The Cart before the Donkey?

by Richelle Wright on August 14, 2015


In what feels like just a few days ago (although it has been a couple of months, now), we packed up our lives – again – to transition to a new place… And that transition has been going beautifully, really. But we made the move knowing that one of us, my husband or myself, would need to return to the States to move our daughter off to college. Fortunately, while we are living cross culturally and speaking a different language, we are on the same continent and so it was only a long train ride and drive back to be with and help her through this first part of this big growing up season of her life.

While I’ve been back, I was able to listen to a very good sermon – in English! – and very apropos for my young’un just now beginning to strike out on her own  – inspired by the words from Proverbs 2:1-12a. The preacher made two key points:

  1. Daily depend on God and His Word; and
  2. Daily dependence on God and His Word leads to wise decisions and gives direction in life.

Great points for any young person… actually, for any person, regardless of age!

But it was really the next part of the sermon that got me to thinking… because one of the applications drawn was that to “daily depend” and therefore have the ability and help needed to make wise decisions and have direction for the future, you must regularly read God’s Word.

The preacher shared some statistics – like how according to recent polls, around 80% (if I’m remembering the statistic correctly – but the point is – a large majority) of evangelical Christians say they read God’s Word once a week. My guess would be that once a week would be Sunday, when they go to church. The point of sharing those numbers was to help his listeners see just how easy it is to fall within a population of people who easily say, “I love God and His Word. I try to live my life following Him and the principles found in His Word,” but who, in reality, might not ever spend enough time interacting with God through His Word for that to be true.

Good point.

True point.

Then, I started thinking of a woman I met, the woman whose example continually convicts me of my compared-to-her apathy when it comes to interacting with God through His Word. Choosing to follow Christ had cost her dearly in this life – yet part of her daily greeting to everyone was a huge smile and a heartfelt, “May God continue to teach you thankfulness in every moment!” She knew the Bible stories and could recite large sections of Scripture. She hummed psalms and songs of thanksgiving while going about her daily affairs – and she lived a hard life where daily sustenance was not a given, much less most of the comforts and luxuries to which I regularly assume I am entitled. And, she couldn’t read.

I know this because I spent two years working with her, helping her learn how to slowly, haltingly, read at the kindergarten/first grade level in her mother language. I’ll never forget the moment she read God’s Word for herself, for the first time: she danced in celebration and cried tears of joy. She had just sounded out the words in a sentence to recognize the story of Ruth and Boaz in the Bible. And then our town flooded and she had to move back to her home town to be near her sister. I really never got to say goodbye or see what she did with that emerging skill.


As I sat in church that recent Sunday and listened to the preacher, I took a third point from his sermon – one that I think applies to those working cross culturally, especially as we seek to spiritually mentor and disciple people.

In middle class, Bible-belt Americana – my cultural background – it might be a good and fair assumption that daily dependence on God and His Word is evidenced by someone consistently and daily reading the Bible. That might even be on the mental checklist when considering someone for a position of leadership within the church. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it should be.

But, if I carry that same mental checklist with me when traveling to and ministering within another culture or community where the ability to read isn’t an almost automatic given, I’ve lost any semblance of contextually appropriate cultural authenticity.

Daily reading and independent study of God’s Word is a “form” that is recognized in my world as evidence of a much more important “function:” interacting with God and His Word, allowing His truth to penetrate into heart, soul, mind, and spirit, resulting in change and direction for life. In a predominately illiterate culture, that function cannot be represented by the form of daily reading and independent study of God’s Word. This doesn’t mean we ignore that function; it means we find culturally workable way for it to be manifested.


As cross cultural workers, when form (regardless of how good and appropriate and effective that form may have been in our home worlds and cultures) becomes more important than function, we put the cart before the donkey and become culturally irrelevant.

I’ve spent a number of years living in a land where I couldn’t walk down the street without seeing at least one donkey pulling a cart, and the people knew that if you tried to get the cart to pull the donkey, it just wouldn’t work.  How often do we discourage and turn people away from potential friendship with God by preaching a culturally irrelevant form and thus diluting and deforming, if not outright blocking, Christ’s message of hope and salvation by darkening the amazing grace of the Gospel?

How can we major on the majors and prevent home culture interference on the “form” of a biblical “function” when working cross culturally? 

How do you, personally, make sure that form follows function in your cross-cultural work and/or ministry?

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About Richelle Wright

Disciple of Jesus, lover of God's Word, wife to one great guy, and mama of eight, Richelle has spent the past 13 years in Niger, West Africa. She and her family are currently in the throes of transition as they begin life and ministry (teaching, audio-visual production) in the Canadian province of Québec. ||
  • Casey

    I really wrestle with this in a mainly non-literate context. I find myself looking to our local Christians to come up with the answer for this particular culture, while they typically follow the form given by the missionary who led them to faith…which just doesn’t work for them. They end up with a sense of “lesser than” that just breaks my heart. I hope and pray for answers – and I hope they come from someone who understands this situation better than I!

    • Richelle Wright

      I know… one other idea prevalent was that western education, or at least an education taught by westerners, was somehow more valid than discipleship and teaching by local, proven pastors.

      As I worked with women, I tried to share things I was learning from them, to foster an environment of mutual respect, learning and accountability. They were very happy to “educate” me when it came to cultural stuff – especially the older ladies. But it took several years before I could get the women to tell me how a particular biblw passage impacted them. They wanted “the missionary” to tell them how it should impact them. And then… the ladies finally started sharing some pretty amazing insights… really cool when it happened.

  • I am thinking a lot about this right now in well-educated, literate Australia. The generation of my just-adult children is not very much into reading, and to tell them they must read the Bible every day is a stumbling block for some of them even though they can read. They learn better and take things to heart more readily if they can see and hear it. So I’m hunting for more Bible in alternative media.

    This is also an issue as I try to build up young adults in cross-cultural mission awareness. There are fantastic books – but non-readers take forever to read them and, even then, don’t really take the information on board. So again I’m hunting for alternative mission training media. Any ideas?

    • Richelle Wright

      I’d pursue the alternative media, particularly with younger ages. Then contests… or disguising the reading as part of an activity – scavenger hunt, writing your own psalm following a model, studies designed for young adults including interactive websites, reading on electronic devices with all sorts of “extras…”

      Reading discussion circles might be a possibility, too – as long as the reading is manageable- and provides accountability.

      Hunger for God’s Word doesn’t come naturally, either… so pray, pray, pray!!

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