Training Missionaries to Cross Honor-Shame Cultures

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Back in October, I published an article in Mission Dei Journal. I’m just not getting an opportunity to let you know about it. The title of the article is “From One Honor-Shame Culture to Another: A Proposal for Training Chinese Missionaries to Serve in Muslim Contexts.”

This was probably the most challenging article/book chapter I’ve ever written. Four things make that so.

(1) Nothing has been written directly on the subject.

(2) The topic is vast.

(3) I wanted to keep it broad enough so that it could be useful for people besides Chinese people who want to serve in Muslim contexts.

(4) Referring to “Muslim contexts” is so general that it’s hardly useful.

Still, I did the best I could, hoping merely to spur significant reflection among people serving in traditional honor-shame contexts.

Missionaries From and To Honor-Shame Cultures

How might Christians from one honor-shame culture effectively serve as missionaries in another honor-shame culture? By answering this question, churches and mission organizations can better train cross-cultural workers whose cultural backgrounds offer advantages not enjoyed by many Western missionaries. Due to the sheer scope of the topic, his essay sketches only a preliminary proposal.

Honor and shame manifest across global cultures in countless ways. Still, we can identify several common features of an honor-shame perspective that transcend any particular setting. This should not surprise us. After all, honor and shame are characteristics of every human society. The Bible itself is replete with language and concepts that reflect these cultural values. Several empirical and exegetical studies elaborate on these statements.[1]

This article first considers the scope and significance of the opening question above. We identify potential challenges and opportunities that face mission practitioners. After clarifying briefly what is meant by “honor” and “shame,” I outline the primary contours of an honor-shame worldview. This discussion lays the groundwork for the final section of the essay.

“Honor” and “shame” do not exist in the abstract; they find expression in concrete social settings. Therefore, I will explore several practical implications for training Chinese missionaries who work in Muslim contexts. This virtual case study serves to illustrate one possible way to train people from one honor-shame culture to minister in another honor-shame culture.

Preliminary Suggestions

The latter part of the chapter explores a number of possible applications. I raise several questions that we must ask if we want to dig deeper into the prospect of training missionaries from one honor-shame culture (e.g., China) to travel and serve in another (i.e., Muslim contexts).

I address the following areas:

  • The use of honor & shame terminology
  • Social interaction
  • Using language related to purity or cleanness
  • Group or collective Identity
  • Cultural identity
  • Authority or hierarchy

The particular ways that missionaries contextualize their ministry depends on the specific ways that a local culture expresses its honor-shame worldview. Nevertheless, certain features tend to characterize people with an honor-shame worldview. Prioritizing of relationships leads to an emphasis on group identity. Respect for authority solidifies social hierarchies. The desire for order strengthens the power of tradition. One’s social status is largely contingent on how well a person upholds these values.

This article is only one small step forward. It offers an initial framework for seeking context-specific strategies and training methodologies. More practical applications will emerge as people from diverse contexts and experience continue to collaborate and strategize.

I hope you find it helpful. If you think it might benefit someone you know, forward this post to them. Thanks!


[1] Cf. David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000); Jackson Wu, Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019); Among historical and sociological treatments, cf. Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York: Norton, 2010); Graham Scambler, A Sociology of Shame and Blame: Insiders Versus Outsiders (New York: Palgrave Pivot, 2019).

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