Traveling to a different culture is intimidating, to say the least. The people think differently, dress differently, have different mannerisms and different opinions of hygiene. Culture is one of the exciting aspects of missions but also the most frustrating. It is the mountain you need to climb to understand how to engage in such a way that the people will hear and understand what you are trying to communicate. That’s right! You are not talking to a Western crowd when you are in Nepal. Their thought process is different than yours think and you need to understand that and learn how they think to be an effective missionary. Hale and Daniels, puts it this way, “If we do not understand the distinctive attributes of the culture in which we are working, we will not be able to fully understand the people, nor will we be able to effectively communicate the gospel to them— which is our supreme concern” (On Being a Missionary).
Event vs. Time and Task vs. People
You have probably heard it said that Americans are time-oriented and most of the non-western world is event-oriented. What in the world does that mean? When I first arrived in Africa, an event-oriented culture, I was invited to lunch at a pastor’s house. I was thrilled to start developing relationships and plugging into the community! So, like any good American, I asked, “What time would you like me to be there?” After an awkward glance and a long pause, my pastor friend said, “12 o’clock.” I thought, “Great! I’ll get there at 11:45 (like a normal American I wanted to make sure I was on-time) and we’ll have a time of fellowship and probably eat at around 12:30 and that will put me home around 1:30. A pleasant hour and a half lunch break.” Well, that is not exactly how things went down. I arrived early (of course), and my host was a little shocked. Because 12 o’clock to them did not mean 11:45 or even 12:00 it meant – at 12 o’clock you should start getting ready and begin your journey towards my house (remember that they walk everywhere they go. So it might take an hour plus to get from point A to point B). But like any good “save face culture” they welcomed me in and gave me a seat in the main tukul (African mud hut with a grass roof. I have no idea if that is the correct spelling either). All the men came in and sat with me. I could barely make out their faces through the darkness and smoke that filled the hut. We sat there for about half an hour talking and then one of the ladies came in with some cokes (which was an extravagant expense for them). I thought, “Great! Lunch is almost ready; I am starving!” After another hour of talking and waiting I was starting to get famished and frustrated and was wondering when we were going to eat. My time-oriented culture was struggling with the fact that we are now pushing towards 2 o’clock and lunch is nowhere in sight, and I have been sitting here for over two hours. Don’t they know I had plans and things to do!!! At about that time I glanced out the door and saw a woman walk by with a live chicken, and it was at that moment I realized that I would be here for a long time because I was sure that live chicken was lunch. We did eventually eat “lunch” at around 5:30 or 6:00 and I finally got to go home.
Another example is the first few times I attended a church service in Africa. I showed up at 10:00 a.m. sharp and there was a handful of people there playing worship. For the next two and a half hours, I sat there on the wood benches listening to the worship and wondering when the pastor was going to start the service. I was confused because the sign out front said that Sunday morning service started at 10:00 a.m. so I asked the pastor (who was the same pastor I had lunch with at his tukul) what time church started and he looked at me and said, “well, when everyone gets here.” Most of the people had to walk for miles, and only a few of them had bicycles and while on their journey to church they might stop 5-10 times to talk with friends.
This lunch appointment was a funny and frustrating time for me, but I learned a valuable cultural lesson – I was time oriented, and they were event oriented. I valued the time frame we set up and the speediness of completing our task while my Africa friends esteemed the event – lunch and church. The time that it took to finish these events was irrelevant in their minds. Both cultural realities have their positive and negative aspects. As time oriented people, we tend to get a lot done in a little amount of time and because of that have a lot to show for it but very little to show for in the context of relationships with people. The event-oriented people will get very little done (in the eyes of the time-oriented people), but their relationships with the people in their community are deep because they value that time with people more than getting the task done in a timely fashion. The trick is to learn to function in the cultural perspective you are living in. I had to learn radical patience and that it was not required of me to show up on time.
Thinking Ahead vs. Not
Westerners are always planning and preparing for the unknown. This is called “Crisis-Oriented.” However, most Eastern and African cultures place very little value on this. Their life is mainly about surviving the day in front of them. This is an element of culture that all westerners will struggle with. When I was in Africa, I would get so frustrated with people because they would not plan until it was often too late. One of the ministries we ran was a feeding center for malnourished kids. The problem we faced though was that the parents never planned. They did not contemplate the reality that if they don’t get their child to the doctors today, they won’t have a chance to tomorrow. Their child would be sick but still breathing, and they would not act until their child’s eyes started rolling back in their head, and it was now a matter of life or death. The result of this was that we would often get kids that were past the point where we could help them.
The reality is, westerners we are often consumed with planning ahead that we miss the moments in front of us. At the same time, a lot of other cultures error on the complete opposite side of that spectrum and do zero planning and continuously find themselves in need.
Individualism vs. Community
This one is HUGE! In the west, we value pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We value individualism. But in most Latin and Eastern culture’s value the community. One example is often found in the idea of marriage. In the west, the story usually goes something like this – boy meets girl and they fall in love. Boy and girl get married with or without their parent’s blessing. In fact, in most cases, the parents usually had very little input in the whole relationship. But in Eastern cultures “love marriages” are frowned upon. Marriages are arranged by the parents in a way that blesses the whole community and brings honor upon the whole family. For more information on this, please listen to Jeff Jackson’s messages by Clicking Here.
The Box of Confusion
These different cultural perspectives permeate everyone’s thinking often without the individual even realizing it. The greater the cultural gap between your home culture and the host culture you are ministering in the more likely there will be radical misunderstanding and miscommunication. This is what I like to call The Box of Confusion. There exists an invisible box the floats somewhere between you and the person of another culture you are talking to. You say something, and it instantly gets caught in this box, shaken up and spit out into the other person’s ears so that what you said and what they heard are two entirely different things. But neither one of you realizes it because you never see “the box.” This can be incredibly frustrating and quite funny at times. But the key is to recognize that we have two different cultural worldviews that dictate our thinking and reasoning and as the missionary, it is our job to break out of our box and learn how to function and live inside theirs.
How do you Make the Connection?
- You need to understand that it is going to take years of complete cultural immersion to start feeling comfortable. Short-term’ers have a misconception that they understand culture because they have visited a few different countries but until you have lived in a different culture for over a year you are mistaken. The mountain of cultural differences and mistakes that you will/need to make is huge, and it will take years to learn to navigate these waters and become effective. Of course, God’s grace is sufficient to bridge these gaps, and with globalization, this task is becoming easier.
- You need to learn as much as you can about the people, their history, their religion and their language. Read as many books as you can and watch all the documentaries ever created. Their history and their religion shaped their culture and knowing those is a huge benefit. Lastly, their language is the tool that you need to tap into because that will help get you into their minds and you will start to understand clearer how they think.
- Get plugged in with the people. The more time you spend with them and the more questions you ask, the faster you will learn them, and the faster they will learn you (remember they are just as confused with you as you are of them. They are just way politer about it). Ask as many questions as you can and listen to their answers, make clarifying statements to see if you are getting it right. Don’t assume that you understand because you need to remember that The Bus of Confusion is always operating. However, a word of caution needs to be made here as question Westerners ask can often be offensive to other cultures. In Africa husbands and wives never show affection in public. In fact, you would never even know that two people were married. So asking a question like – “how is your marriage going” might be a little over the line at first. However, understand that you are going to make mistakes and ask the wrong questions just be humble and quick to apologize. Also, know that most “save face” cultures are going to give you the answer they think that you want to hear. The answer could be true or false, that is irrelevant to them if they believe that you are happy with their answer they gave you. Too often missionaries out of the sheer discomfort of getting plugged in with the people distance themselves. This comes across to the people as incredibly insulting. Remember they are community oriented and the fact that you don’t want to join and partake in their community is radically hurtful. Once you start to develop those relationships, you will find that communication and understanding (both directions) gets easier and easier.
- Don’t make comparisons. Don’t try to compare their culture with your culture or their culture with another culture. This will often come across as if you are putting down their way of life and exulting another.
- Realize that you have cultural blinders on. You view reality through the lens of your culture, and you need to come to grips with that. Just because you were brought up a particular way does not make it right or superior to another. You need to follow the Holy Spirits leading as He breaks down your blinders and helps you to see more clearly. You are entering a new culture and are in many ways like a child. You are learning the elementary principles in this new culture that little kids are learning. Your learning the cultural do’s and don’ts, and five-year-olds learn. This is humbling but necessary. For example, last Christmas my son (9) opened a gift from his grandparents in front of the whole family and blurted out – “wow this cost $50!” Was he wrong? No, the gift, in fact, costs $50. But in America is it polite to talk about money in this type of context and this kind of company? No. Later I had to have a conversation with him that it wasn’t polite to blurt that out and we don’t ever want to talk about money in that type of context. This is an American social principle that we learned from the time we were little kids. Now that you are in a new culture you will need to put on the hat of a five-year-old and start the process all over again.
Train4Missions.com is one ministry Pastor Mike Thiemann runs to help equip and train missionaries for long-term overseas service. Pastor Mike and his wife Erin serve State-side as full-time missionaries through Saving Grace World Missions and raise their own missionary support. If you would like to partner with Pastor Mike and Erin to help them further the ministry of Missions Training, please click the “ways to give” image below.