by Harriet Hill
Friendship is key to developing needed empathy.
In the April, 1990, issue of Evangelical Missions Quarterly, I expressed my concerns about the Incarnational model of missionary ministry-becoming one with the people we have been sent to reach. I questioned whether it is realistic, honest, good for the long haul, effective, or appreciated, and suggested caution in teaching it. Ken McElhanon responded in the October, 1991, issue. Pointing to the examples of Jesus and Paul, he said that although trying to culturally identify with people does not guarantee acceptance, missionaries should avoid the easier path of being outsiders and instead learn the language and culture and bond with people in order to more clearly and powerfully communicate the gospel.
I’m grateful for his response, as it has forced me to think through the issue more carefully. I found myself agreeing enthusiastically with much of what he had to say, and at the same time disagreeing with equal enthusiasm. This may be because we are referring to different concepts with the same words-a concise definition of incarnational ministry is difficult to find in the literature. After indentifying three different models of "incarnational" ministry, the fog seems to have lifted for me. I will discuss each model and then develop a theme I touched on in my previous article that, I hope, will resolve our differences while providing a model for ministry that is both workable and effective.
MODEL NO. 1: UNDERSTAND THE PEOPLE BY ADOPTING THEIR LIFESTYLE
In 1986, Sherwood Lingenfelter said of incarnational ministry:
If Jesus did indeed set the example, then it is clear that it was my responsibility to work as hard to become Yapese as he did to become a Jew. Through the Great Commission Jesus sends us out into all the world, and as Ms messengers we are to follow his example, that is, we are to become incarnate in the cultures to which we are sent…. We must love the people to whom we minister so much that we are willing to enter their culture as children, to learn how to speak as they speak, play as they play, eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep, study what they study, and thus earn their respect and admiration. … If we are to follow the example of Christ, we must aim at incarnation! Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself’ (Matt. 16:24). We must be willing to give up our American Christian lifestyle and begin as children, learning at the feet of those we have gone to serve. We must be willing to become world Christians. The challenges will shake us, the changes will trouble as. Our bodies will get sick, our minds will suffer fatigue, our emotion will sweep us from ecstasy to depression. Yet the love of Christ will sustain us so that we can identify with Paul, who said, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings" (1 Cor. 9:22-23).
In this model, total adoption of the lifestyle of the people is the ideal for all contexts. Although we cannot achieve the ideal due to our frailty, a missionary’s dedication can be measured by the degree to which he or she does. This identification with the people is perceived as the means by which the missionary gains their respect.
My experience has been along the coast of West Africa, where contact with Europeans began more than 100 years ago. The people with whom I live are aware of the modern world. They know there are lifestyle differences between Europeans and African villagers. In this they are typical of Third World cultures; a culture remaining "hidden" from modernity’s touch is indeed rare. While we are busy trying to understand the people empathetically, they are equally busy trying to understand who we are, where we came from, and, most of all, why we came. Whether we arrive by car or public transportation, whether we cook on a gas burner or over a fire, they know we are different If we claim we are one with them and try to adopt their lifestyle, what are they to conclude?
First, they will suspect our motives. It’s obvious to them we’re not what we are trying to be, so what are we covering up? With a history of colonial abuse, they tend to suspect and believe almost anything, and stories travel quickly as they try to solve the puzzle. All they know for sure is that we are not what we appear to be. Instead of this sort of identification improving our relationships, the suspicion it engenders can actually work against building relationships.
If we could be born as a baby into our receptor group, as Jesus was born into his, this "deception" element would not be present. We could actually incarnate. But since we enter these cultures as adults, we have to recognize some fundamental differences between what we can do and what Jesus did. It is not only a question of dedication to the task.
Second, even if we can convince the people that our motives are noble, they will conclude that we are foolish. They believe that anyone with good sense lives in as much comfort as Ms or her means allow. Even with our best efforts, the amazing and incomprehensible things we do and say provide long evenings of howling laughter. As change agents, the less credible we are, the less credible our message will seem.
This first model also risks confusing the role of change agent with that of opinion leader/innovator. A change agent is a person with a new idea or innovation, most often an outsider. Opinion leaders and innovators, on the other hand, must be cultural insiders. Even if we adopt the people’s lifestyle, we will not be insiders and cannot function as opinion leaders. We must recognize that we are outsiders, win the trust of the opinion leaders, and work through them.
And even after we pare down to what we consider a bare minimum of things needed for our survival, the locals will still consider us fabulously wealthy. In addition, our focus is likely to be on all the things we are doing without. This is still materialism. But in many cultures, what you have or don’t have is not the issue, but what you do with what you have. Relation-are the key. Missionaries adopting the lifestyle of the people don’t necessarily even succeed.
Pure physical Identification tends to be oat-ward, rigid, and mechanical. As a matter of fact, overexertion in changing one’s pattern of living may tax energy which otherwise could be applied to more creative thinking and planning toward some other even more effective entry the confidence of the indigenous people…. A successful missionary is the one who has successfully established good rapport.
In discussing this issue with Ivorians, they often respond with this proverb, "If a piece of wood floats in the lagoon, it doesn’t turn into a crocodile." They are happy to have us in their lagoon, but they recognize us for what we are. We should do the same.
Adopting the lifestyle of the people is an unattainable ideal, especially given the present missionary structures. Our best efforts fall far short of really being one with them. My question is whether there is a better model.
MODEL NO. 3: UNDERSTAND THE PEOPLE, ADOPT THEIR LIFESTYLE AS POSSIBLE
In his excellent book The Church and Cultures, Louis Luzbetak distinguishes two levels of identification. The first is empathy, a "feeling with" or understanding of the people.
Empathy means that the missioner fully understands appreciates, as the local people do, the reasons behind their way of life. A missionary with true empathy views all native ways and values not through Ms colored glasses known as "enculturation" but in full native context. Empathy means that I understand why my people are what they are no matter what they are, Although empathy is internal, it is nonetheless clearly perceptible to the local people, and it is a prerequisite for genuine apostolic identification.
Empathy is a must for all ministry situations. A second level of identification is actually adopting native ways and values. Luzbetak cautions that this be within reason, and selectively in ways that help the gospel get accepted. He also finds "it is the missionary’s most painful and unquestionably most generous sacrifice."
Luzbetak says that although empathy is internal it is evident One day a young man in the village asked me if my was an African. Perplexed, I asked for clarification. "You are so nice, so close to us, not like other white people," he said. "You must have an African parent." Contrast this with Reyburn’s experience in going to great lengths to pass as an Indian peasant, but finding that no one was fooled. When questioned, a lady finally said the problem was that he didn’t have an Indian mother.
Distinguishing between these two levels of identification-empathy and adopting the lifestyle-is most helpful. Understanding the people is clearly central and of primary importance. Keeping these levels separate in our minds, also allows for flexibility in lifestyle. The missionary can decide whether to adopt a people’s way of life on a case-by-case basis.
Luzbetak also speaks of selective adoption of the people’s lifestyle, which allows for even more flexibility. Although advocates of the first model do, in fact, adopt elements selectively, they speak of a total adoption. This can mislead impressionable missionary recruits who want to please God at any cost.
METHOD NO. 3: UNDERSTAND THE PEOPLE, SELECT THE MOST APPROPRIATE LIFESTYLE
This model is perhaps the most useful. Again, understanding the people is primary, but the actual role and lifestyle one adopts arise out of that understanding. We can only discover what type of lifestyle would be most appropriate for our situation by developing a deep empathy with the people, seeing the world from their perspective. The most appropriate lifestyle might be quite similar to theirs, or it might be very different. In a personal communication to me last year, Lingenfelter brilliantly described what I am labeling model No. 3.
Knowing the people’s games, postures, ambitions, and expectations is far more important than wearing their clothes or sleeping on the ground. They will assign you a role, regardless of your posturing because you are an outsider, not born into the community. You must then determine how to redefine that role through relationships. Wearing their clothing may be an insult rather than a compliment!…. Knowing the rules of the game is essential, and you may be required to play the game in the role of patron, friend, client, or whatever they decide. Your material choices must necessarily be shaped by the role you are expected to play.
Playing by their rules might take us on some unexpected paths. Among the Murle of Sudan, Jon Arensen was required to be argumentative and aggressive in order to gain the people’s respect. The generous Christian, Mr. Nice Guy role was not effective.
In 1979, Wayne Dye found that the Bible translator’s relationship to the people was the key in whether a Bible translation was used. A very successful project was one in which the missionary accepted .his role as "patron," lived as expected, served coffee (with lots of sugar) to every guest, but at the same time understood and loved the people. He identified empathetically but did not adopt their lifestyle.
In cases where living as the people live is the most proper role, this third model might result in something that looks very much like model No. 1. But we must carefully understand each situation to determine what is most appropriate.
By questioning the first model of incarnational ministry, I’m not implying that missionaries should take it easy and abandon anthropology and missiology. I wholeheartedly endorse understanding and developing close relationships with people. This is a never-ending journey that often leaves one feeling "poured out" like the apostle Paul. My concern is that we hold up a model that is workable and effective.
DEVELOPING INCARNATIONAL EMPATHY: FRIENDSHIP AS A MODEL
How then do we develop incarnational empathy? One promising model of relationship to consider is friendship. In many ways, friendship is a role that honestly describes our relationship to the people. It is biblical: Abraham was a friend of God, and Jesus calls his disciples friends. Friendship allows for differences, but in an atmosphere of respect and acceptance, with a view to mutual enrichment. Friendship occurs in nearly all cultures and is sometimes more intimate than kin relations. It lends itself to ministry. But how would cross-cultural friendship be different than monocultural friendship?
1. Cross-cultural friendship must be intentional. In monocultural situations, we often gravitate effortlessly toward those who become our friends. But establishing cross-cultural friendships requires more intent. Without a clear-cut decision to pursue friendship, missionaries could find themselves filling their time with an assortment of other relationships and activities.
2. Cross-cultural friendship requires proximity. Reflecting on his cross-cultural experiences, Dary1 Whiteman speaks of one experience as successful and another as less successful. In the first, he lived in a village and developed good relationships. In the second, he taught in a school, lived on the school compound, and came away with very few relationships with nationals. His values or model hadn’t changed, but his proximity to the people had. Those who can live in the middle of the community have a great advantage. Those who cannot must regularly get close to the people.
3. Cross-cultural friendship must appreciate differences and similarities. Anthropology greatly helps us understand people of different cultures, but it can also hinder us. The study of anthropology began by focusing on differences between cultures, especially between the modern and the "primitive." Tite Tienou comments,
Remarkably, the continent immediately south of Europe seems to be everything Europe is not. If perchance, the European traveler in Africa should find something there which resembles Europe, he would quickly bypass that in search of something more exotic. … Even before we come into contact with the people we intend to study, we have resolved in our mind that their difference from us constitutes their essence and identity."
If differences are our primary focus, we will not be able to have real relationships. We must balance the understanding of our differences with a realization of our common humanness.
Tienou also warns against another by-product of anthropology. "Stereotypes generally take the form of binary opposition: we/they." Polarization is a death blow to any relationship. I can’t develop a relationship with a cultural stereotype any more than I can relate to someone who sees me as a stereotype of American culture. I can only develop a relationship with an individual. Informed by my cultural research, I need to focus on a particular person as unique.
4. Cross-cultural friendship will cross economic classes. This barrier seems at times more difficult than crossing cultures. We can understand another’s etiquette, values, and social structure, but the contrast of our income and theirs spews out a host of problems. We feel guilty about having so much, both materially and in terms of opportunity. We are accustomed to a certain lifestyle and function very poorly when all of our props are removed. We want to help those in need, but we can’t possibly meet all the needs. Nor do we want to be seen as Santa Claus. We get tired of the numerous requests for help and yet can’t avoid the stark contrast between our abundance and their need.
Missionaries need strategies to deal with these requests, and differentiating among them can be useful. For the ever-present beggar, a small coin is appropriate. Strangers with convincing stories seem to be a universal phenomenon, but are most often phonies. Social deviants also appear with requests, but missionaries should talk with community leaders to understand why they are ostracized, so as not to go against healthy social pressure.
Some requests are not really requests at all. In West Africa, asking for something can actually be a way of saying, "Let’s be friends." The person doesn’t expect to receive the item. However, one inexperienced friend in Mali, in good Christian love, decided to give whatever she was asked for. After she distributed most of her earthly possessions, a friend came with a stranger who asked her for her bucket. As the missionary began to give the bucket, she heard her friend telling the stranger, "Don’t ask her for it She’ll actually give it to you!"
The most difficult category is that of friends in genuine need. If Africans have the money, they will help their needy friends and family members. If not, they don’t help. (Actually, there are a number of interesting ways they devise to not have money, or not to be available to receive the requests!) One method that has worked for some missionaries is to budget a certain amount each month for such requests, and when that Is gone, one can’t help. The other money for gas, food, and so on is also budgeted, and In a sense already spent.
5. Cross-cultural friendship involves vulnerability. One colleague felt her relationships with Africans became genuine friendships when she spent time with them in prayer and Bible study, giving and receiving, ministering and receiving ministry. When cross-cultural workers experience the death of a child, they often report suddenly being taken into a new level of intimacy with the people. In the depths of their grief, all modeling and role playing set aside, bonding with the people occurs to an extent never thought possible.
6. Cross-cultural friendship must be selective. On any continent, you can only relate meaningfully to a handful of people. The same holds true in most cross-cultural situations. Without selecting a few people as close friends, your attention will be too diffused to be significant. But with a few friends, you will gain a window on the culture.
7. Cross-cultural friendship must be flexible. The goal is friendship, but the strategies must remain flexible. Each situation is different, and each missionary is different Your lifestyle might look significantly different than someone else’s, but if you both have good relationships with the people, you’ve both succeeded.
By all means, develop close relationships with the people you serve, and let your lifestyle serve those relationships. As Reyburn counsels, remember the aim: "The basis of missionary identification is not to make the native ‘feel’ more at home around a foreigner, not to ease the conscience of the missionary, but to create a communication and a communion" through which Christ can be presented effectively.
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