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Training Cross-Cultural Workers to Cross Honor-Shame Cultures

From the series Brad Vaughn on Contextualization

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series by Jackson Wu dealing with issues of contextualization in relation to the Chinese context. The articles are being co-posted at Jackson Wu: Doing Theology. Thinking Mission. and here (with light editing for our context and readers) on the ChinaSource Blog.

Back in October, I published an article in the Mission Dei journal titled “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 made 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.

Workers from and to Honor-Shame Cultures

How might Christians from one honor-shame culture effectively serve cross-culturally in another honor-shame culture?

By answering this question, churches and sending organizations can better train cross-cultural workers whose cultural backgrounds offer advantages not enjoyed by many Western workers. Due to the sheer scope of the topic, this 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 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 and shame terminology
  • Social interaction
  • Using language related to purity or cleanness
  • Group or collective identity
  • Cultural identity
  • Authority or hierarchy

The particular ways that cross-cultural workers 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.

The 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.

This post is also available at Jackson Wu: Doing Theology. Thinking Mission.


  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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Header image: Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay.
Brad Vaughn

Brad Vaughn

Brad Vaughn (formerly known by the pseudonym Jackson Wu; PhD, Southeastern Baptist) is the theologian in residence with Global Training Network. He previously lived and worked in East Asia for almost two decades, teaching theology and missiology for Chinese pastors. He serves on the Asian/Asian-American theology steering committee of the Evangelical …View Full Bio

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