Yesterday morning I was at my weekly men's Bible study and we started talking about how Africans view Americans. There are two African pastors in the Bible study and it was very insightful to hear their advice on how to leave a good impression with the people that we are ministering to. What I learned was both insightful and disturbing.
In African culture a pastor is the most respected person in society, more respected than a wealthy business man or a politician. Because of this respect, a pastor is expected to dress nicely. I was told how a pastor is expected to always dress in nice pants and a nice shirt, and if they are visiting a home they should wear a suit coat and tie. If a pastor does not dress like this then what they say will not be accepted.
Pastor Gordon told of a story where he was shopping at a grocery store and met a member of his congregation. He was wearing shorts, sandals, and a button up short sleeve shirt. The man in his congregation was very disappointed and told him that it is OK if he wants to dress like that at home, but when he is in public he should dress more like a pastor.
The part of the discussion that really disturbed me is that a pastor is expected to not do physical labor, and he is to always be exalted and honored among the members of his congregation.
In African culture, when you go to a funeral, which happens frequently, all the men at the funeral shovel dirt onto the casket in the ground. If a pastor decides to help shovel he will be strongly discouraged from working. He will be told, "No, No pastor. You must not work. Your are here to pray and read scripture. Not to work."
A pastor that insists on working will not be respected. In a church service a pastor must always be seated on the front row, even it is a standing room only meeting.
This goes so strongly against my American views of the Bible. I am really struggling with my role as a missionary. On the one hand I feel like I should submit to the cultural norms (like in my clothing) in order to be heard and have influence. But on the other hand I feel like it is my spiritual responsibility to push their norms and challenge unbiblical beliefs.
By the African standard, Jesus would have been discouraged from washing his disciples' feet. My personal leadership style is to lead by serving others. This is obviously a style that is not respected in African culture and I will need to find a balance.
James 2:3-4 says, "If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say "here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet, " have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?"
As a missionary I walk a fine line of fitting within the culture that I am trying to reach, and at the same time challenging and bringing a correct Biblical view. This is not always easy.