INDIGENOUS & Why Terms Etic / Emic Remind Us That Locals Are Best at Reaching Their Culture

by Bob Whitesel Ph.D., 7/11/15.

A student tendered this observation,

“An important truth I have learned, both from reading about mission work and our involvement with partnering with work in the Dominican Republic, is that indigenous workers are better at reaching their own people. Not only better–as in more effective, but also cheaper.”

This is an important missiological concept to understand.  And there are some terms missiologists use to describe this: etic and emic.  Let me explain.

When a person is part of a culture, we say she or he has an emic relationship with that culture.  When we relate to a culture, but are not really part of it, it is called an etic relationship.

These are missiological terms, but effective leaders will become familiar with them. They are shorthand terminology for sharing knowledge among leaders of outreach work.  In fact, you may not have realized it yet, but the Church Growth Movement is part of the School of Intercultural Studies (formerly School of World Mission) and practitioners of Church Growth are best described as North American misssiologists.

Thus, not surprisingly another student asked me a question about etic verses emic missiological intentions.  Here is what she said:

“I agree with what you said that indigenous people are best reached by one of their own, but what happens to those who sense a call to minister to these people? What do you think?”

Organix_final.aiI know how this person feels.  I am one of those people who feel a sense of call to minister to Gen. X and Millennials (I even wrote a book on Millennial Leadership called ORGANIX.  In fact I took this online test to see which generation I identified.  And, I identified almost equally with Generation X and the Millennials.  Check out the survey here:

Yet, while I relate to Gen. X (I have four daughters and two son-in-laws of this generation) I will always have an etic relationship with it.  That is important for missiologists to understand.  I will never have an indigenous ministry.  I can mentor others, but I must be willing to always step aside.

This is the altruistic decision that every missionary must be prepared to undertake.  In Mission Schools they often say if you are not willing to step aside and let emic missionaries take over and lead, then you are not called to mission work.  It is a hard decision to make, but requisite.