not for socio-cultural stumbling blocks. Crossing the borders of social classes can be so difficult as to even keep people from making the most important decisions in life. I read a true confession of the former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. One evening he was honoring President Francois Mitterrand of France and his lovely wife at a dinner party. As Nancy Reagan escorted President Mitterand to his side of the table, Ronald Reagan began to show Mrs. Mitterand to her chair. However, Mrs. Mitterand froze in her position refusing to move ahead. As the butler motioned for her to come to her seat, she again stood still. Finally, she whispered something to Ronald Reagan in French which he did not understand. Gently, he said, "Mrs. Mitterand let me kindly show you to your place at the table." But again she refused to move. Suddenly a French translator came up to her and asked her what was wrong. She said, "President Reagan is standing on my evening gown." Accidentally, Ronald Reagan was prohibiting her from going forward. Even the most powerful people in our communities can inhibit the progress of others unintentionally without knowledge. Let us begin by looking at the reasons why social structures can serve as inhibitors or catalysts for evangelism and church growth across cultures. Ed Dayton, in his book Planning Strategies For World Evangelization on page 282-3 tells about the differences between the evangelism of two gifted and dedicated lady missionaries working in the northwestern part of China and seed family evangelistic efforts in 1930 with the Little Flock Assembly in Shantung.

Case Study 1 - The dedicated lady missionaries’ mandate was to evangelize and plant congregations in a cluster of villages. They spoke fluent Chinese; they labored faithfully and fervently. After a decade, a small congregation emerged. However, most of its members were women. Their children attended the Sunday School regularly. The visitor to this small congregation would easily detect the absence of men. In their reports and newsletters, both missionaries referred to the "hardness of hearts" that was prevalent among the men. References were also made to promising teenagers who were opposed by their parents when they sought permission for baptism.

Case Study 2 - In 1930 a spiritual awakening swept through the Little Flock Assembly in Shantung. Many members sold their entire possessions in order to send seventy families to to the Northwest as "instant" congregations. Another thirty families migrated to the Northeast. By 1944 forty new assemblies had been established and all these were vitally involved in evangelism. (Chua, 1975, p. 968)

Dayton points out several social barriers that inhibited the evangelism by the two lady missionaries:

1. Their single status made them seem out of place in a society where one’s identity is known by her position in the family. Subscribing to the beliefs of these women inferred that one approved of their single lifestyle which implied rejecting Chinese social order.

2. Since they were women, the men did not feel that they needed to submit to their leadership. To do so would mean weakness in a male oriented society.

3. Their foreignness (termed "red haired devils") was enough to incite cultural and racial prejudices in the minds of most villagers. Whenever Chinese think of other cultures they have a difficult time thinking of them as equals.

4. A family makes up the basic foundation of the social unit. Many people were confused by how to relate to women without families. To most villagers it seemed that these women were an aberration. Their entire lifestyle seemed like a departure from what was normal, acceptable, or regarded as right morally, biologically, and culturally.

5. The missionaries’ failure to make contact through the elders of the village made them suspect to everyone. To think that anyone would have the audacity to go directly to the women of the village without first consulting with the male leaders seemed subversive to many.

6. Most of the friendship building done by the missionaries was done during the day. This was the time when the husbands were away. Again the men of the village felt that the missionaries were causing the women to become lazy, irresponsible, and disrespectful of the males’ orders. It represented an evil small women’s liberation movement that they associated with Western cultural influence.

7. The single missionary women were seen to be "family breakers". This inductive conclusion was reached by the men because they saw their women and youth rejecting cultural values of submission to the elders.

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