Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

When Culture and Christianity Clash (2)

As promised, I would like to share another story with you where I experienced this clash between culture and Christianity. For this story I need to give some background. In Swaziland it is not illegal for a man to have more than one wife. This is not so common anymore, as the man has to pay lobola (which is like a bride-price) for each wife. This is usually in the form of cattle and depending on the wife’s background (or even surname), may even be up to 15 heads of cattle. It is therefore quite expensive to have a wife. In one of my congregations there was a man who had had three wives. The one wife I never knew as she died before I came to Swaziland. The other two women were members of our church but the man was not a Christian, although he did attend church from time to time. (When he died, a few years ago, we conducted the funeral, but I said afterwards that I had seldom in my life experienced so much heathen traditions as on that day.)
But back to the story. I think the man had about 16 children from the three wives (it may have been more). Many of them followed their father’s life-style. Throughout the daughters became pregnant, some while still at school and some of them had two or three children without being married. This situation left us with more questions than answers as many of these people were regular church-attenders and I am sure many of them are also truly Christians. But one of their daughters stood out from the rest. She was the one who had never become pregnant. She finished her schooling and then attended a teacher’s training college and qualified herself as a teacher. Somewhere along the line she met a male teacher and they fell in love and decided to get married. But she made the decision that she was not going to have sex with this man before they were married. At one point my wife spoke to her about her decision and she said that she had made that decision to set an example to her younger sisters who were still at school to show them that it was possible to live a pure life. We were very involved with them as they prepared for their marriage. Then, on the Friday night before the wedding one of the Swazi pastors slept over at our house. He had also spent a lot of time with this family and knew them very well. Around 10 pm he told us that he was worried about the girl and he decided to drive out to her house in a rural area of Swaziland. Eventually he only returned at about 2 in the morning. We were worried sick about what was happening.
It then came out that there are certain traditions which have to be followed before a Swazi girl gets married. What these are, I have never been able to find out. I know that a goat is slaughtered and that things are done with the skin and the blood of the goat and there are also some rituals where the person has to drink some of the contents of the gall bladder. What I am convinced about is that these rituals are mostly demonic in its source and this girl, because of her Christian convictions, then refused to take part in these rituals. But the father was putting increased pressure on her to take part in the rituals as this was their custom. This psychological pressure had been going on all evening and when my friend arrived at her home, she was at breaking-point and had given in and said to her father that he could do with her whatever he wanted. All that she desired was to get the night over so that she could get married.
For the next few hours my friend argued with the father and tried to pursued him to respect her wishes. It was long after midnight that her father eventually agreed that she could go to bed and that he would not force her to take part in these traditional rituals.
At the wedding the next day I felt a certain sense of pity for her father. Up to that time he had dominated the household completely. What he said was law and people respected his wishes. And now, for the first time, someone had questioned his authority and had also questioned the traditions which he and his forefathers had always believed in. When he handed his daughter over to his future son-in-law he had a meekness over him that I had never seen before. By the way, I saw this daughter a few years ago and she was still happily married, had a lovely family and still seemed to be setting an example of a Christian life.
I find that more young people are breaking with these old customs, some because they just feel that it makes no sense, but others because they realise that many of these traditions are in conflict with their Christian beliefs.


Friday, August 3, 2007 - Posted by | Africa, Culture, Mission, Swaziland, Theology


  1. Once again, excellent story. I’m sure you have a ton of these.

    This brings up a thought in me that I’ve had for a long time, but never had the opportunity to discuss with someone who would “be in the know”. Namely, how does one really bring change to an area like this? I have felt for a while, that although G-d has and does have “outsiders” enter a certain area to bring the gospel, that the locals are the ones who will and should have the most impact ultimately.

    For instance, in this story, you could you have railed at the people about the strange and demonic traditions and you would have had very little effect, but for this girl to stand her ground and also another national to stand up for her to her father was a powerful thing. I think (possibly) that in these deeply ingrained traditions that it is only the locals who can truly change the culture. Otherwise, it’s just another white colonizer coming in to take over.

    Once again, the missionary would need to have humility and not have to be the one to rescue, but see him/herself as a catalyst and be prepared to take a backseat to others who are called to take it to the next level.

    Comment by Maya | Friday, August 3, 2007 | Reply

  2. I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer. How I see it is that I should proclaim the gospel of salvation to the unsaved and also speak about the implications of a decision to become a disciple of Christ. There are numerous stories of people preaching and that a witch-doctor would then come to the point of accepting the Lord but also becoming convinced that he (or she) has to burn the instruments (bones, hair, etc) that they had used in the past. In my church I would also preach about a changed life (in the same way that a pastor would do it in a Western country) and then we have to learn to trust the Holy Spirit to really bring change. Obviously there is a lot of disappointments with this way of working. I was in fact thinking of writing about this sometime next week, but God is the only one who can really bring change into a person’s life and we have to be there, not so much to convince but rather to support a person in such a decision.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Friday, August 3, 2007 | Reply

  3. That sounds reasonable. I have another questions. Recently, I was having a conversation with another believer who has also lived in Egypt in the past. She was asserting that we in the West tend to not have to deal with people who are demon possessed, but that in other countries that are much more “spiritual” (witchdoctors, shamans, curanderos) that there is a higher incidence of demonization. This came up in my mind when you mentioned the rituals, etc. Have you had to deal with this in your ministry and if so, how much? I find that many times in my area, that people come to me “just sure” their family member or friend “has a demon” and I find after meeting with them and doing a thorough interview that it is not the case almost 99% of the time. There are a lot of mental disturbances as well as severe anger, resentment, bitterness and unforgiveness that can manifest so strongly and strangely that it can certainly look demonic, but isn’t. I’d like your take on this and what you do if and when you are faced with a person with a true spiritual problem.

    Comment by Maya | Saturday, August 4, 2007 | Reply

  4. There was a saying we tossed back and forth at each other in Bible College as we youngsters wrestled with Christlikeness on the cold prairies of Canada.

    The unexamined life is not worth living.

    No, I cannot remember the source. Nor can I even recall if we quoted it correctly. But I do remember how we used it. It was the “shot across the bow” when one person wished to take another person to task for a perceived offense or an observed sin.

    Now, 20 years later, that saying has become one of my favorite reminders of the rigours of discipleship. It is most applicable in facing the conflicts between Christian Life and Cultural traditions. It is even applicable when dealing with both the demonically influenced/possessed and the self possessed.

    Here in America it is something we run from with great intensity. However, the whole concept of examining everything about one’s life and bringing it all under the influence and control of the Spirit of God through the Word of God is the key to the cultural question.

    As ministers and reconcilers we get the privelege of teaching the how and the why. The Spirit of God keeps the privelege of bringing the conviction. When the timing of God brings the two together, the whole family of God in that one place should be involved in strengthening the conviction, encouraging the new growth, and creating new memorials (or traditions) that are glorifying to God.

    Perhaps thoughts along this line will help all of us kneel down, wait expectantly, then stand up, and speak in love.

    Comment by CGross | Saturday, August 4, 2007 | Reply

  5. Maya,
    I’ll say a few things here and then I’ll write something more in general in my next post. I have found that there are basically three Spiritual gifts that people want, as this seem to give them some status: speaking in tongues, healing and driving out demons. We also have an abonormal empahsis on demon-possession and Christians claiming that they can drive out these demons. Frankly, I have the same feeling as you have, that in most cases it has nothing to do with demon-possession (in the Biblical sense of the word). I have never driven out demons. I believe that demon-possession is a reality, but personally I would not claim that I have the ability to drive out these demons. But have a look at my next post.

    Well said. Would you mind explaining the phrase “The unexamined life is not worth living” in more detail.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Saturday, August 4, 2007 | Reply

  6. […] in Africa Maya asked a question after my previous post about our experience with people who are demon-possessed. First of all I […]

    Pingback by Demon-possession in Africa « Mission Issues | Saturday, August 4, 2007 | Reply

  7. Hello,

    I don’t even remember how I found this blog, but it was on my favorites???

    But the issue you have introduced here is fascinating. Its really not all that different from what goes on in the US. For instance, in my church, as a college student, us guys got together, went to the movies and would sit down and talk about our struggles, about our lives, about girls. Sometimes we would talk about pornography and (sorry to be blunt) masterbation.

    I was exposed to pornography at the age of 11 at my grandfathers house. When I was caught with it, it was a bigger deal that I had taken it wihtout permission than I actually had it. As I started getting closer to God, though I continued to struggle, I became increasingly convinced that it was possible to quit. By the time we met after the movies in college, I knew I could quit, not because I wanted to be morally straight (though I am an Eagle Scout), but because I had the power of Christ to overcome it. But my friends, some of whom were children of pastors, thought I was nuts.

    I commend the young woman for staying pure as proof that you don’t have to be slave to sin. Though some are afraid of calling cultural things sinful, especially of other people’s cultures, there is power in Christ to over come sin. And all culture contains sin, sin all culture is human. This is not the same thing as saying all culture is sinful.

    When it comes to speaking cross-culturally, all believers need other believers!!! That means I need Africans to hold me accountable as much as I hold them accountable. The fact that Paul was Jewish did not prevent him from holding Gentiles accountable.

    Of course, the issue is how we do it, and I understand that missionary history comes into play here as well. But as much as we push for indigeneity, we cannot separate the body of Christ. We have a responsibility to disciple one another (Romans 1:11-12) not because we are the wise and intellegent white missionaries, but because God has given us each other for that very purpose. I think the problem is that we do not have church-based missions.

    Rather, we send out a single missionary, or family, sometimes a team, and have them plant churches or spread the gospel totally disconnected from the worldwide body of Christ. Paul was constantly being visited by people from his church in Antioch and being supported by churches he had planted. It was not Paul the great missionary, though we have his perspective recorded as an inspired apostle, but it was Paul, Silas, Timothy, Luke, Aquila, Priscilla, Ephaphroditus, the churches in Antioch, Macedonia, Corinth, etc, making disciples.

    How can we participate in church-based (for lack of a better word) missions?

    Thanks for listening.


    Comment by wlh | Wednesday, August 22, 2007 | Reply

  8. Hi Wes,
    Thanks for reading these posts. You touch on a lot of issues. The issue which I think is the most important is the matter of Christians needing each other. I don’t know how far back you have been following this blog, but I referred to that topic once when writing about partnering. You will find it here: https://missionissues.wordpress.com/2007/05/24/partnering-in-missions/
    I think you are absolutely right that we need to find ways where we as Christians from all kinds of cultures can interact with each other in in such a way build each other. Having been part of another culture for so many years, I cannot even start to calculate how much I have learnt from them – things that I would never have experienced if I had just remained in my own culture.
    How would you define a church-based mission?

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Wednesday, August 22, 2007 | Reply

  9. Thanks for the response. Honestly, I don’t remember how I first found this blog, but today was the first day I read it. Thanks for showing me around.

    Regarding church-based mission, I need a better descriptor. A good friend of mine, Dougald McLaurin , and myself have been using the term mutual discipleship to refer to the way we interact with other believers, especially from another cultural background.

    Mutual discipleship is the concept that, as you describe above that you have learned so much. It is seeing yourself as an equal, better a servant, of the nationals. Not that you haven’t been, but this is needed in missionary training. As it is, missionaries, intentionally or not, view themselves as the great white hope for a people group, city, or even country.

    But by church-based, I probably mean more of a church-based strategy. Churches planting churches is the official CPM definition but it is always first a missionary planting a church that plants churches. Part of this would defintely include working through and enabling established churches (even if from another people group).

    Then if a short-term team comes from another church, especially in limited access countries, their contact with local believers in local churches are severely limited. A genuine fear of foreign interference. I know that experience in Africa and other open access areas may be different when it comes to working with national believers. I remember feeling like a king when I was in Kenya on my first mission trip. I was looked to as an expert, though I had barely graduated high school and still had a long way to go in my own sanctification. I’m sure some missionaries feel like they are mopping up after the mess left behind for years.

    But here is the main issue: doing mission in such a way that the missionary acts as an agent of his/her sending church (I know a lot of missionaries come through agencies, but maybe we should rethink this), who works with nationals and builds a sister church who is considered equal with the sending church. All churches after that being equal sisters as well. This may seem ideal and comes from a armchair quarterback perspective for the time being, but it is something that I am aiming to acheive. Furthermore, rather than the missionary being a solo agent on the field, working with established churches in reaching an area. (I know there are serious considerations with this as well.) Its a strategy that honestly would not have been possible a hundred years ago, or even 50, but, with international travel and relations as they are, is now.

    Please tell me what you think, critique any and everything. I am on the low end of the totem pole trying to live out these ideas.


    Comment by wlh | Wednesday, August 22, 2007 | Reply

  10. Oh boy! You’ve touched on so many important issues in this comment: church versus agency; planting churches; the role of the missionary; missionary training and a few others. I have to admit that after all these years in Swaziland (almost twenty three) I’m still in a learning process. I still make mistakes. Some time ago I made a decision which I found out afterwards had hurt my congregation because I hadn’t discussed it with them (I never even thought it was necessary) and therefore I had to ask them, one Sunday morning, to forgive me for being insensitive to them when making the decision and I then asked permission from them to do what I believed was necessary to be done (it concerned using one of our church buildings as a creche during the week). Forgiveness was given and permission was granted. But I realised once again how important it is to be extremely sensitive about these things.
    I think the keyword in what you wrote is the word “servant” – but even this is not always so simple. Many people do come with a “servant-attitude” which I appreciate and respect, but then it still remains an attitude of “I am here to serve you because you are incapable (stupid, uneducated, poor, etc) of doing anything for yourself” – or to put it more bluntly: Let me teach you what it really means to be a servant!
    The way that I see this myself at present is to say that we are absolute equals – each with gifts and certain degrees of knowledge which make us unique within the body of Christ. I am no longer shy or reluctant to say that I have a certain amount of theological knowledge which I want to use in the service of the church. Within the context of our AIDS ministry (do a search on “hands and feet” on my blog), I have been placed in a certain position to manage this ministry, but I try and define my own place so that the members can also be sure what their positions are within the church and within the ministry. I’m still struggling to put this in words, but perhaps the description of the role of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-11 helps. Jesus never denied that He was the Son of God. He never denied that He was the Saviour of the world. But He humbly brought these things to us with a servant-attitude, offering it to the world to use (and misuse) and even to reject if they so wished.
    One of the decisions I made many years ago was not to be chairman of our church council anymore. It was becoming so difficult to find a time when I would be available for a church council meeting as my diary is sometimes filled weeks in advance with appointments. And most of the decisions really do not need my specific knowledge or expertise. When a church council meeting is held, I am informed and if it is at all possible, I attend. If not, I excuse myself and they continue. If something needs to be discussed where they feel that my gifts/knowledge/field of expertise is necessary, they arrange the meeting at a time which suits me so that I can be there.
    But as I mentioned: I’m still learning!

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Wednesday, August 22, 2007 | Reply

  11. I really appreciate your humility and honesty. You make a good point about how many view servanthood. How can we help new missionaries understand that locals are capable, not because of their civilization, or lack thereof, but because of the Spirit. God gifts the church for service. And at the same time he gifts missionaries to contribute as well.

    This past summer we had the privilege to visit Central Asia on a short term trip. We have been working with a local church there for four years now and we had the opportunity to form a team of nationals/foreigners to visit another church they had planting in another city 20 hrs away (by train). Even though I have had the mindset as seeing them as equals and allowing them to minister to me and to others, something shocked me. One day we were having our daily devotion and it was Arman’s (a pastor-hearted, Jesus-loving national) turn to share.

    He shared deeply from the Word, it was so encouraging, but God showed me something. I was surprised by his expertise in interpretation. Why should I be surprised if I valued him as an equal? God showed me that deep down I did not view him as an equal, even though I wanted to. Had God not revealed it to me, I probably would have kept on in my ignorance and arrogance unawares to me. Nationals might not have even noticed it, they instinctively look up to missionaries because they are thankful that they brought them the gospel. Eventually, I can imagine that biblical/theoligical dependancy would be created unnecessarily. Rather than enabling my dear Christian brother, I could be an adverse influence in his spiritual growth. But praise God he made me see it!

    Comment by wlh | Thursday, August 23, 2007 | Reply

  12. Excellent point: “Why should I be surprised if I valued him as an equal?” I like that!

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Thursday, August 23, 2007 | Reply

  13. […] of the family are still unbelievers or at most, no more than lukewarm Christians. As I had written previously, Christians often struggle to fight against cultural traditions which may eventually also lead to a […]

    Pingback by Personal Evangelism or Community Evangelism? « Mission Issues | Wednesday, January 2, 2008 | Reply

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