The Missionary as Cultural Pilgrim

by Marcus Dean

Being a cultural pilgrim may be the best way to live on this earth, since it reminds us that we belong to God, not to a particular culture.

As Christ’s ambassador, it is undeniably important for a missionary to learn to serve in culturally appropriate ways in a host culture. The debates about how much or how little to adapt, how hard adapting is, and what “culturally appropriate” should look like are common.

Less common is to ask about the long-term implications of cultural adjustment. How does the missionary deal with the way he or she changes over the years? What about once the missionary is no longer in a host culture? If the changes are internal, permanent, and personal, then what are the implications for former missionaries?

The Effects of Adjustment on a Missionary
To begin to answer these questions, it is important to understand what happens in the adjustment process and how it impacts the missionary. It is also important to grapple with re-entry issues.

Incarnational. During my seminary days, the “in” framework for missionary adjustment was “incarnational missions.” A key proponent was Sherwood Lingenfelter, who challenged missionaries to “follow the example of Christ, that of incarnation…undergoing drastic personal reorientation” (Lingenfelter and Mayers 1986, 23). The goal was to enter a culture and learn how to be as much like the host people as possible. While Lingenfelter encouraged us to work hard at being incarnational, he recognized that we are limited in ways that Jesus was not; mainly, we are not born into the other culture. Therefore, the call was to be 150% people: setting aside some of what we are, while becoming like the host culture, with the goal of fitting in and adjusting.

This incarnational model has been both lauded and criticized. Questions raised include “Can we be incarnational?” and “What really is our goal?” One significant focus of the critique centers on when the missionary serves in an impoverished area. Is it feasible to attempt to live as the people? Do they even want us to do so? What message is really communicated if we do?

The scope of the issue becomes evident when being incarnational is understood as taking on a total insider role and living just as the local people. It breaks down when a missionary cannot “follow the model to its logical end” (Hill 1990, 198). This is true if incarnational is perceived as “going native.”  

Sacrificial. This and other factors have led to a focus away from the incarnation because we cannot “replicate this ultimate act of ‘emptying ourselves’” (Baker 2002, 19). As an alternative, Ken Baker offers that “the New Testament directs us toward a relational lifestyle characterized by personal self-sacrifice” (2002, 23).

One early insight comes from Kenneth McElhanon, who points out that the primary foundation of the incarnational model is not lifestyle issues, but an attitude of humility or self-emptying of a higher position so as to serve in ministry (1991, 390-391). At the same time, today there are growing movements calling missionaries to live sacrificially as servants with the poor (Bessenecker 2006).

While I would agree that there are certainly aspects of Jesus’ incarnation that we cannot replicate, we cannot get away from the original focus of Lingenfelter to provide “a conceptual model that will give us an understanding of the underlying priorities or values of ourselves and of the people with whom we interact (1986, 28). I believe that the real goal of Lingenfelter’s incarnation model was to enable us to “become incarnate in their culture and make them our family and friends” (1986, 124).

We need to remember that no culture is perfect, yet God is at work in all. The lesson for missionaries is that we can relate to people in any culture and work to see Christianity expressed from within that culture. For those serving with the incarnational model in mind, internal change is inevitable. The well-adjusted missionary learns to think and experience life and spirituality from another culture’s perspective.

Bicultural. A further step in my understanding of the adjustment and change experienced missionaries may deal with came from Paul Hiebert. He was influential in helping me to understand the concept of becoming bicultural. From the basis of the incarnational model, he points out that the primary goal of cross-cultural relationships is identification: “As missionaries we need to identify as closely as possible with the people among whom we serve, for in so doing we are able to carry the gospel farther across the bicultural bridge” (1985, 236). The reality is that as we interact relationally with key host leaders, we create a new community that is bicultural, or composed of elements of both cultures. It is this common ground that creates enough mutual understanding to allow for meaningful communication of the gospel (Hiebert 1985, 228-229).  

As missionaries, when we follow the bicultural model, we get to the point that we “are simultaneously members of two or more different cultures and do not identify fully with any of them” (Hiebert 1985, 229-230). While we can function in both our own and our host culture, “we find that no matter where we are, we are not quite at home” (1985, 238). This is not to be seen as negative, but as opening the way to live as brothers and sisters with those we serve and be their advocates when we return to our country of origin (1985, 236). This reality can be unsettling as we may feel marginalized from our own culture, and not fully accepted by the host culture.

A more recent analogy gives us a visual image to help understand the idea of how we need to change or adapt to our host culture, yet without un-becoming what we were. Duane Elmer uses the model of square heads and round heads to call us to adapt by knocking off corners so that we can adjust to the host culture, or the round head culture. The objective is giving up things outside of core values to be able to adapt to the host culture and thus communicate effectively within the values of the host culture (Elmer 2002, 69). Elmer likewise points out the difficulty of returning “home” as a person who is no longer like his or her birth culture.

Acculturation vs. Deculturation
Further understanding what the missionary faces as he or she culturally adjusts can be gleaned from the secular field of cultural adjustment. Two terms are key to understanding the process that one goes through in adapting to cultures: enculturation and assimilation. While in some sources they are almost used synonymously, each tends to be used to describe different processes.

Enculturation is the process of adapting to one’s own culture. This is what Jesus went through in his incarnation, and we in our birth culture. The best we can do as adults is to assimilate into a host culture. Assimilation is described as being a two-fold process. In order to assimilate to a host culture, individuals must “gradually acquire a new cultural system while losing some of their original cultural identity” (Kim 2001, 53).

The first part of assimilation is acculturation; the second is deculturation. The result of this change is described as functional fitness or achieving “a desired level of appropriate and effective ways of communicating with and relating to the host environment” (Kim 2001, 62). Young Yun Kim goes on to label the result of this process as maturing into “intercultural personhood” (2001, 232). By achieving this, one is able to forge “an identity and selfhood that is at once individualized and universalized” (2001, 232). As missionaries, we are unique as individuals, but can fit into more than one place.

All of these frameworks in essence get the missionary to the same goal—successfully adapting to our host culture, while remaining rooted in our original culture. Thus, the question becomes, “How do we make sense of this transformed identity that is rooted in more than one culture?”   

Never Fully Belonging
I remember Hiebert saying something to the effect of “missionaries are always happiest on an airplane, because they are always going home.” He was recognizing the state that we end up living in—that of never fully belonging anyplace.  

This sense of not belonging is most evident when the missionary permanently re-enters his or her culture of origin. Just as it took time to adjust to a host culture, it takes time to re-enter one’s birth culture.  

As I prepare students to work and live in a host culture, I tell them that I am putting them into a paradox: the better they are prepared and the more they adjust to a host culture, the harder it is to adjust back. It is in trying to return home that one is most aware of the internal change that has occurred. Hiebert points out that both the missionary and the national leader who have formed a bicultural community are often more tied to that community than their own (1985, 239).

A solution is needed. First, we must recognize that we don’t belong to any one culture, but have been transformed by each of which we have been a part. Second, we must find out how to use our changed persona as a strength, rather than see it as a weakness. This enables us to avoid the pitfall of criticizing our passport culture. Not belonging to any one culture is also the common dilemma faced by Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Is there a best way to deal with the myriad of emotions and reactions to trying to reintegrate into one’s own culture, or in the case of TCKs, their passport culture?  

Cultural Pilgrims
Having been in the States now for eight years after fourteen years on the field, I have decided there is a biblical answer: to focus on our identity as Christians, which transcends any cultural identity. We need to remember that we are in the world, but somehow, like Jesus, not a part of the world (John 17:11-16). We also need to reflect on the words of Hebrews 11:13-16:  

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

I label this solution the “Pilgrim Principle.” The idea is that a pilgrim is someone who doesn’t really belong anyplace and is okay with that, since he or she is on a journey.  

Missionaries are transformed people—and this is a good thing. After all, being transformed by a second culture may best prepare us for transformation by Christ. The intercultural personhood mentioned earlier is marked by growth, maturation, and transformation (Kim 2001, 232-233). All of these are ways we need to change in Christ. Further, accepting life as a cultural pilgrim positions us to remind fellow believers that as Christians we are not of this world and are all in need of transformation.      

Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the one sure thing we have as a guest on earth is God’s word: “This one certainty he will not take away. He will keep this word for me, and in it he will let me feel his power. Where the word is at home in me, I will find my way in a foreign land” (Bonhoeffer 2007, 328). Being a cultural pilgrim may be the best way to live on this earth, since it reminds us that we belong to God, not to a particular culture.

When we accept that we are never really at home in any one place, we can accept that we don’t really fit in any one place. It doesn’t mean we are odd; rather, that we don’t need to fully adjust. What I am referring to is not so much the outward appearance, but our inner identity.

As we move along in life’s journey, we must be aware that we are on a pilgrimage. As pilgrims, we are free to lay aside things from our home culture; we are also free to recognize things in our host culture we choose not to adapt to. We can call others to join us as together we move on to our heavenly home while being transformed by Christ according to his image.  

Being pilgrims does not make us misfits; instead, it makes us more fit for doing what really matters in today’s world. As pilgrims, we may be the ones who are best able to (1) reach out to those who have immigrated to our home culture; (2) resist the growing call to consumerism; (3) be loyal citizens without putting the flag before God; and (4) call people to follow Christ in the way that matters most—being in the world but not of the world.

The challenge, as missionaries, is to embrace the internal changes that occur as the way to live as cultural pilgrims rather than see the changes as unsettling challenges.

Baker, Ken. 2002. “The Incarnational Model: Perception or Deception?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 38(1): 16-24.

Bessenecker, Scott. 2006. The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor.  Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.Trans. O.C. Dean Jr. 2007. I Want to Live These Days with You: A Year of Daily Devotions. Louisville: Westminster John Know Press.

Elmer, Duane. 2002. Cross-cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting in around the World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Hiebert, Paul. 1985. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

Hill, Harriet. 1990. “Incarnational Ministry: A Critical Examination.” Evangelical Mission Quarterly 26 (2):196-201.

Kim, Young Yun. 2001. Becoming Intercultural: An Integrative Theory of Communication and Cross-cultural Adaptation. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, Inc.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood G. and Marvin K. Mayers. 1986. Ministering Cross-culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

McElhanon, Kenneth. 1991. “Don’t Give Up on the Incarnational Model.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 27(4): 390-393.


Marcus Dean taught in Bible schools and worked with national church leaders with Wesleyan World Missions in Colombia and Puerto Rico for fourteen years. He is chair of the Intercultural Studies Department at Houghton College in Houghton, New York.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 10-14. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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