As we review cultural factors that are part of a missionary’s decision to return to their passport country, it is relevant to consider where survey participants served. Of the 714 participants who answered this question, the following chart represents the proportion that served in each region:
For the purposes of the chart, Mexico was included in Central America with other Latino cultures, though it is technically part of North America. Fifteen percent of participants served on more than one continent, and were given the “various” designation since they could not be assigned to only one continent. All others served in only one country, or in various countries within the same continent. The majority (68.2%) of participants served in one country only, 18.6% served in two countries, 7.6% served in three countries, and 5.6% served in four or more countries during their time on the mission field.
Because survey participants served all over the globe in very disparate cultures, their struggles were at times common and at times very different. There were commonalities on aspects such as a living in a developing country, interacting with the poor, looking different and standing out, and coping with a life of less comfort and ease than that to which they were accustomed. However, there were great differences when it came to local religion, social mores, cultural practices, customs, and languages, for example. Taking into account the diversity of individuals and the cultures in which they serve, there are endless ways for the missionary to interact with culture and react to it.
We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be host-country-related factors:
The table below summarizes the results for each question by providing:
Discussion of Quantitative Results
This group of factors has relatively low strength indexes for most of the items. While some cultural factors have very high numbers of people experiencing them, usually these factors did not affect the decision to leave, and if it did, it did so to a small degree.
This would seem to indicate that while cultural struggles are common for missionaries, they are expected, and therefore don’t tend to be among the primary factors that drive people back to their passport country. Hopefully no one goes to the mission field expecting things to be the same as their culture back home. That things will be different, and sometimes hard, is one of the more obvious things about missions.
This category is also probably the focus of most preparation and training done by the mission agency. The missionary has probably received some level of orientation about the culture they will be serving in, its practices, its customs, and training in the language as necessary. While they may not have been prepared for struggles in other areas (such as family, health, missionary care, or team conflict), this one does not sneak up on them. It is a feature of the human psyche that when we are prepared for something to be difficult, it is much easier to handle the difficulty. We know “what we signed up for” and are prepared to deal with it.
We could divide issues in this category into several subgroups.
Issues that are only experienced by a subset of missionaries due to the more volatile areas in which they serve.
Natural disasters, risk of persecution, political instability, armed conflict, economic instability, and government restriction of missionary activities only occur in certain portions of the globe, and therefore affect a smaller group of missionaries. Those affected by even these serious issues, however, did not cite them as the most important or heavily weighted factors in their return decisions, despite their gravity.
More common issues that are still outside of the missionary’s locus of control.
Some degree of stress arising out of a move to another country is inevitable and attributable to factors beyond the missionary’s control. Most missionaries experience a change of climate or the hassles of an immigration system they must navigate. Limited access to products or services that seemed basic in the home country can affect one’s daily quality of life. Having security issues and feeling taken advantage of economically are guaranteed where the missionary is seen as affluent.
Two of the issues in this group were the highest among the cultural factor strength indexes: (1) having to leave the country because of immigration/visa issues (0.78) and (2) having security issues (0.87). While high relative to other cultural factors, these are still not high strength indexes relative to the rest of the survey. Of the two, security issues affected far more people than immigration issues (70% versus 28%), and was more likely to affect the return decision (53% versus 39%). While not one of the higher findings in the survey, safety and security are certainly not trifling issues for the missionary, as they are the most likely among cultural factors to cause attrition.
Issues very common to the missionary experience that are at least partially in the missionary’s locus of control.
While there are not many things the missionary can do about issues in the first two subgroups, this category contains issues where the missionary can exert at least some control. As a result, it would be a place to look for cultural factors that cause preventable attrition.
Missing the home culture can be exacerbated or diminished by the missionary’s response and coping mechanisms. The degree to which one struggles with the local language, culture, and relationships is at least partially related to the degree of effort expended in learning, understanding, and relating to the new surroundings. Conflict with locals takes place, at least in part, because of the missionary’s missteps in navigating cultural behaviors and communication.
Interestingly, these tended to be the cultural issues affecting the most missionaries, with the first four factors experienced by 66-78% of participants. Effects on the return decision were in the 43-51% range, with strength factors of 0.55 to 0.68. While not significant enough to rival key findings affecting attrition elsewhere in the survey, these factors affect a very large proportion of missionaries. The biggest cultural friction comes at the place of personal interaction with another culture. Fortunately, these are also factors that we can mitigate through our pre-field preparation and on-field adaptation.
We also collected data on how long each participant studied the language of their host culture (in a formal sense), in order to see if there is a correlation between length of study and reporting a struggle with the language. The following table summarizes the responses:
In the first column of percentages, we see that most participants admitted to difficulty with the language, regardless of whether or how long they studied it. There is really no meaningful differentiation between the groups, except that those who did not need to study at all struggled less (57.6%) than the others (70.6-85.7%). This is likely due to the fact that English-speaking missionaries going to English-speaking countries are included in this group, so we would expect little language difficulty for them outside of colloquial usage differences.
In the second column, we see a mild effect begin to emerge. Those studying more than 6 months tended to have their language struggles factor less into their return decision. There is an exception in the 1-2 years category that defies this trend, but it otherwise holds.
In the third column, we see a clearer picture emerge. Those ranking their language struggles as having a moderate to strong influence on their return decision show more differentiation between groups. About 17% of those studying less than 3 months or not at all said that language was a moderate to strong factor in their return decision, whereas only about 3-12% of those studying more than 3 months did so. It appears that there is a link between length of language study, and likelihood of ranking language struggles as having a moderate to strong effect on the return decision.
What can we make of the 1-2 year category, which shows a higher rate than the surrounding groups of both experiencing language struggles and feeling that those difficulties affected their return decision? One possible explanation is the language being studied. It seems likely that a more difficult language to learn (Chinese versus Spanish, for example) would require longer study. And that even with longer study, the more difficult language is likely to continue to give the speaker more trouble. That would put a group of people in the 1-2 year category that are simply more likely to have language struggles because of the difficulty of the language (new alphabets, tones, or grammatical structures, for example), no matter how long they study. However, the weighting of the factor on their return decision is similar to the 9-12 month group.
It is likely that the 2+ years category does not show a similar profile because it became a catch-all category. As the longest language study grouping, it likely includes people who studied in college or part-time for many years rather than full-time for a shorter period. It also would contain people who studied full-time for a shorter period of time and then transitioned to tutoring or other methods of language learning for some time after that. Because we did not define what “formal study” was, this was open to interpretation by the participants. Some may have chosen this category simply to say “I studied for a very long time” or blurred the lines between what some would call “formal instruction” and “informal continued education.” After all, we never really stop learning a non-native language, and some may have had this in mind when answering the question.
We also wanted to check for a correlation between length of language study and length of tenure. The following table summarizes the responses:
Based on this data, the greatest proportion of those who studied formally did so for at least 9 months, though there is a small bump at 3-6 months. This may reflect the practice that those with shorter terms tend to spend less than 6 months studying, while those with longer terms are permitted by their agencies to invest more time and money in language study.
Those who spent at least 3 months in formal language study stayed on the field for at least an average of 9 ½ years, while those who did not study or studied for less than 3 months had an average of 6-7 years of tenure. Interestingly, beyond 3 months of formal study, there does not appear to be a discernible correlation between studying longer and staying on the field longer. This observation, of course, is limited only to the issue of longevity, and says nothing about one’s effectiveness on the mission field during their time there. Presumably, those who study the language for longer periods of time may still reap a harvest in terms of how effective they are able to be, no matter the length of their stay.
Surprisingly, those who did not need to study a language had the shortest tenure (6 years). Several factors could contribute to this effect:
Qualitative Data on Culture Struggles
In addition to the quantitative scaled data, we collected open comments on the following question:
Predictably, we got a lot of good feedback on this issue, as all missionaries experience it to some degree. The most entertaining comment summed it up well: “Lol. Every. Single. Part.” Another humble commenter said, “It was so different that I’m not sure I ever really understood what was going on.” Certainly, when living in another culture, there is no shortage of things to befuddle us! Six issues immediately came to the forefront in terms of the large numbers of people commenting on them. In order of prevalence, they are:
HONOR/SHAME CULTURE & INDIRECT COMMUNICATION
Whether participants phrased it this way or not, the most commonly mentioned issue of cultural adjustment was the challenge of living in an honor/shame culture and the impact that this has on communication. A representative commenter said, “The half-truths and outright lies that people told in order to save face bothered me a lot until I got a little more accustomed to it. I never fully embraced it but came to expect it.”
Participants often felt that locals were too indirect in their communication, not wanting to just come out and say what they meant. This resulted in difficulty resolving conflict, as direct confrontation was not culturally acceptable and it appeared that locals were avoiding conflict in ways that Westerners deem unhealthy. An uncomfortable ambiguity created confusion, with the missionary never knowing whether to take a person at their word or look for hidden meanings beneath the surface. Missionaries sometimes found themselves lost, guessing what was really happening in a situation, and unable to interpret subtle cues that probably would have been obvious to a local. When ambiguity was extreme, missionaries felt that they were manipulated because the motives of others were not clear, or that they could not trust the locals because they had hidden agendas.
People frequently felt that they were just being told what they wanted to hear, instead of the truth. The more charitable comments attributed these struggles to “differences in how we viewed integrity” or “different concepts of honesty.” Unfortunately, this difference often resulted in a negative value judgment about those in the local culture: that they were dishonest or lacking in commitment to do what they say. Many people framed situations as “being lied to” when those in the local culture were probably trying to save face (or help the missionary to save face).
The next most common issue of discomfort culturally was the result of living near or with the poor. Missionaries are often keenly aware of the standard-of-living differences between themselves and the locals. One sensitive commenter said:
“We lived in a very resource poor area. It was always hard to know how to help. We wanted to be generous and help where we could, but there was so much more need than we could help with. Even though we lived very simply, we still had much compared to people in our village, and it was always hard to figure out how to balance that.”
Poverty is at the root of many difficult interactions in missionary life:
The issue of income disparity is extremely tricky to balance. It is true that most missionaries are far more wealthy than those they have come to serve. One commenter shared, “We felt rich for having a sink.” It is also true that not all citizens of Western countries, foreigners, or white people have access to unlimited reservoirs of wealth to throw around. We must be careful to walk the line of acknowledging both our privilege and our limitations.
Missionaries have the difficult job of figuring out the most strategic ways to be helpful, without creating unsustainable paternalistic dependencies that rob people of their dignity. They do need to recognize income disparity and be generous to those they came to serve, for generosity to the poor is a sign of our allegiance to God. They also need to steward their finite resources well, for faithfulness with little shows that they can be entrusted with much.
The third most common cultural issue that caused stress for missionaries was the way women (and often children) were treated. All missionaries in the survey came from countries in which women enjoy certain freedoms and have more equal status with men. At home, women are free to walk the streets unaccompanied, wear the clothing they like, vote, own property, make their own decision about marriage, and get an education. It can produce culture shock and moral outrage in men and women alike to see women devalued, oppressed, abused, sold, exploited, and mutilated in more patriarchal cultures.
Even when the environment is not openly hostile toward women, more subtle customs can still communicate male dominance. “Machismo,” tolerance of male infidelity, narrow roles for women, prescribed forms of dress, restricted ability to speak, and limited participation in the labor market, church culture, or educational arena communicate a consistent message of inferiority to women. They are not human beings with agency and value, but belongings or servants for men.
Female missionaries may receive unwanted attention based on their gender. They reported feeling vulnerable alone outside the house; being sexually objectified; getting cat calls on the street; receiving lewd looks or comments, marriage proposals, and harassment on the street and at work; being groped and degraded; and suffering violent physical attacks. For some missionary women, public spaces in foreign cultures are a hostile environment. One participant shared her reticence with “local men who treated women, white women especially, as something to gawk at, comment on, and make openly sexual remarks aloud.” One woman reported, “It was a scary thought knowing I was a sexual commodity.” Another said, “It makes me question my ability to effectively serve as a single woman, if everyone is just seeing me as a potential foreign wife.”
About the same number of people commented on corruption/crime as those that noted poor treatment of women. Many people find that the ethics of their home culture do not translate in their new setting. Missionaries often experience conflict between their personal, cultural, and religious ethics and this strange new system.
Bribery of government officials may be the norm. Ample project budgets disappear into the pockets of leaders and politicians and the projects never get done. Falsifying documents or revenues to save money on taxes can be considered “smart business.” Some cultures do not even define these realities as “corruption,” but simply the way the world works. Sometimes only money can get the slow wheels of bureaucracy turning in the developing world.
Should missionaries remain committed to the ethics of their own culture or adjust to the ethics of their new setting? Evaluation of right and wrong is a deep worldview issue and is not easily modified. Our main question should not be “Is this considered good and right back home?” but “Does the Bible say something about this?” This question must be worked through on a case-by-case basis. Surely sometimes there is a biblical principle that should not be violated, but other times we may feel free to adopt a “when in Rome” approach to the local culture. When we evaluate using scripture instead of our own worldview as the benchmark, missionaries can keep their consciences at peace regardless of whether local practices align with their own.
In addition to institutionalized corruption, personal safety was a concern for many missionaries. The combination of being visibly different, relatively affluent, and in proximity to the poor increases their vulnerability to crime (particularly thefts). One commenter shared that “we had a house helper who stole $1000 and ran away.” Another expressed fatigue with “always having situational awareness and being on high alert 24/7, and having to think about where my passport/phone/money were.”
Worry about personal security can be a constant stress for people from a more prosperous passport country. One person said, “Our safety was always in question.” Constant vigilance can be psychologically taxing. We did not formerly have to worry about our belongings and safety this much. We left open green spaces between houses and arrived in a land of walled-in compounds, gates, and barbed wire. We used to leave bikes outside unattended in the driveway and car doors unlocked. Now we don’t wear jewelry and hide money in several different places on our person in case we get robbed. These are big adjustments and can be a shock to the system.
Living in constant suspicion of others can also be spiritually taxing. We try to balance loving people in the host country with protecting ourselves from them. It’s easy to let our guard down for a moment and find ourselves the victim of a crime.
DEMANDS OF HOSPITALITY/LESS PRIVACY
The fifth-most-reported cultural struggle was different expectations of hospitality and privacy. Many host cultures do not schedule social engagements ahead of time, but instead just pop in to visit. One participant said this “was a sign of deep friendship, but it stressed me out.” Even while understanding the reason for a local behavior (and maybe even being flattered by it), we can also be stressed by it.
Drop-in culture creates a lot of spontaneous entertaining. This can feel to more time-structured Westerners like being interrupted while trying to get other things done. It adds stress to always have the house ready for visitors and have food/drink on hand to serve.
Introverts particularly struggled with less privacy, time alone, and personal space. One participant reported “always having to say yes to hanging out with people.” Another said, “People were always around.” Another lamented, “There were no introverts there. I kid, but it seemed that way. A lot of the time, if I tried to invite someone out to get to know them, or just to spend time with them, they’d invite other people without letting me know, and most of the time people spend with each other is in groups.” This was likely a way to not shame this missionary by turning down the invitation, but also not violate a cultural norm of socializing in groups. Group-oriented cultures can be taxing for those who prefer one-on-one time.
Many missionaries also lived in closer quarters with others than they would in their home culture. Because missionaries are the outsiders who are different, they may feel as though they are under a microscope, being constantly watched and commented upon. One person noted “little discretion by locals on handling personal/private information. One person’s business is everybody’s business.” Another shared that “the local culture demanded a lot of interaction and socializing with strangers, and I struggled to balance my comfort with impromptu interactions and my spouse and children’s need to escape these interactions.”
LESS FOCUS ON ORDER/EFFICIENCY
The last of the most common culture struggles was a lack of order/efficiency. One person called it a “culture of chaos.” Many reported it as bureaucracy. Others called it a “lack of planning ahead” or disorganization. Another simply said, “unpredictability, constant changes.”
In the developed world, getting things done well and quickly are valued highly (at times too highly, as people and relationships are sacrificed in order to get tasks done or make money faster). Developing-country cultures are more likely to be relationship-focused, more concerned about how people interact with one another than with how fast things get done. They are also more likely to be event-focused rather than time-focused, not worried about the amount of time that it takes to complete an event as long as the purpose is accomplished eventually.
Poor infrastructure may create cumbersome processes and slow down important services like transportation and communication. Excessively long lines (into which people may routinely cut), forms, “red tape,” and endless immigration hoops can be maddening to those with an expectation of efficiency imported from their home culture. Appointments unkept or plans that fail due to a lack of preparation can frustrate those with a “get it done” attitude.
OTHER COMMONLY-REPORTED STRUGGLES
Other themes that did not make it into the top six, but were also frequently mentioned are:
Unfortunately, fatalism was often negatively judged as “laziness,” “victim mentality,” “passivity,” or “lack of initiative.” These terms reveal a worldview bias toward the “Puritan work ethic.” The assumption is that fatalism is a character flaw because it does not reflect the optimism and autonomy values held so dear in Western individualist nations.
And finally, a few themes were mentioned less frequently, but still repeatedly:
One thing we can learn from these responses is that our own culture permeates deep in our psyche and defines for us what we think is the “right” way to do things. We often see other cultural practices as “bad” or “wrong” and couch them in negative language, even when trained to be culturally sensitive to the customs of our host country. We can easily find ourselves critical of behaviors that are not even biblical “sin,” but just different from our own unconsciously held worldview about how people “should” behave. We must have clear eyes to see our own culture as broken too, and not view it as the measuring stick for others.
Part of being a successful missionary is intentionally rooting out our own ethnocentrism in expecting others to be like us (or to work on becoming like us). It is our responsibility to choose better ways of responding to cultural difference. Our ways are usually as offensive to them as theirs are to us (or more so), and we would do well to remember that with humility. Each culture has its own patterns of sin, and it’s much easier to see it in someone else’s culture than in our own.
Qualitative Data on Local Relationships
We also collected comments on the following question:
Some of the issues already mentioned in culture struggles were reiterated here as they relate to relationships. Income disparity made it hard to have a genuine relationship that did not have economic strings attached or cause jealousy with others who also wanted the perceived economic benefits of a relationship with the missionary. Honor/shame culture made it difficult to know when to believe what people said, making it difficult to establish trust. It was easy to get into trouble by being too direct, resulting in offense to a local. However, we will focus here on new primary factors that emerged as significant in the area of relationships.
More than a few survey participants noted that they did not really form local relationships for various reasons. They were “too busy with their work,” too insulated from local culture by other missionaries or ex-pats, or too linguistically limited. Others felt shut down or rejected by locals when they reached out to form relationships. One participant said about local relationships, “We didn’t have any. We were encouraged to make friends with locals, but felt like we were on an island…because the other missionaries there told us to always keep our guard up and not trust them…which pretty much made it impossible for us to establish relationships.”
This is unfortunate, as relationships can be some of the most enriching experiences in crossing cultures, and can last a lifetime, even after the missionary has returned to their passport country. They can also be some of the most frustrating experiences and humbling experiences in crossing cultures. But both positive and negative relational experiences teach us to grow in personal character. Missionaries will almost always benefit from making time for and pursuing local relationships in their country of service. And fortunately, the vast majority are trying to do so despite the cultural barriers to mutual understanding.
The most commonly cited difficulty in local relationships was language. Misunderstandings that affect relationships can occur when we produce the wrong word or phrase for the moment. It can also be difficult to have relationships that go beyond the superficial level without the fluidity, vocabulary, and grammar required for discussing emotions or heart issues. One participant commented, “I felt very one-dimensional as I was not able to express the depth of my personality in the local language (facts, but not feelings).” Asking for tomatoes at the vegetable market is not nearly as difficult as sharing a traumatic experience from your childhood, a heartbreak from a failed relationship, or the story of how you came to know Christ.
It is easy to have acquaintances in another culture. It is harder to develop deep friendships with people who are extremely different from you. Vast differences in upbringing, education, life experiences, religion, income, standard of living, customs, and expectations can cause missionaries to ask themselves, “Where is the common ground? What do I have to talk to this person about and build a relationship on?” One participant wrote, “As a single educated woman in an area where women worked in the fields and raised children, I found it hard to connect because I had no common experiences with them. But I didn’t fit in with the men, either. I did not establish close relationships at all and was very lonely.”
Being seen as a patron also tends to keep relationships at a transactional level. One participant shared, “I made few close friends where I felt I could be myself in our relationship. There often seemed to be strings attached or relationships that demanded strong boundaries on my part as the person was seeking a patron relationship, not a level friendship.”
There can be many barriers to the establishment of mutual trust with locals. The challenge of not knowing if people mean what they say makes it difficult to establish trust, a necessary ingredient for deep friendships. Mistrust of foreigners on the part of the locals (or previous unpleasant experiences with “outsiders”) may also make it difficult for them to trust the missionary. Some cultures are simply very guarded, group-oriented or family-oriented, making it hard to spend the one-on-one time necessary to develop deep trust and friendship.
Given the obstacles to be overcome, taking relationships to a deep level takes a lot of time, if it can be done at all. One participant shared, “Once they were established, the relationships were amazing. It just took a long time; some took 5-6 years to get close. That led to some lonely times.” If a missionary is only on the field for a few years, closeness in relationships may never be achieved.
Female missionaries who are stay-at-home moms find that with their other responsibilities (kids, housework, homeschooling, cooking, errands, etc.), they have insufficient time to develop deep friendships with local women, who also have their own household tasks that keep them busy. One woman felt limited because of gender-related cultural practices in how time was spent and what was discussed: “No depth of conversation. Women talked about rice, kids, chickens.” While men were more interesting conversational partners for this missionary, “It wasn’t really acceptable to have many conversations with men without my hubby around.”
Sometimes local expectations of friendship differ from the missionary’s. One commenter shared, “I struggled with the cultural expectation that good friends are pushy. To be a good friend, you are supposed to make sure your friend conforms. So you criticize her clothing…daily. You tell her what to do and when to do it. The culture is what we would define as ‘nosy’ or ‘pushy.’” Or as one person succinctly put it, “Expectations: I did not meet theirs, they did not meet mine.”
Unspoken expectations can make or break relationships. Cultures can vary greatly in who pursues who, how time is spent together, when you should be available to your friend, where you spend time together, what you talk about, who pays for what, which belongings might be borrowed or loaned, and the degree of personal boundaries. Missteps in any of these areas can push people away instead of bringing them closer.
Sometimes local expectations of certain groups of people (women, young people, or singles, for example) are different enough that the missionary doesn’t fit into a recognized social group. A female leader has trouble forming friendships with local women in subservient roles. A single 30-year-old woman has trouble forming friendships with locals her age because most of them are married with kids. A teacher has trouble forming friendships with adult students in a host culture where there is a respectful distance between teacher and student. When expectations don’t align, needs are not mutually met, and the relationship becomes unsatisfying for at least one of the parties.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN TRUE FRIENDSHIPS AND MINISTRY
It can be hard for a missionary in relational ministry to distinguish between true friendships and ministry. One man commented, “Always feeling like I’m investing and not really just kickin’ it with the boys.” When it is one’s job to build friendship so that the gospel can be shared, it is easy to lose track of whether one is “working” or “socializing.” The two become blended. The missionary feels “always on” because each person they encounter is a potential convert.
This dynamic can confuse not only the missionary, but also the locals. One commenter mentioned that local friends may have been wondering, “Are you really my friend, or am I just part of your job?” When friendships are only ministry-motivated, they feel like work time instead of life-giving social time. If missionaries slip into a “rescuer” syndrome, they are tempted to treat people like projects. This leaves the missionary feeling lonely and tired, unable to feel cared for because they must always be the one giving care.
With all of the obstacles to deep local friendships, it is not surprising that the mission field can be an achingly lonely place sometimes. It is quite possible to be surrounded with people, speak the local language well, and have a vibrant ministry, and yet still feel that one has no close “friends.”
Culture shock and culture stress are common, but also expected and apparently not a primary direct cause of missionary attrition. But they certainly affect the quality of the missionary experience and impact the overall resilience of the missionary. And lowered resilience certainly does affect missionary attrition.
Many host country challenges are unpreventable, such as geography, climate, infrastructure, political and economic conditions, and accessibility to certain goods and services. However, there are several to-some-degree preventable challenges that are experienced by large numbers of missionaries. These would include their engagement and attitudes toward language, culture, relationships, conflict, and homesickness.
Missionaries will be healthier and more successful when prepared in advance to face the challenges that they can mitigate. Learning the language well can help with a number of the other factors, such as culture, relationships, and conflict. Learning as much as possible in advance about the local culture, especially the unspoken rules, can help the missionary avoid a lot of pitfalls.
Typically we prioritize theological and language training as the most central requirements for most missions work. It appears from the qualitative responses in this section of the survey that many missionaries lack significant anthropological or cross-cultural training that would help them to understand, adjust to, and work in their new context. Are many of us missing a critical component that would enable us to thrive more and contextualize the Gospel better?
Every culture is different, so there is obviously no one-size-fits-all cultural training for all missionaries. But this survey suggests that some key areas would be profitable to address with most:
Even when we have cross-cultural training, ethnocentrism is buried deep in our worldview and difficult to root out. Even when prepared for cultural differences, the actual experience of them is stressful. But when missionaries are unprepared for them, they can be downright overwhelming. An overwhelmed and anxious person is more likely to judge others negatively and blame the locals for doing things “wrong.” Such a stance can paralyze the learning process. In contrast, when properly equipped, missionaries will be ready to navigate the complexities of culture shock and continue to learn humbly.
The following resources can assist missionaries in preparing for cultural differences, and agencies in developing cross-cultural training:
Cross-Cultural Servanthood, by Duane Elmer
Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry, by Duane Elmer
Anthropology for Christian Witness, by Charles Kraft
Worldview for Christian Witness, by Charles Kraft
Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures, by Sarah Lanier
Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O'Brien
Biblical Multicultural Teams, by Sheryl Takagi Silzer
The Art of Crossing Cultures, by Craig Storti
Perhaps the most important skill to learn in crossing cultures is reframing differences in neutral language. Interpreting others’ actions according to our own cultural values leads us to use judgment-laden language to describe the local culture (people are dishonest, late, lazy, or rude, for example). Instead, we should seek to understand not what people are doing in the lens of our own culture, but why they are doing it in the lens of theirs. It turns out we don’t just need a new set of eyeglasses to see through. We need completely new eyeballs.
Learning to reframe instead of react is very difficult. Our worldview is so deeply ingrained in us that we use it automatically as our yardstick of what is right and wrong. Different gets labeled by default as bad. Our sinful nature selfishly insists, “my way is the best way, so if they don’t do it my way, they are wrong.” We are tempted to assign a moral value even to neutral behaviors, or to use the Bible to try to justify our way as the right one.
In contrast, when we reframe charitably, we look for the positive aspects of difference, and we use the Bible, not our own culture, as the measuring stick:
If we can develop and cultivate the cognitive habit of reframing, we free ourselves up to learn instead of judge. We start to obtain real cultural insight. We learn to appreciate others and fit in better ourselves. We put the onus on ourselves to understand and accommodate. After all, missionaries are guests in the local culture and have no right to impose their own cultural values on others who are already doing things “right” according to their own worldview. Locals, in turn, sense this humble posture, and become more receptive to us and our message.
Once missionaries have prepared for cultural changes by learning to reframe situations and avoid ethnocentrism, they are ready to truly adjust to their new setting. There are many adaptive skills and behaviors that can serve Westerners well, depending on their host country.
To adjust to an honor/shame culture, one may have to:
To navigate the labyrinth of indirect communication, it can be helpful to find a “cultural ambassador:” a local friend who commits to answer questions and help to interpret signals in the culture. One participant said, “I had several trusted national friends who served as my cultural interpreters. This helped me to better understand events and circumstances and know how to appropriately respond.” This resource helped the missionary to offend others less frequently and have a more positive experience culturally.
To adjust to income disparity, missionaries will:
To thrive in societies with a great deal of gender disparity, missionaries will have to:
To adapt to settings with rampant corruption and crime, missionaries will:
To adapt to less privacy and closer social contact, missionaries will learn to:
To adapt to the developing world, missionaries must:
To adapt to a setting in which ministry work and social relationships frequently overlap, missionaries can:
Missionaries are a giving bunch, and sometimes have trouble receiving from others. But true friendships have reciprocity. If the missionary is always the giver of care and concern with a local, then there is no mutuality and no true friendship. Reciprocity is essential in some cultures where gifts and favors are meticulously tracked and exchanged to ensure parity in the relationship. Even in cultures where the tallying is less formal, a friendship flourishes only when we permit others to reciprocate kindness to us in the ways that they are able. A wise missionary will allow people do so, even where there is great economic disparity. And they will ruthlessly examine any desires that they have to always be the savior or giver in relationships.
All of the adaptations necessary in crossing cultures can be exhausting. So it’s important for missionaries to remember to care for themselves during it all. Stress affects us physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Missionaries must be prepared to practice good habits in all of these areas to avoid burnout. As they give grace to others, they must remember to give some to themselves too.
As missionaries prepare, reframe, adapt, and care for themselves, they can extend grace to others more readily and find more success in local relationships and ministry. They can better cope with situations that make them uncomfortable. And they will better maintain a positive frame of mind about the people they have come to love and serve, making it less tempting to hop a plane back home.