When the time came for Jesus Christ to return to the Father, he left a very emphatic command to “go into all the world” (Matthew 28:19-20) with the Good News about the Kingdom of God and eternal life. At the end of Revelation, we get a glimpse of those who are standing before the throne praising God, and are told that they are from every nation, tribe and tongue” (Revelation 5:9).
While sadly, the job has not been finished, there is something that has gone on in the past, and sadly still occurs today, that involves missionaries going to unreached people groups and, instead of making them just Christians, they try to make them Western Christians. Even worse, there is sometimes the result, whether intentionally or not, of creating perpetually dependent churches instead of self-supporting, self-teaching, and self-propagating indigenous churches.
Please don’t misunderstand me on this. I am not saying that this is always the case, or even usually the case. But where it happens, the damage to the new believers and future missionaries in the area is disproportionately large! And there is an alternative to this.
In the late 19th Century, J. Hudson Taylor planted the China Inland Mission, and was thought to be odd because he adopted Chinese dress and culture as much as possible while there. He also focused on training Chinese believers to be leaders and teachers in the congregations. That is exactly how it is supposed to be done! The Apostle Paul outfit this way in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22:
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.”
Another example of this was in Athens, where he started off his talk on Mars Hill by relating as much as possible to things they knew like worship of gods and Greek philosophy. Didn’t Jesus use many agrarian examples in because of the audience he was communicating with?
This is what much of the motivation is with translating the Word of God into the heart language of the unreached people’s. Put the Word into their language so that it more easily penetrates their heart and mind! And what Hudson Taylor experienced with being more warmly received because of his native attire and language skills.
So how far do we go in this acculturation process? Well honestly, it depends on the culture. If they are worshipping by eating the beating heart of a neighboring tribal chief, we should, probably not do that. But what about attire? There is nothing wrong with adopting the clothing of those to whom God has called you to minister. Well what if they are topless, or even naked unreached tribes? Well, how humble are you willing to be to reach the lost? If they don’t wear much clothing, then you should, do the same. I know that sounds radical, but we need to be radically obedient if we are to reach the world with the Gospel. If being dressed (or undressed) like the indigenous people is what it takes, then that is what needs to be done. At the very least, you won’t be accused of destroying their culture by trying to make them westerners.
This is a radical concept, I know. But at least consider it, and think about this: when John saw the saved from every nation, tribe, and tongue, how did he know that? Perhaps because of the way they were dressed.