by Andrew Atkins
Only if our missionary candidates dearly understand their own culture will their box of cross-cultural ministry tools be complete.
In rural Haiti, our nurse came back crying, and we understood why when she told us what had happened. The three-year-old daughter of one of the families that she had been teaching about basic hygiene had been poisoned by her parents. Under the local spiritist healer’s direction, they had rubbed manure soup over her body and then fed it to her.
Choking out the words through her sobs, she said, "What’s the use? I’ve been teaching sanitation for months and look what happens. I’m quitting."
Back in Canada, I listened to one of our development workers tell me about a bunch of letters he had received from national friends on the field. He was glad to hear from them, of course, and glad that he could read their language, but he was upset because they all asked him to bring something back for them, things like a radio-cassette player, tools, an accordion, and even a stove. He saw this as a ministry failure on his part. "Is it really worth going back?" he asked. "My message of self-sufficiency was a waste."
Then I recalled how my wife and I had failed in one incident. It was Sunday after a week of crisis meetings and all I wanted was a quiet day at home. But after lunch we heard footsteps approaching. Quickly we ducked below the countertop and then cowered there for 10 minutes while our caller knocked, shouted, and peeked in the windows. Finally, he left.
What ties these stories together? The inevitable clash of cultures. We can’t avoid them, but what can we do to lessen the pain and frustration that grow out of such clashes? Study the host culture, of course, but in addition we have to understand the culture we take with us to the field. That’s the neglected tool in our cross-cultural ministry.
We may think that we already understand our own culture, but usually we don’t until we enter another culture and then look back at our own. One of the first things you learn on the field is how we look to other people. Africans call us "offensive" because we blow our noses and store the results in our pockets. Asians think we are "messy" because we collect our garbage inside our homes and take it out once a week. Latin Americans say we’re "demented" because we allow dogs to sleep on our beds. The rural Dominican sees Christians as "immoral" because they permit coed swimming.
How much do we really know about ourselves? Ask a Canadian and an American to describe their culture and you won’t find out very much. We’ve got to fill in that blank spot in our missionary preparation for a number of important reasons.
First, our parent culture helps to create our inner being, spiritually, emotionally, mentally. It spills over to our physical life as well. What we are taught, learn, and apply about our faith is in the North American context. We take that cultural gospel overseas.
For example, I’ve met very few North Americans who can handle problems, failures, and suffering. That’s because their cultural gospel says that God is obligated to bless his children. Not only that, but they define God’s blessings in terms of ease, not in terms of trials that produce maturity.
Our expectations, dreams, aspirations, value system, body language, communication, fears, and joys are all culturally determined. If missionaries ignore the depth of their cultural formation, they are bound to be frustrated overseas.
For example, we are raised to expect to receive gratitude for showing kindness to someone. Sometimes we even withhold further kindness until we get gratitude. I remember one time in Haiti when our hurricane relief got discouraged because the recipients of our food didn’t stop to say thank-you. Our North American expectations were not being met. Not until harvest time did the Haitians say thank-you with gifts of their own, and then we were humbled.
A second important reason why we need to understand our own culture is because it helps us to establish relationships on the field. If we can tell stories about ourselves, people will listen. Story-telling is an effective way to make friends, learn the language, and figure out the culture.
One time I spent three hours telling a strange story to a group of disbelieving Tanzanians. My subject was a credit card. I told that this piece of plastic meant that I never had to handle money. During those three hours my Kiswahili improved considerably, and I gained some valued friends who later brought their disbelieving friends to hear the same story. I also observed life in their homes, without the restrictions of a formal meal.
Since Christianity is an integral part of North American culture, it’s perfectly natural to talk about it. I’ve found that even a Muslim will listen to a clear explanation of the gospel when I’m answering his questions about Canada.
Only if our missionary candidates dearly understand their own culture will their box of cross-cultural ministry tools be complete. But where do you start? Anyone can write down a list of the main cultural influences that shape his or her life. Mine goes like this:
1. We are highly educated. We learn that the scientific method is to be trusted. We place great value on statistics, facts, studies, reports, experts’ opinions. This erodes our reliance on the Holy Spirit and tends to make us think that reality is physical, not spiritual.
2. We are rich. We seldom have to worry about our food, clothing, and housing. Rather, we worry about the quality of life. We spend a lot of money on leisure and luxuries. We have an abundance of discipleship resources. We tend to trust God only when we’re sick.
3. We don’t value personal relationships. Except when we’re courting, we seldom spend hours with another person. Conversations with casual friends seem to have a five-minute limit; those with family and close friends, about 20 minutes. Even when we join someone for entertainment, we focus on the performance, not on the people we’re with.
4. We are jealous of our rights. We stress individualism over community; our privacy is paramount. Litigation has become a way of life because someone has to pay for our loss or damage to our rights. We believe in our right to success and ease.
5. We have hope. Ours is a culture where the possibilities of moving out of a difficult spot are numerous. We take for granted that we can achieve our dreams. Our hope is based on the fact that we have opportunities for education, work, and health. Even in our difficulties our governments step in for our benefit.
6. We are insulated. We try to make our lives as painless as possible. We spend our money and technology on instant cooking, cleaning, and communication. We can spend a whole day without ever touching the earth: from carpet to brick walk to car to pavement to linoleum to carpet and back.
7. We are free. Although we live under many laws, basically we are free. We have freedom from fear, of choice, and of movement.
8. We are individualistic. Our heroes are people who pull themselves up to success. We don’t encourage personal loss for someone else’s gain, or for community good. We challenge authority at all levels.
Well, you can go on from there, but that’s a start. If we understand how our culture has molded us, we are much better prepared to be competent cross-culturalists. However, such knowledge and understanding of our own cultural baggage must be used wisely on the field.
For example, we must avoid the common mistake of expecting the host culture to change and become like ours. Not only that, we must be prepared to shed some aspects of our culture for the sake of the gospel. Let’s go back to the three stories I told at the beginning of the article, to see how this works.
Our nurse in Haiti, who grieved because the people poisoned their child, failed to take into account her reliance on science. She coupled that with a failure to see the priority of relationships. To her, health teaching was the main thing. She expected that by telling facts about health, she could enable the villagers to solve some of their health problems. What she didn’t see was that the rural family would not risk damaging their relationship with the spiritist for the sake of following her teaching.
Outside our high-tech world, relationships are of surpassing importance. We measure our success in terms of money made, objects accumulated, degrees gained, and statistics piled up, but often we have no idea how to measure our success in terms of relationships. We rush into situations and try to achieve success in terms of what we know, not in terms of relationships.
It never ceases to amaze me how impatient and frustrated most of our pioneer team members can get during the first years of a new program. This has to do primarily with their defining success in number of converts, churches started, springs capped, health lessons taught, and latrines dug.
Their frustration continues to plague them even after they answer Yes to questions like these: Have you visited the village chiefs and gotten to know them? Have they invited you to feasts and ceremonies? Can you speak the language? Do you have any friends among the villagers? Have you established good relations with government officials? Do the people understand why you are here, so they are no longer suspicious? Have you started to share the gospel? Have any villagers visited you? Have you gone to any birth, marriage, or death ceremonies?
You see, the reason they are frustrated is because they have missed the fact that relationships count, not accumulating statistics.
In the case of our development worker who was disappointed with the requests for things to bring back to the field with him, he could not see himself as fabulously rich in their eyes. His misunderstanding of his own culture is perhaps understandable, given the fact that missionaries generally are regarded as charity cases. For someone on charity to think of himself as being rich is quite a feat, but missionaries must do this because this is how they will be seen on the field—as rich, not poor.
Some missiologists claim that rich Westerners can no longer speak with integrity to the poor, and that therefore their gospel is irrelevant. I admit that our comparative wealth makes our communication task that much harder, but it is not impossible. The answer lies in our taking the attitude of the Lord Jesus, who had all the riches of the universe under his control, yet willingly became a servant and suffered death on the cross. We must neither deny our wealth, nor erect barriers to protect it, but rather use it in comformity to the way of Christ.
In fact, our comparative wealth can even be an asset to our witness, if the people sense our humility and servan-thood. At one of our projects in Sudan, a Muslim merchant spent months pondering what motivated a bunch of young Christians to give up their potential wealth in Canada to come and serve poor Muslim villagers. He subsequently came to faith in Christ. One of our missionaries in Nigeria is probably best remembered for having been willing to spend the night at a friend’s house in the slums of Lagos.
In my own case—ducking out of sight to avoid a Sunday afternoon caller—the right to privacy and rest when you need it is a given in our Western culture. However, such rights can stand in the way of our ministry, if we’re not careful. In the cause of Christ, such rights are not inviolate.
The most difficult aspect of total commitment is trusting God to meet our needs. Like Abraham, we must be willing to sacrifice our rights to family, then turn around trust him to meet our needs for family. This principle applies to any of our rights. Instead of avoiding our caller, we could have answered the door and explained that we needed some rest and privacy. Among Canadian Christians, Sunday is a day when business is not normally discussed. How about coming back tomorrow?
By giving up just a few minutes of my rights, I could have done some significant cross-cultural sharing. I could have promoted better understanding and strengthened our relationship.
Far too often, we’re outfitted with only some of the tools we need for successful cross-cultural ministry. We go to the field, neither understanding who we are culturally, nor how we will affect our recipient cultures, nor what changes we need to make in ourselves. Upon arrival, we twice compound our error: we subtly expect the people to change and become like us, and we leave them with no option but to guess what we are like inside.
It’s time that our outfits should include all the tools we need. We must never weaken the lessons on how to observe, study, and know another culture. At the same time, we must add a set of methods, ideas, literature, and communications designed to ensure that before we leave for the field we understand the culture we will leave behind, but also carry with us.
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