Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Robert Hunt: Culture, Not Geography, Defines Global Church, Part I

Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology. It is the first of a three-part series.

A global church must engage seriously the reality of multiple cultures, not just geographical locations and languages.

Early in my time as a missionary in Malaysia I was invited to go into central Borneo Island, about 3 days by boat, to visit an Iban community that was considering becoming Christian. They had heard the gospel from Iban Christians, including one of my students, in a nearby longhouse. But they wanted to talk to someone from the seminary.

I won’t recount the entire adventure, only this: that many of the questions they asked were more pragmatic than theological and had to with maintaining local customs. Some questions were simply part of a kind of religious bidding war. The Bahai’s promised them an electrical generator. The Muslims promised them government jobs. Methodists didn’t make any such promises, but we did have a good record of serving people’s needs.

But the kind of bargaining that was going on was only part of a much larger set of cultural differences. Our discussions took place well after 10pm, and only after the women and children had gone to bed. Their local elder had slaughtered a chicken and waved it over our heads to invoke blessings on the coming discussion. We had sipped rice wine, and then for the thirsty cases of Carlsberg beer had been broken out. We finished talking at sunrise, when men went about their work and we returned to our village by boat.

The actual decision was made the next evening when, again late at night, there was a hours long discussion by the senior members of the longhouse. And the next day the eldest member of the community, having considered everything, and having noted carefully the flights of various bird species over the longhouse for the last several days, as well as his own dreams, announced that the entire community would be baptized and become Methodist Christians. My student and his father, both licensed pastors, carried out the baptisms (several dozens) a few weeks later.

Let’s travel halfway around the world to Vienna, Austria, where for seven years I served a dominantly West African congregation made of refugees and immigrants. Once a month the African choir sang in worship. And the day before they sang they met for rehearsal and lunch, which took all of Saturday. As pastor I was interested in knowing what songs I should put in the bulletin for Sunday. They never told me. Instead they informed me that over the course of the day they had sung many songs in different languages and in the end had chosen the song leader. And the song leader, led by the Spirit, would tell us all what to sing on Sunday.

Back in Malaysia. I’m attending one of the many committee meetings that make up academic life in even a small theological school. It looks like a meeting should look. People around the table. An agenda. Multiple comments made on each item. But on each action item the chair of the committee simply announces the decision. No “I move.” No “I second.” No vote. When I first arrived in Malaysia I would have found this bizarre and irritating. But a good friend, and relative of my Chinese wife, explained the way things work. “The purpose of the committee is to ratify the decision of the chair.”

I highlight these experiences because they indicate a much larger and more complex truth: All processes of decision making are bound to culture and cultural ideas about values, who the members of the community are, and how they come to a common mind.


  1. Fascinating. Picking up for UM Insight, with your permission, and looking forward to the next two parts.

  2. Robert,
    Thank you for this lucid reminder of the role of culture in shaping our decision-making processes--especially when it does its work behind our backs, so to speak. And so It's worth acknowledging that Robert's Rules of Order is indeed a cultural artifact. That is not a problem in itself, of course. One problem arises when it is so taken for granted that it accrues a level of self-evidence. A further, more pernicious, problem is when it becomes entangled in political gamesmanship, for which the debate over Rule 44 is perhaps the poster child.

    1. Yes, Rule 44 was a great example of trying to implement a different approach to decision making, but one equally located in a particular set of American cultural assumptions.