After soaking up Western culture during their training, they often find it hard to readjust to their own countries.
I came back home," my friend explained, "expecting that when my people heard these ideas, they would be really excited." But his face revealed only pain. His eyes avoided mine, trying to hide his deep disappointment.
They were not excited with the new ideas, or the vision that was so keen in his heart. After many years of training and study in the West, he had formed strong plans for the future of the church in his home country. He had learned to see clearly, but his people still seemed to see through the glass darkly.
My friend had run aground on what may be a common danger for church leaders who leave their country for ministry training. When they return, the church and the country are different than what they remembered, different than they had hoped. This gap between reality and expectation can shipwreck the best plans for ministry on the ragged rocks of disappointment.
After training in the West, many ministers return unprepared for the challenge ahead. Before their training, they may not have expected how much they themselves would change from living in the Western culture. Too often, their Western schooling did not prepare them for ministry at home.
Western theological schools and field missionaries can make the sailing smoother for national workers who return home from overseas training. To help these workers become effective ministers, the schools and the missionaries must understand the changes they will face, after having studied in the West. These changes have three faces: culture, pedagogy, and history.
Every year many men and women from the developing world arrive in the West to train for the ministry. Often they have been drawn by the wealth of opportunities, and a lack of resources in their home countries. Many come to the U.S. or Europe for the first time little or no English. They work diligently to gain enough language to survive, and then to excel, in their studies.
These students don’t learn only from textbooks. They learn the traits of the culture and bring them along come home.
T-shirts and TV may replace the galabiya and the local coffee shop. Most Western missionaries serving experience the same kind of learning. This is good, because it makes ministry and day-to-day life in the new culture easier.
However, the person who has been immersed in a new culture is forever changed. Generally, they see the world differently than before. Many students who work overseas for only a summer call it a life-changing experience. How much more then, for someone who has or more years in the West?
Depending on the theological school, the cultural changes can be or profound. But change is sure, and so is its latent danger. National workers come home and abruptly realize that they are not like the people of their homeland. Some return to conservative cultures and at their social restrictions after living in the more permissive West. They may feel more comfortable in a Western setting.
Missionaries and their children coming home on furlough routinely experience what’s called "re-entry stress," It’s reverse culture shock to come back to your own culture and find it foreign and uncomfortable. Likewise, a national worker who’s been "enlightened" by the West may cringe to see how "backwards" his people live.
National children who have grown up in the West go back home to a country they don’t know, its customs seem foreign, and they can’t speak the language. The children feel true culture shock, but the people don’t recognize or understand it, because they look like "one of us."
Culture shock can truly hit hard on a national returning to his own country, but a field missionary can help smooth the way. He can tell the national pastor about some of the changes that will be lurking around the comer as he heads West When the pastor returns, he can foster an appreciation for the national culture and practice of the church. He can show how to work together with the church, instead of in competition with it.
Even learning works differently in different cultures. Nationals studying in the U.S. have to adjust to a structured, linear style of teaching. American students naturally expect a professor to provide a detailed syllabus listing requirements, dates, and exams for each new class. They expect to take point-by-point lecture notes. Most Americans can’t think any other way.
One of my seminary professors had spent his missionary career in the Far East. His lectures were far from linear in structure.
He had adopted many Eastern thought patterns in his teaching method. Americans came out of his class baffled: "I only took three lines of notes, yet he talked the whole period! Why doesn’t he say something?" The methods that exasperated us were a sublime joy for our international classmates.
A person coming from a developing country to the U.S. to study must learn to think in new patterns. Most rise to the challenge.
In time, they learn to appreciate its strengths. But more subtly, they have absorbed these Western thought patterns. So they are surprised to find that the people they teach at home don’t think it’s so important to outline a passage, and may not appreciate the weighty significance of the Greek roots of the word "compassion."
The national worker has brought along an imposed, foreign pedagogy which his people don’t understand. Must they adopt the foreign thought patterns in order to learn the Scriptures? Regardless, he learned this pattern in the West and it is the way he has been trained to present the Scriptures.
Aye, there’s the rub. Should the returning worker expect his people to change to follow his teaching, or should adapt his teaching to their minds and abilities? If our goal as missionaries and theological schools is to equip Christians for service in the church, we must sacrifice our sacred-cow-treatment of Western pedagogy. The burden falls on the educator, to help students understand that teaching and learning is limited culturally.
Any method is only as good as its ability to mold hearts and minds. Are professors willing to learn other teaching methods? Can they step outside the structure of the lecture? Or are we sending a subtle message that people can only learn by overhead projectors and notes? Creative training programs, like the Global Ministry Training Center in Korea, can equip teachers with new methods which will reach more students.
The West can learn from other models of training to break out of a rigid, culture-defined pattern. It’s time to train creatively, so that our trainees can be effective and relevant.
Every church has a history. In some parts of the world the roots of the church run deep. That history is as integral to the culture as its families or tribes.
The Middle East has been affected by the presence of the church since the earliest beginnings of Christianity. Traditions and theology have all developed over the course of many centuries.
From the advent of Islam in the seventh century, the church has essentially continued in a fortress mentality, in order to survive.
Even since recent Protestant evangelical missions in the last century, the church has held a posture of survival, the forces of culture and government are so hostile toward Christianity.
The history of the church in any land shapes what does and not work in the local ministry. Practices and have developed over decades, sometimes centuries. They won’t change in six of intensive discipleship training. Six of the best training videos will not make even a ripple if the ocean waves are going the other direction.
Into this setting comes a returning national worker. He’s enthused and energetic with a vision for what the church should be doing. He saw it work in the West. Now, with all eight cylinders running he’s ready to bum rubber. But his people aren’t so sure.
New ideas fuel programs in the West. But in many cultures, anything is suspect. The most supportive of church members may think, "My never did it that way. You claim to be a greater authority than my father?"
In the West, seminary students learn implicitly and explicitly that things happen quickly and on time. Mail comes to your door, computers access information in nanoseconds, and begin and end according to schedule.
Because of history, time for a church in the Philippines may be entirely different than for a church in Philadelphia. The national worker has formed Ms own personal history during his time overseas. His history has shaped Ms expectations for what he will accomplish in a day, a week, or a year. He may have forgotten the differences in the history of his home country. When the histories of the church and its leader collide, the effect can devastate both.
Do we, the missionaries on the field, and the schools in the West, grasp the power of history over the life of the church? We must help our international brothers and sisters wrestle with these issues if we truly desire to train them to be effective leaders.
WHAT WE NEED
Let me propose some steps to take toward avoiding the pitfalls I have described.
1. Theological schools in the West must develop ways to prepare international students for the difficulties they will face because of cultural differences. This can include cross-cultural counseling, encouragement from advisers, or international discussion groups. Students can meet together to talk about their countries, and help each other match expectations to reality.
2. The field missionary can set the tone before the national worker leaves his country. He can explain the differences in the West. He may have a good idea of which Western practices may not be culturally relevant or practical for the church in the homeland.
The missionary can correspond with the student in the West, sharing the news of the church, so that he knows what he will find when he returns.
3. Those who train and care for international students should help them set appropriate expectations of believers in their home countries. The returning worker who places Western standards on his home church hurts it, however good his intentions. People will not think the same as his seminary colleagues. They will understand the Scriptures differently. Time will have another value. He must strive to understand the culture and its limits, and work within them, not against them. He must understand that different is not wrong or less effective.
New missionary activity is sweeping across the face of the developing world. Much effort is focused on giving training to nationals, so that they can take up the work begun by Western missionaries. This is the right direction. But the church must flesh out and develop that direction. Schools and nationals who train there must fully understand the task of training for ministry in all its facets. The worker who has been rightly prepared will face his people again, ready to fit back into his culture and build up the church in his land.
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