One of the difficulties of cross-cultural ministry is understanding how different cultural practices relate to the Christian Faith. An American teacher must pray for the Holy Spirit to grant him discernment while he is interacting with the African students. Professor B. Makhathini of the University of Swaziland has given an excellent metaphor for understanding this struggle from an African perspective.
"Before the bread of life (the Christian faith) came to our part of Africa, it stayed in Europe for over a thousand years. There the Europeans added a plastic bag (their own customs) to the bread. And when they came to southern Africa, they fed us a plastic bag along with the bread. Now the plastic is making us sick! The plastic is theirs, but the bread belongs to everyone. We know that God planned for us to receive the bread just as he planned for them to receive it. We can remove the plastic and enjoy the bread."
Of course, there are certain customs in each culture that are against the Christian faith. No matter where a person lives, when he becomes a Christian, he must leave those customs. Some of them are obvious and others are difficult to discern. It is not an easy job for a teacher to enter a culture with unfamiliar customs and to know what to encourage the people to keep or not to keep. The problem is that we ourselves have customs from our own culture that we take for granted, even believing them to be a part of the Christian faith. How blind are we to our own need to soberly examine our way of life. Sometimes we are too quick to point out what we think to be wrong in the way someone else lives. Are we willing to change our own customs to match up to God's "custom"? And what is that? It is God's will that we be conformed to the image of His Son, Jesus, who told His disciples, "I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you." Jesus showed them a new "custom" -- to be a servant of all.
This principle of discernment is not just for foreign missionaries. It applies to all of us as we interact with our neighbors or others that we meet along the way. Do we try to convert them to the way we live out our faith, or are we willing to just feed them Jesus and let Him work in their life? Yes, the bread of life is for everyone. Jesus said, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever." Yet, we must constantly be aware of the cultural wrappers we often put around Him when we share Him with others. We know the Bread is good for them, but we should not insist that they eat the plastic too!
May the peace of Christ be with you.