The American who moves into the slums when his countrymen almost always live uptown. The third-world-born doctor, the female cab driver, mixed-race families. These are people who deliberately choose to not conform to social expectations. When someone bucks the system, people take notice.
Basic to our missiology are the concepts of cultural norms and expectations. Every culture has pre-determined ways to think about and interact with different kinds of outsiders. Everyone has their place. In a global city, for example, some outsiders are the scapegoats. These are usually a lower-status immigrant group that takes the blame for all of society’s ills. These cultural norms tend to be built around social stereotypes, and when an outsider doesn’t behave as expected, he doesn’t fit the pigeonhole. This can be seen as good or bad, but it’s always remarkable.
Usually, missionaries put their efforts into conforming to cultural expectations. Follow the norms, the thinking goes, and people will be more likely to hear the message. In missiology, this is called contextualization; minimizing the differences between the missionary and those to whom he ministers so that the unevangelized can hear and understand the message without getting hung up on the “other-ness” of the outsider’s presence.
That’s why field workers learn language, dress appropriately, and do all the customary social things. In Asia, one might bow deeply to show respect to an elder. In the Arab world, women avoid eye contact with men. In Russia, there’s kissing. Every culture has some sort of greeting, public comportment, and mealtime rituals. These things may not seem to have any direct bearing on the communication of the gospel, but they really do. Failure to follow the rules only serves to highlight the foreign-ness of the outsider and his message.
But blending in isn’t always our goal. As Jesus-followers, there’s a time to blend in and a time to stand out.
Obviously, believers should stand out in some ways. The Bible is clear that we ought to repay evil with good, forgive every offense, be known for our love (both for one another and for our enemies), and live such good lives that unbelievers glorify God in heaven. Being in Christ makes us pilgrims and strangers, even in our own hometowns. Our other-ness marks us as God’s “called out” people.
In some cases, breaking societal norms will get a person into trouble. Because of the company He kept, Jesus earned a reputation for being a “glutton and a drunk, a friend to tax collectors and sinners.” (Luke 7:34) Some people certainly used this as an excuse to write off anything and everything Jesus said. The religious may have accused Him of syncretism- going too far in His efforts to contextualize.
In other cases, breaking the norms can add credibility to our claims of internal spiritual transformation. Humble submission to one another may not be a norm in many cultures, but it is a distinct value of the Kingdom of God. Revenge may be acceptable in many cultures, but Christ-followers are called to stand out by repaying evil with good. Following Jesus makes us irreparably different and necessarily foreign.
Note: How is a missionary to know when to conform to social norms and when to break them? The Holy Spirit, who knows culture and the hearts of men. He alone can guide us into incarnation of the gospel that is both cultural and acultural; specific to context yet universal. Culture cannot be navigated from afar. Only the faithful worker on the field, walking in the Spirit of God and committed to incarnation, can understand the implications of meeting or breaking cultural expectations. While it is entirely appropriate that, for accountability’s sake, a sending church question a worker’s approach to cultural immersion, we must take care not to impose our cultural meanings of the norms of other cultures. This is missionary work.