During most of my experience so far as a missionary, the dominant way of thinking about the people we are trying to reach has been framed in terms of groups defined by language and culture. Thus in the North Fly we talk about tribes and language communities – or, more generically, about people groups.
However, recently I have become aware that putting people into these simple categories has been seriously questioned by research that has been developing for about fifty years! As it turns out, much of mission strategy during my lifetime has been based on an understanding of anthropology that froze in the 1960s, while the actual field of anthropology and related disciplines continued moving forward with little effect on Christian missionaries like me.
While we still talk about language communities in the North Fly, we also recognize several additional factors that have deeply changed our vision. We now look forward to the day when everyone in the North Fly can read or hear God’s Word and respond to it in a growing Church. To see this vision realized, we are paying much more attention to: orality, multilingualism, and non-tribal social identities. Most importantly, we are paying much more attention to the growth of the Church in the North Fly – and it’s connection to the Church beyond the North Fly.
We also recognize that there are many people in the North Fly who do not fit into any of the recognized tribal groups. There are many people whose families fled hostilities in West Papua. There are immigrants from the Philippines employed in management positions in Kiunga businesses, especially in the rubber industry. There are immigrants from China who are employed in management and security positions in a growing number of Chinese-owned businesses. There many urban Papua New Guineans who don’t identify clearly with any one tribe, and others who do but are less comfortable in their local languages than are their rural relatives. On the other hand, there are children growing up in town who are learning and speaking their local languages – something none of us predicted even ten years ago.
Our conclusion can only be that the social situation is complex! Rather than bemoan the many changes we have seen over the years (and regret that for years we ignored many important social factors), we choose to embrace the complexity as a fascinating challenge and aim for our new slogan, „The Bible for Everyone“ – whatever that takes!
If anything of the above interests you at all, consider reading Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World, by Michael A. Rynkiewich. I read this book in preparation for the conference Johanna mentioned on April 20. The author was the keynote speaker, and the four of us who traveled up from the North Fly enjoyed getting to know him personally as well.
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