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Understanding Cultural Characteristics of Ministry Work Through Enculturation and Acculturation

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

To be Absorbed or to Observe: This is the Question

Can a person living and working in a cross-cultural context be completely absorbed and integrated into the culture that he or she is serving? Both enculturation and acculturation, psychologically and physiologically, play a part in development both in the formative years and the adult ones. The process of integration can take time, diligence, and practice. Spies, private investigators, undercover federal agents, and police officers today also utilize enculturation and acculturation to make reports on cultures or subjects. The CIA World Factbook is a collection of reports on cultures for today’s generation.

Biblical Examples of Enculturation and Acculturation

Within the scope of cultural anthropology, there are other biblical examples where enculturation and acculturation were used in a different, yet specific cross-cultural evangelistic context by Jesus, the disciples, and apostle Paul. These examples include the great commission, (Matthew 8:10-12, 15:21-28, 28:19-30; Mark 16:15; Luke 10:29-37; John 4:19-22). Jesus eating with sinners (Matthew 9:10-17, Mark 2:15-22, Luke 5:29-39), addressing the false beliefs of the Pharisees through philosophical parables that revealed corruption in human nature and juxtaposed God's perfect nature (Matthew 13:33, 16:6-12), and healing the sick (Matthew 8:16, 12:15, 14;14, 14:36, 15:30, 21:14; Luke 4:40, 5:17, 9:11, etc.) and Paul using contextualization for the sake of learning the cultures he witnessed to so God's kingdom could be furthered (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).

These examples highlight learning the context and culture to a degree that how people of a culture or context understand the world and diversity within the lives of the people can be explained.1 Contrarily, there are examples in the Bible that show how acculturation can be negative. These include acculturation with subjective morality and religious beliefs by Israel (Jeremiah 44:23, 1 Kings 9:9), Israel wanting pagan idols like the nations surrounding them (Micah 5:13) and intermarrying with godless people groups (Deuteronomy 7:1-4, Ezra 9:1-10, 44). These examples show how the anthropology perspective was not utilized and how the biblical worldview was abandoned even after Israel had encounters with God.

Cultural Characteristics of Ministry Work

Christians within cultural anthropology still use contextualization today in mission, pastoral, and education work, economic development projects, and medical duties. Contextualization stemmed out of interaction between anthropology and missiology as Christians practiced effective communication while living out their faith by relying on cultural understanding.2 However, worldview inside anthropology can clash, even inside proclaiming Christian circles of anthropologists on issues such as human origins, evolution, and relativism.3 Worldview is the lens in which evidence, morality, and life in general are viewed through. A secular worldview relies on relativism or a subjective human nature. A biblical worldview (not necessarily a Christian worldview since the Christian faith has many denominations) views creation, morality, and life as aligned with God's nature and Word.

One way that worldview and values might impact interactions with the people encountered through ministry is having to explain why tragedy and trauma occur and how God can use it for good. Both ends of this spectrum can be equally difficult, especially since the goal of Christian counseling is to restore the image of God in those who are broken. With victims of human trafficking or victims of crime (such as domestic violence, rape, etc.), trauma is often prolonged over several years. Tragedy and trauma do not discriminate against ethnicities or cultures, so understanding the cultural context surrounding some cases utilizing a biblical worldview and from an anthropological perspective is vital.


1 “The Anthropological Perspective” in Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective, ed. Brian M. Howell and Janell Paris (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011, 2019), 14

2 “Anthropology and Missions” in Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective, ed. Brian M. Howell and Janell Paris (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011, 2019), 17

3 “Anthropology and the Christian Witness” in Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective, ed. Brian M. Howell and Janell Paris (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011, 2019), 19

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