by Brian Butler
Learning tools are needed to bring prejudices, hurts, and misunderstandings to the surface.
With nearly 2,000 missionaries from over 30 countries, SIM International has plenty of opportunities to grapple with tensions in an international mission. Predominantly Western for many years, SIM has more recently received an influx of many others, especially Asians. On the whole, the mission believes that despite the tensions it brings, internationalization has been an enriching and strengthening factor in mission life.
Tensions are inevitable in any organization and they can be destructive. The fighting in the former Yugoslavia, as well as conflicts in some African countries, shows that cultural and ethnic differences are an incredibly destructive force. Although the church is a divine institution, it’s no surprise to find strife, division, and tension among its members. Likewise, the apostle Paul’s mission teams faced strong tensions and one team split.
International mission agencies are vulnerable to tensions from a number of different sources. Even something as innocuous as introducing a guest speaker can stir up trouble. For example, Europeans and Australians are sometimes embarrassed by American introductions that emphasize the speaker’s degrees, qualifications, and offices held. A theological college principal in England may not even have an earned doctorate. When asked what they find most difficult to understand about Americans, Australians sometimes reply, “Their obsession with making a good impression.” If such seemingly insignificant things bring trouble, it’s hardly surprising that the going gets tougher when the water gets deeper.
Apart from the usual theological differences among any group of evangelicals, an international mission is likely to reflect quite different church backgrounds, with some Europeans coming from state churches and some Americans from independent churches.
Members will also differ over charismatic issues, depending on their previous exposure, or lack of it, to charismatic worship styles. Sometimes these differences reflect cultural attitudes. People of certain nationalities find it hard to live with ambiguity, while those from other countries find it easier to live with gray areas. One international mission has put all “card-carrying charismatic” members on one field. That may solve one problem, but it hardly reflects the unity of the body of Christ.
Differences over eschatology frequently boil to the surface, as do disputes about attitudes toward the World Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and cooperation with non-evangelicals. While these may appear to be non-issues to some members, there are ominous signs of differences over bedrock mission theology: the modifications of traditional evangelical positions on eternal punishment and the lostness of those who have not heard the gospel.
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
If English is the lingua franca of the mission, does this mean that prayer meetings in Latin America and Francophone Africa must be held in English rather than Spanish or French? It may depend on whether Americans are in the majority. Francophones find this especially irksome. As one mission leader commented, “The use of English in Spanish and French cultures for meetings where everybody speaks Spanish or French is nothing more than cultural imperialism of the English-speaking world.”
Europeans who are used to just one Sunday worship service may have a different attitude toward Sunday than other missionaries do. How far is Sunday observance cultural? Should national holidays be the time for missionaries from that country to get together, to the exclusion of others?
Humor and jokes are a notorious minefield for misunderstanding. “At those very points that the American expects seriousness and total attention to the task at hand, the Australian leans back and tosses off a clever quip,” says G. W. Renick in his book, Australians and North Americans.
This is not simply an international issue, although with the influx of Asians into Western missions new leadership patterns arelikely to emerge. Koreans tend to be strong top-down leaders, which may prove to be a problem when they move into leadership. Other Asians, such as the Chinese, are more consensus oriented in making decisions. Australians have strongly anti-authoritarian strands in their culture: e.g., the “tall poppy syndrome” (cut leaders down to size if they try to throw their weight around).
Not strictly international, the generation gap does become a cause of tension. The mission population often reflects pre-World War II thinking, mixed with that of the baby boomers (1946-1964) and the baby busters (post-1964). It is also worth noting that Asians whose culture reflects deep respect for age may have problems with Western attitudes of the young to the old.
Money. Many non-Americans may never have a ministry account, and some may resent the key it provides to a car or children’s education.
Materialism. What is a suitable standard of living? Are microwave ovens and freezers appropriate? The problem is compounded when missionaries have different allowances.
Lifestyle. Simple or otherwise?
Health. Shoes or bare feet?
Women’s roles. Are they proportionately represented at the mission’s highest levels?
Children. Children in Europe are not looked on as their parents’ best friends. There is a strong reaction developing against some of the teachings of the American family guru James Dobson.
Education. Methods, evaluation, roles of teachers and parents. American parents expect to have much more input; others leave more to the teacher.
Work. Goal setting, methods, priorities, appraisals.
WHAT SIM DID
To help alleviate some of these causes of tension, some years ago SIM developed its SIM International Orientation Course (SIMIOC). It was intended for candidates immediately prior to their leaving for the field. It included some culture learning aspects and specific training in appreciating SIM’s diversity as people mixed with those from other countries. However, it was disbanded because of logistical complexities and replaced with one for the entire mission family. That, too, floundered because old-timers resented taking more orientation.
Eventually, the course became the SIM International Outlook Course. Some culture-learning segments were drastically reduced and other parts were strengthened. A husband and wife team with previous years of living in Europe, Africa, and the United States was appointed to hold eight-day seminars on the various SIM fields.
Generally, this program has been well received. Younger missionaries have accepted it readily. Some older workers have asked, “Why didn’t the mission have this sort of thing 30 years ago?” On the other hand, others have resisted the idea and refused to attend. On the whole, SIMIOC has worked well as a learning tool to bring to the surface prejudices, hurts, and misunderstandings that have lain hidden, or have festered for a long time.
Interestingly, most participants have appreciated the sessions on understanding Asians more than most other things. Wherever possible, Asians have been included in the course, both as participants and as leaders.
Of course, it soon emerges that learning styles reflect culture as much as anything. For example, Americans appreciate the free-for-all of discussion. Throw everything into the pot and make sure you have your say. The pragmatists are leery of too much theory, and they do not want too much lecture material. Europeans, especially Germans, want information from the front, with plenty of content. They suspect any psychologizing.
The British tend to be overly critical, and this is seen in how they operate in a seminar. Koreans generally will not speak at all, unless they are specifically asked to, but this is not true of Singaporeans and Filipinos. Of course, my generalizations are themselves somewhat suspect, but they will stand as guideposts.
Overcomingthese cultural tensions may appear to be an impossible task, but let me make a few suggestions and observations. First, although having seminars like SIMIOC seems like an unaffordable luxury, SIM feels that the considerable cost is worthwhile for the sake of missionary careers and the overall well-being of the mission. SIM has traced missionary attrition to international and relational problems. A full-blown seminar may not be possible, but shorter sessions can be included in annual spiritual life conferences.
While “forbearing one another in love” (Col. 3:13) may be a scriptural injunction, experience suggests it does not happen automatically. Most people are blind to their cultural prejudices, at least until they have in-depth exposure to an alien culture. Even then, though their attitudes may betray it, their minds may not make the connection.
It is necessary to bring these issues to the surface, talk them through, and face them openly. Some people may have imbibed strong prejudices from their parents, or some other environment that they are unaware of.
Missionaries are subject to the media, which are largely responsible for shaping cultural and national stereotypes. The standard images—Americans are immature or childish, the Japanese are devious, the Germans are ruthless—need to be confronted because they subtly damage good relations. Studies show that stereotypes often are based on one extreme example—the loud, brash American tourist, or the large, beer-swilling German—and these stick in our minds when we meet people who don’t fit the stereotype.
Of course, international tensions are only one part of interpersonal relations. Younger missionaries often come from problem-filled family backgrounds. Their emotional baggage often carries over into relations with their colleagues from other countries. The danger is that they will have neither the inclination nor the energy to work through their feelings. If not, serious conflicts often develop.
Apart from national and cultural feelings, we also have to deal with those general attitudes that cause problems in the mission family:
Intolerance. The inability to allow for differences of opinion or behavior.
Infallibility. A subtle pride that can as easily surface in agriculture or bookkeeping as in worship and church growth strategies. Those with this attitude “convey the impression that there are only two ways of doing a thing—their way and the wrong way,” said J. O. Sanders.
Inflexibility. The inability to adapt, with little to learn and much to criticize in other cultures.
On the other hand, tensions can be considerably reduced as we cultivate such positive attitudes as:
Tact. The ability to place oneself in another person’s shoes; a quick and intuitive perception of what is fit and proper and right. Though it often appears to be a natural gift, tact can be learned. Sometimes we are unaware of how tactless we have been unless someone tells us.
Courtesy. A somewhat old-fashioned ideal in the West, but still a dominant feature of Asian life. Basically, it is thoughtfulness and consideration for the other person’s well-being, and the desire to please, not in an obsequious way, but with quiet dignity.
Humility. The absence of a sense of superiority. In our SIMIOC seminars, we often say that Philippians 2:3 is our text: “. . . in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Non-Christians can accept the idea of equality, but only by God’s grace can Christians esteem others better than themselves.
Very few of us are prepared to admit that another person’s values, cultural norms, or attitudes are better than our own. Yet exposure to other cultures should teach us this lesson. Each nationality and culture has strengths and weaknesses. We need to appropriate the strengths and know our own weaknesses. We may believe that “ours is the greatest country in the history of the world,” but that is not a helpful attitude to trumpet to the world at large. National pride is valid, but a sense of national superiority in aninternational mission is not.
On a practical level, whether or not the mission agency wants to develop a seminar like SIMIOC, it can at least ask both old and new missionaries to read about other nationalities and cultures. Generally, new missionaries are well prepared with anthropological and cross-cultural training with regard to their host countries, but they may be less familiar with the cultures of their fellow missionaries. Therefore, they can benefit from a recommended reading list. These are some of the more popular works:
The Europeans. By Luigi Barzini (Penguin Books, 1984). Immensely readable and informative, with chapters like “The Quarrelsome French,” “The Imperturbable British,” and “The Mutable Germans.” A final chapter on “The Baffling Americans.”
Mind Your Manners. By John Mole (London: The Industrial Society, 1990). Written primarily for business people working in Europe, it has excellent material on culture in short chapters on all 12 countries in the European Community, plus chapters on “Americans in Europe” and “Japanese in Europe.”
Culture Shock. An excellent series published by Times Books International in Singapore, Culture Shock is followed in the various titles by the name of a country: Culture Shock: France, or Culture Shock: Korea.
From a vast selection of books on American culture, the following may be recommended:
The American Character. By D. W. Brogan (New York: Knopf, 1944). Brogan was an eminent British observer of American history and his old book is still readable.
The American Character: Views of America from The Wall Street Journal. Edited by Donald Moffitt (New York: Braziller, 1983). Diversity is the hallmark of this book.
Talks About America, 1951-1968. By Alistair Cooke. (Penguin, 1981). Listeners to the BBC World Service will need no recommendation to seize anything by the preeminent British interpreter of the American scene to non-Americans.
A truly indispensable book for understanding missionary relationships is Florence Allshorn, by J.H. Oldham (SCM Press, 1951). Oldham describes her experiences in Uganda and how she overcame some bitter conflicts. After one bruising encounter with a fellow missionary, an African said to her, “I have been on this station for 15 years, and I have seen you come out, all of you saying you have brought to us a Saviour, but I have never seen this situation (i.e., the inability of missionaries to live in harmony) saved yet.”
For a whole year she read 1 Corinthians 13 and wrestled and prayed until that situation was saved. Florence went on to found a community, St. Julian’s, where the principles she had learned could be exemplified and imparted to others. Much of her teaching is found in this biography.
Tensions are inevitable because personal relationships lie at the heart of any organization. Relationships between people of different nationalities within a mission are just one dimension of such tension. Left unchecked, or ignored, problems will fester and become a hindrance to spiritual vitality and to the work. However, the attitudes that underlie cultural insensitivity and relational problems are indentifiable and curable.
Despite the inherent problems in international missions, their diversity can also be a strength. For one thing, a multicultural mission can incarnate the first principle of the church, which is that in the body of Christ “there is no difference between Jew and Greek, between slaves and freemen, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, GNB).
As a result, churches planted on this basis are more likely to express this biblical ideal and to be culturally relevant. We can avoid the incongruity of some denominational labels with which some new churches are burdened. As Stephen Neill once said, “Converts are imitative.” Often they tend to copy those appurtenances of their mentors, such as dog collars and incense, rather than the deeper fundamentals.
“In comparatively few areas have missionariesdeliberately tried to Westernize their converts; but converts are imitative, and have always been inclined to make the same mistakes as their Western friends, imagining that things which are merely Western trappings ought to be accepted by the new Christians as evidences of the sincerity of their faith” (Stephen Neill, Colonialism and Christian Mission, p. 416).
Coming from different cultures preserves us from identifying our cultural mores with the gospel, since our assumptions along these lines are continually being challenged by our fellow workers. This is not to say that we can ever plant an a-cultural church, but a church planted by Aussies, Germans, Canadians, and Asians is likely to be multicultural from the start, even if it has a baptism of fire before a baptism in water takes place.
People whose background, upbringing, education, and mission orientation have been monocultural will have little awareness of how these affect their assumptions, attitudes, work patterns, and leadership. They may serve their whole career believing them to be normative. This is not to say that they cannot be successful, but they will leave a difficult legacy for their converts to cope with.
More and more missionaries are working with national churches already in place. They will still have problems adjusting to their fellow workers from different countries, but they won’t have to wrestle with what kind of church to plant.
Time and energy spent in planning and implementing training to defuse tensions in international missions will be amply rewarded by stronger, more culturally sensitive, and probably humbler workers.
EMQ, Vo. 29, No. 4, pp. 412-418. Copyright © 1993 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.