September 11, 2012 by cbbeard
When you were a kid, was your world really small? Or maybe the question should be, when you were a kid did you think the rest of the world was just like your world?
I remember when I was very young I went to school and talked with a friend about some television program my family had watched the night before. I asked him if he watched TV the night before, and when he said he had I went right into a discussion about the show I watched; assuming since my TV had that show on, everyone’s TV surely had that show on too! When he told me he watched something else, I asked my mom how that could be and was shocked to find out that other people’s TVs could be on another channel than the one that was on my TV.
I remember the day I learned that just because it was raining at my house, it didn’t mean that it was raining at either of my grandparent’s houses. I couldn’t believe the weather could be different 25 miles away!
Certainly these examples are kind of funny, and kind of make me sound like a moron (hey, give me a break, I was only in 1st or 2nd grade!), but I have a feeling that thinking our world is an example of everyone else’s world is not that unique. Nor is it limited to 2nd graders.
For example (these were found in Derek Sivers’ TED Talk – “Weird or Just Different?):
- If I invite you to my house and you’ve never been before, then I will give you my address. Nowadays you can just plug that into your GPS, but it used to be that you would have to keep an eye out for my house number. That wasn’t such a big deal because the streets are labeled, and the houses are in numerical order, with the odd numbers on one side of the street and the even on the other. But if I lived in Japan, I might still give you a house number, but street names don’t exist. Instead, I would give you a block name and a number. And when you search for the house number, it won’t be in numerical order. Oh, the houses are numbered, but they are numbered in order of when they were built.
- Or what if you didn’t have to go to the doctor, the doctor would send you a bill? Those of us in the United States are used to paying for health care based on what is wrong with us…we pay for diagnosis, prescriptions, surgery, and all kinds of stuff to get us better. But in China there are doctors who believe that it’s their job to keep you healthy. They get paid on the months that you are well and don’t get paid on the months that you are sick!
- We are used to music starting on the down beat of “one” in a measure. But for West African music, the “one” of the measure is the end, like the period on a sentence.
- And surely you’ve seen a map of the world from an Aussie’s perspective:
Of course, these things seem odd to us, and if you are like me you may or may not have said to yourself “yeah, we do it MUCH better here” (especially on the streets/blocks example). There is a word for the assumption that the world is just like me…that word is ethnocentrism. It’s the assumption that people think like I do. And while most of us understand that there is diversity, we often make assumptions about others based on our own experience and may be guilty of the darker side of ethnocentrism. As Timothy Reagan (2005) wrote, “ethnocentrism refers to the tendency to view one’s own cultural group as superior to others—a tendency common to most, if not all, human societies” (p. 4).
But let’s shift gears and apply this to the church. I have seen throughout my ministry and have often been guilty of some variation of ethnocentrism in the church. We assume that people want the same things we want, think the same things we think, and need the same things we need. And so fulfilling our God-given mission of making disciples has been compromised or hindered because our view of people without Jesus Christ is reduced to a caricature of a person who wants to be just like us, they just don’t know it yet. We often approach evangelism in a way that would be very effective…if we were only trying to take Jesus to ourselves.
But let’s go back to that list we looked at earlier. Let’s say that you have to give someone directions to your house; one someone native to your town and someone from Japan. Obviously you would need to know the Japanese person’s perspective of home addresses, otherwise the information you provide them (your address) would be useless to them. To communicate effectively with that person, you would want to know their context.
The same is absolutely true as we make disciples of all nations as Christ’s ambassadors. The truth is we the people, though we all share the need of Jesus in our life as Lord and Savior, come from a wide diversity of contexts which affects our perspective. Just like the Japanese person looking for your house needs you to understand their context and make adjustments, so do those looking for Jesus (even if they don’t know that’s who they are looking for). As Halter and Smay (2010) wrote, “Context should stop you in your tracks on a regular basis and propel you to find out every little detail you can about a person, avoiding assumptions or preconceived notions about what they want or are looking for” (p. 55).
You see, our mission is not just sharing the message…even though that is a vital part of our mission. Our mission is to make disciples. Jesus told us to love one another, and that means we must get to know one another; this is especially true as we share the Gospel to the world that so desperately needs it.
What do you think? How can we better understand the “context” of the people around us? How can the church be better at this?