A Cross-cultural Missional Life in Three Stages

by Les Cowan

A practical, three-stage checklist that workers in transition might use as a way of identifying where they are and what lies ahead.

Tony and Jill arrived on the field and, in spite of first-term nerves, were full of enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to get started. Two years later, things were different. Owing to a combination of factors, including unresolved team conflicts (Tony), hurts at treatment from neighbors (Jill), upsets at school (the kids), and general feelings of uselessness (everyone), they headed home. Tony is now working in accounting and Jill is on a community nursing team.

Although this may be an extreme example, this is not a particularly unusual scenario. While most mission workers stay longer and accomplish more, too many fail to achieve their original goals. This is cause for concern on at least two levels. First, it is likely to represent a personal crisis for those who may have devoted many years, life savings, career advancement, and even health and education to the mission venture, only to see the dream go awry. Second, it represents a loss of resources with respect to the Great Commission and funding that could have been put to better use.

The Remap study of 455 mission agencies, representing 23,000 long-term workers, reported 4,400 long-term workers returning from 1992-1994. For “old sending countries” of Europe and North America, 7.1% of mission workers were leaving per year, of which two-thirds were seen as returning for “potentially preventable reasons.” For “new sending countries” emerging from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 6.4% were leaving each year, but of these a higher proportion of returns, 5.5%, were seen as potentially preventable. Seven specific sub-divisions were identified within the potentially preventable category: personal, family, agency, work, team, other, and cultural, in descending order.

While these are significant and troubling results, it is particularly surprising to note that cultural reasons were so low on the list since learning a new language and fitting into a new culture are far from trivial matters. In relation to Spain, Leanne Dzubinski points out:

…many North American and Northern European missionaries coming to work in Spain continue to experience significant disorientation in their ministry long after the first few years have passed. Although they have learned the language well, are involved in a local church and in ministry, and their children are integrated into local schools, the feeling of not fitting in often persists for years. Experienced missionaries frequently say that it just never gets better. And the attrition rate for missionaries to Spain remains appallingly high. (2008.)

So, on the one hand, the task of adaption and integration is seen as highly demanding and stressful, and hence, one would have thought this would have led to many early returns—and yet it is least likely to be blamed in a relatively recent survey. Why?

Two possible explanations spring to mind. First, those moving into cross-cultural missions are already expecting and planning for culture-related stress—or should be. The U-shaped curve of initial excitement, high hopes, and positive feelings which then give way to bewilderment, disillusion, and loneliness before recovering to a healthy adaption has been well known for years and should be a prominent part of any orientation process. Hence, these frustrations and tensions should be more or less expected and perhaps reasonably tolerated. On the other hand, difficult issues with leadership, a lack of clear objectives, or pressures related to underfunding are not.

In other words, cross-cultural workers might expect to be frustrated and hampered by the new and unfamiliar, but not by what they think they understand. That’s to say, we can know who our enemies are, but it’s harder when we are let down by our friends.

Second, although cultural factors were the least cited reason for premature, preventable drop-out, they are undoubtedly the background against which all other stresses are played out. Hence, issues we might be able to cope with in a familiar setting become more demanding when they need to be handled along with inadequate language skills, impenetrable bureaucracy, poor health and educational systems, and various foreign foods. So, even if other factors get the blame, background cultural stress may still be a significant part of the mix.

A Roadmap for Cultural Adaption and Integration
Anything we can do, therefore, to better equip new workers in this area must be worthwhile. Below, I do not offer any new sources of wisdom for successfully running the integration race; instead, I propose a roadmap.

Let me start by saying that the U-curve approach is not in fact a model of cultural competence, but more a way of charting feelings, reactions, and a sense of “fit” in a cross-cultural situation. Those experiencing adaption to a new culture do not imagine that they will begin competently, slide down into confusion, and then gradually recover. If we understand anything, it is that our first months (and in some cases, years) are a time of general cultural and linguistic incompetence which we hope will steadily improve. The U-curve primarily charts how we feel about where we are and how we fit in, which is a separate matter from objective cultural competence. So, it might be helpful to chart progress in more objective, concrete terms.

Dan Sheffield and Joyce Bellos (n.d.) suggest an approach based upon the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. This sees becoming “successful” as a process of passing through stages of novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and finally, expert. Their account exemplifies this with reference to learning to drive and nurse training.

But while such a model may be applicable to clearly-defined learning processes such as picking up a language or technical task, it seems less so in relation to less easily definable behaviors necessary in evangelism, church planting, or general pioneer work. None of these has a prescribed curriculum, objective criteria for success, readily accessible exemplars, or straightforward method for passing on best practice, whatever that might be.

Furthermore, the model does not spell out just what the key skills applicable at each stage might be. Hence, something more is needed in terms of practical usefulness and measuring progress.

A Three-stage Checklist for Cultural Adaption and Integration
So, taking into account both issues of emotional reaction and objective skills acquisition, my aim is to suggest a practical three-stage checklist that workers in transition might use as a way of identifying where they are and what lies ahead. The goal is to increase self-awareness and improve long-term retention.

Stage #1: Survival. Picture Paul Simon’s foreign traveler in the song “You Can Call Me Al” from the “Graceland” album (Warner Bros 1986):

A man walks down the street

It’s a street in a strange world

maybe it’s the third world

Maybe it’s his first time around

He doesn’t speak the language

Holds no currency

He is a foreign man

He is surrounded by the sound, sound

Cattle in the marketplace

Scatterlings and orphanages…

Simon paints a picture of utter foreignness and bewilderment. Mission workers should come better equipped than this, but nevertheless the early stages are bound to feel like being surrounded by strangeness and holding on by the skin of our teeth. Although we may come to the survival stage full of enthusiasm (in U-curve terms), the fact is that we are cultural ignoramuses and have a huge amount to learn and a lot of trauma to go through before finding stable footing and feeling good about both ourselves and the culture. In terms of Maslow’s oft-quoted hierarchy of human needs terms, unless we can find food and shelter, warmth and safety, human companionship and funding support, we may find we have little left over for higher ideals.

For a more contemporary take, Daniel Pink refers to the central role of purpose, mastery, and autonomy in the modern workplace as key motivators over against mere money, which he sees as of more limited motivating power (2011). Although our level of purpose may be high in missions, in the early survival stage, mastery and autonomy are precisely what we do not have. Having come from a feeling of reasonable control in a home culture, we must now rely upon a teenage shop assistant to pick out the right coins from a handful of change.

What might survival skills and attitudes include? Here are some activities which a culturally competent person can expect to perform unaided by the end of an initial transition period (which will vary from country to country but in my own agency is normally two years):

• Dealing with shopkeepers and tradesmen
• Buying groceries and cooking with local ingredients
• Opening and managing a bank account
• Renting accommodation
• Accessing local health care
• Making initial relationships with local people
• Attending a local church (if there is one) with some understanding of proceedings
• Driving (if applicable) and/or using public transport
• Answering the phone, posting letters, and accessing the Internet
• Beginning to participate in cultural life
• Being able to pray, read scripture, and share one’s faith at a basic level in the local language
• Feeling safe in public places and secure at home
• Having time and energy for leisure pursuits

So you’ve been in place for two years and things are becoming more routine. You may even be edging out of survival mode and ready for a higher level. But what exactly is the next level and what are its characteristics?

Stage #2: Integration. Thus far, I have been referring to adaption and integration as if they were more or less synonyms. Terry Wickham, however, sees adaption as very different from integration and possibly not even an appropriate goal (1983). Adaption, as he sees it, is a more or less grudging acceptance of a new culture, which we may be willing to put up with for the Kingdom of God, but have never really committed to at a personal level. While acknowledging a call to build the kingdom across cultures, we are willing to make the best of it until we can finally board that final flight home and get back to normal.

Integration, on the other hand, involves a much more personal “buy-in” in which the worker moves to a point of feeling personally committed to the new culture, at ease and comfortable in it, and no longer thinks of him or herself as an alien or exile. Those who merely adapt but fail to integrate are unlikely to have their desired spiritual impact.

Here are suggestions as to what the integration stage might involve:

• An integrated cross-cultural worker will feel increasingly at home in the host culture, be developing close friendships with local people (both believers and not-yet believers), and should be actively participating in church life (if applicable), local cultural life, and possibly even at a national level.
• The norms of daily living, including safety and security, are understood and routinely followed such that the worker can take unusual events in stride and offer help and support to colleagues still in their survival stage.
• Ministry and service is becoming increasingly clear as God guides and empowers. Workers should understand fairly clearly what their gifts are, how these can best be utilized in the local context, and be actively engaged in doing so.
• Both the good and the bad in local culture and national life should now be apparent in relation to kingdom values.
• While the integrated workers have now arrived at the point of largely feeling at home, they remain aware of the need not simply to “fit in,” but are highly motivated to remain fundamentally counter-cultural in their values and behavior as the church must be in any place or time.

Now you may feel integrated and comfortable despite the differences. But this is not enough. There are millions of fully integrated, culturally capable Christians who may not be having much impact for the kingdom. In fact, it is possible to pass through the process of becoming comfortable in a new culture and getting, well, too comfortable.

The gospel is never intended to be at home in human culture; it is always counter-cultural, as Jesus made plain in the parable of the two highways (Matt. 7:13-14). According to this, the majority of humankind is always on the wide path of convenience, comfort, and least resistance, while the Kingdom of God involves a narrow road of inconvenience, struggle, and (to mix metaphors) swimming against the tide. So, it cannot be enough to fit in, whether in a home “heart” culture or a cross-cultural situation.

Stage #3: Effectiveness. While not undervaluing the place of steadfast and persistent witness in harsh and unresponsive conditions (what we might call faithfulness), serious workers ultimately want to be effective in seeing fruit for their labor. And while cross-cultural workers can be effectively used by the Holy Spirit at any point of cultural and linguistic skill, it is clear that effective communication normally depends upon being linguistically competent, culturally aware, and spiritually sensitive.

Indeed, routinely effective workers are those who have passed through the process of coming to feel at home in the culture, but are determined not to rest at that. Instead, they are willing to take faith risks as God leads and move beyond their cultural and personal comfort zones. Similarly, they will tend to push their team, the church of which they are part (if applicable), and themselves beyond comfortable limits to achieve the impossible for the kingdom.

While valuing friendship with colleagues and not-yet believers, they are always alert for opportunities to push the boundaries of relationships and ministry norms to achieve something more. Effective workers are, however, also fully aware that any strength they have comes from Christ in them, and hence will not easily fall into the trap of thinking that their cultural, linguistic, and spiritual competencies alone are sufficient to achieve their aims. Likewise, effective workers have a degree of resilience to help them recover when things go wrong and yet are able support others in such circumstances.

The process of enculturation through stages of survival, integration, and effectiveness might look something like the graph below.



While the three stages stack upwards in the direction of increasing effectiveness and have their own discrete characteristics, they are separated by dotted, rather than solid lines. This is meant to suggest that any worker, at any time, can move from one to another without passing any sort of cultural exam.

Hence, even workers in survival or integrated mode may from time to time find themselves being extraordinarily effective, given that, as Paul makes it plain, the opening of doors to effectiveness is the Lord’s work and not our own (see 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3). Unfortunately, it is conversely possible to slip back through the stages and find ourselves suddenly in survival mode through illness, discouragement, unforeseen events, or unresolved conflicts after having previously been at a higher stage.

Nevertheless, this model aims to outline a picture of general progress through the sorts of competencies, behaviors, and feelings that workers should typically be more able to demonstrate as time goes by. Having some awareness of the stages of enculturation might help new workers make sense of what they are learning, how they are feeling, and what they can achieve. Which, in the process, might contribute to helping us hang in there longer.

Dzubinski, Leanne. 2008. “Contrasting Worldviews and Their Implications for Missions in Spain.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 44(1): 48-55.

Hay, Rob, Valerie Lim, Detlef Blocher, Jaap Ketelaar, and Sarah Hay. 2007. Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Pink, Daniel H. Drive: 2011. The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us. Edinburgh: Canongate.

Sheffield, Dan and Bellous, Joyce. n.d. Learning to Be a Missionary: The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition Applied to the Development of Cross-cultural Ministry Practitioners. Accessed May 24, 2013, from www.worldevangelicals.org/resources/results/? keyword=res3_134_link_ 1292365763.pdf.

Wickham, Terry. 1983. The Missionary in Spain: Adaptation or Integration? Barcelona: Alianza Evangelica Española.


Les Cowan came to missions late in life after a varied career in social services practice and management, further and higher education, and running his own software development business. His hobbies include all things Spanish, saxophone jazz, sailing, and cooking.

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 440-446. Copyright  © 2013 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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