Just a few thoughts on culture prompted by some missions discussion!
I learned about ethnocentrism in an Ethics class in college. I suppose at that point I had already noticed that we had made some mistakes in Russia in terms of culture. Take, for example, this simple contrast: Americans belong to a group of cultures who do business first, while Russians socialize first. Imagine how much confusion that can cause! Or how many problems could be smoothed over by a simple cup of tea.
But it is still a bit of a shock when you learn that some of the kind gestures you viewed as part of evangelism were simply your own cultural traditions; that your primary associations with "church" are something invented by man and not found in the Bible. And, perhaps, that your view of other traditions as unbiblical do in fact have a scriptural basis upon closer examination.
I like this quote, found in the Perspectives reader. "To require people to embrace anything beyond what is found in scripture puts a yoke on them that they should not bear. Anything more than scripture is too much."
Using scripture in missions
So what does this look like? One way of looking at it is to think of scripture as the raw material. There is so much you could do with it. If someone wants to know what Christians do when they meet together, you could offer up a verse: "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Eph.5:19, NIV)
More raw materials
Sometimes I have an idea for Sunday school or a holiday, but it isn't my turn to lead, or I'm not sure how to execute it. But if I give it to a Russian friend, he does a much better job than I could have. In another culture, your cherished traditions often seem silly, while something you thought boring suddenly takes a new light.
Similar to above, I think it's important not to regard projects or ministry as our "baby." Typically, we want to see it through from start to finish. We don't want it to come out differently from our initial vision. Whether or not we would admit it, we want our name on it. I think it's important to ask ourselves, "Have I contributed enough? Am I doing a job that could be done by someone else? Am I trying to lead where I could step back and just be a helper?"
Yes, a major character trait to foster is being teachable. This is more obvious in a rural environment where you need to know how to survive. Yet in many places it's possible to come over and set up a little "mini-America" and never learn anything new. This is a mistake, as our life can be greatly enriched through learning a new culture. In addition, learning in humility can bring glory to God.
Even with the importance of downplaying one's own culture traditions, don't underestimate the value of cultural exchange. Not discussing culture is like ignoring an elephant in the room. It's obvious you are different, so why not talk about it?
Sharing traditions can be fun as well as meaningful. I always found the cultural portions of Russian class to be fascinating. Traditions come out of our approach to life: how we keep healthy, show others we care, show courtesy, how we deal with the unknown.
It is interesting to explore linguistic traditions, and even superstitions. Why not introduce your culture's crafts and recipes? Or maybe some music traditions? Introduce, not force. After all, in a culture that highly values their own traditions, this will encourage mutual respect. The point is not to produce a "love affair" with American (or other) culture, but to open up lines of communication.
I'm not quite sure what role cultural exchange should have in sharing the Gospel. I think we need to be careful not to manipulate people.
*Thomas, M.R. The Turning Point: Setting the Gospel Free. In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, p.143