One of the aspects of mission work in cross-cultural settings is the day-to-day differences that a missionary must face and to which then he must respond appropriately and wisely. This day-to-day reality of cultural differences is true for all missionaries and their families, who are sent across cultural and linguistic boundaries, no matter their originating background, birth-nationality, and home-culture. Although the degree of differences can vary between the culture in which the missionary labors and the culture in which he was born and raised, yet they are an unavoidable part of his daily and weekly work. In this article, we will highlight only a few, general, day-to-day differences that a foreign missionary might experience.
In doing so, our intention is not to criticize the cultures that are foreign to the author and in which our fellow saints might live. Instead, the intention is merely to increase awareness of the distinct, day-to-day differences that our missionaries might face, and to increase awareness of how missionaries must learn to adapt in matters that are non-essential, that is, those things which are not necessarily right or wrong according God’s commandments. One can then appreciate how missionaries try their utmost to adjust their behavior and language for the furtherance of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and the gathering of His church in a cross-cultural setting.
In the first place, a missionary may face differences regarding time. North Americans generally value punctuality highly and move at a rapid pace, almost impatiently; perhaps this view of time in part explains the ballooning and prosperity of the Western fast-food and quick-delivery industries. North Americans tend to be impatient when waiting in long lines and when from their viewpoint discussions seemingly meander and do not conclude promptly. North Americans generally plan well in advance, even maintaining schedules that extend weeks and months in advance. Appointments are planned and rigorously kept. Some cultures would consider North Americans to be slaves to their watches, daily planners, and calendars.
In contrast, for some cultures being on time for meetings or visits has a different level of priority. Arriving after the published time for an event seems normal, and is often due to unpredictabilities of public transportation, traffic congestion, the previous needs of a visitor or family friend, or, in some cultures, the higher cultural status of an individual. In some cultures, a delay in the start of a meeting due to late arrivals seems to be normal. What a North American missionary might think has a very simple solution, such as leaving earlier next time, in reality might not be so easy to implement as it may seem.
Second, in North America, a queue of people would be a normal expectation at a school cafeteria, at a customer service counter in a department store, in traffic at an intersection, or at a check-in desk at an airport terminal or ferry terminal. Cutting in line is seen as rude and disrespectful, and the failure of the clerks or nearby security guards to notice or do anything about “cut-ins” irritates a North American who is accustomed to orderly queues and everyone taking a turn at the end of a line.
In some cultures, it is normal that people cluster around a bank teller window or a customer service desk, all competing in various well-practiced ways to be the next one served. It is considered normal that some cut to the front of the line at a grocery store check-out because they have only a handful of items compared to others lined up with full carts. To a North American this seems exasperatingly unfair, while to some cultures it is a normal way of life.
Third, the use of material resources can differ significantly between a North American missionary and the people of a culture in which he labors. A North American prefers to buy in bulk, while in some cultures, people like to buy just enough for a day or two. A North American generally likes to follow a pre-planned budget in the spending of his money. In some cultures, the financial need that occurs historically first has the first claim on the spending of one’s money. A North American tends to store his wealth and commodities in bank accounts, retirement accounts, houses, tool sheds, barns, and many other things. In some cultures, resources are to be used, not hoarded, so that if someone sees that his neighbor’s hammer or other resources are not being actively used, he feels free to “borrow” the unused hammer or other resources for his work until the owner “borrows” them back for his next project. A North American tends to view his wealth and resources individualistically, while in other cultures resources are viewed in terms of the extended family and community.
Fourth, many North Americans, generally speaking, enjoy “peace and quiet.” North Americans value a quiet day or overnight hike, listening to the quiet sounds of God’s creation. Laws are enforced by the police to maintain orderliness and quiet during the nighttime in neighborhoods. A North American couple enjoys a meal at a restaurant in quiet conversation with minimal background noise that might disturb and distract their fellowship. In some cultures, a North American is uncomfortable with the booming music in a restaurant or the house-shaking noise of an annual fiesta through the night. At the same time, a foreigner in North America can be very uncomfortable with the unsettling quietness and seeming lifelessness of sparsely populated North American neighborhoods.
One missionary noted that to “an African, when a city is quiet at night, it is a bad sign. Normally an African city is full of sounds. When it is quiet, something is wrong.” What the Western missionary may have initially interpreted as a welcome development of “peace and quiet,” was actually the result of an attempted overthrow of the government in that particular African country. While in North America a person might buy a house in a rural area to enjoy a life of solitude and quiet, in one African country such a person is viewed with suspicion as possibly dangerous, being greedy, or, perhaps, being a wizard or witch.
Fifth, the understanding of personal privacy differs between cultures. In North America, privacy tends to be defined in terms of physical distance and separation, while in other cultures privacy is defined in terms of the amount and degree of his involvement in family, church, school, and employment relationships in life. To a North American, the ability of several families and generations to live in close proximity to another, in one house even, is exceptionally amazing, while the local culture views it as normal. To a North American, questions about age are acceptable, but in some cultures direct questions about someone’s age may be disrespectful.
Sixth, in the area of communication, a North American values direct communication, direct eye contact in communication, and clear answers to questions. If there might be a problem, then he wants to be told directly and accurately. To a North American, the use of body language in communication has a lower emphasis. In contrast, in some places, indirect communication is used to avoid the appearance of being confrontational with others. Direct eye contact for a prolonged period of time is considered improper and is avoided in some cultures. Certain kinds of body language are often used to communicate an answer in place of a direct verbal answer. Invitations for a visitor to stay for supper need to be repeated several times before a visitor might agree to stay. In such situations, a quick “yes” in response to the first invitation for supper would give a hasty and an improper appearance.
Finally, when a North American borrows something from his local neighbor, for example a bottle of ketchup, he might show appreciation to his friend with a full bottle of ketchup in return, maybe even a larger size. In some cultures, such a gift of thanks would be an offense because the larger bottle in return sends an indirect message that the original bottle was not good enough, reflecting badly on help of the local friend. In North America, when people bring gifts to a friend at his birthday party, the friend will open the gifts in the presence of the givers, express thanks, and the gift is handed around to those attending the party. In some cultures, it would be inappropriate that gifts be opened publicly before the givers in order to avoid unfavorable comparisons between givers. Instead, the gifts are opened privately at a later time, and warm thanks is expressed appropriately to each giver individually.
Cross-cultural differences sometimes may be baffling, frustrating, and even irritating occasionally to those people of God on both sides of a cross-cultural divide. However, a foreign missionary must be willing to receive, change, and adapt as much as possible to the non-essential differences in a foreign culture of his labor by continued learning of the day-to-day differences. Each particular culture in which missionaries live and labor may have its own specific peculiarities that make it a unique and interesting culture and linguistic group according to God’s will and providence. In submission to God’s providential government of cultural differences, the missionary must learn and appreciate the differences if he is to grow in his ministerial effectiveness in a cross-cultural setting.
A missionary ought to follow that strategy because it is biblical. In 1 Corinthians 9:19–27, the apostle Paul expresses to the church of Corinth that he “made [himself] servant unto all…” (v. 19) and was “made all things to all men” (v. 22). We understand that this means that in matters non-essential, neither morally right nor wrong, Paul behaved as those whom he served in the ministry of the Word. Similarly, if a local culture is one in which food is eaten with hands and without chopsticks or other utensils, then the missionary and his family will learn to do as the people do. If the local people of God wear certain kind of formal wear to the church services, then the missionary and his family will learn to fit in with the local culture’s respectful clothing for the reverent worship of Jehovah.
The purpose for that assimilating behavior is twofold. First, the missionary seeks to avoid unnecessary hindrances by his day-to-day behavior in matters non-essential to the preaching of the gospel. The apostle wrote that he was temperate in that area of his life so that “by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away” (1 Cor. 9:27). By “castaway” the apostle meant “ineffective and worthless” in his labors. This the apostle avoided by his strategy of temperate assimilation in matters non-essential.
Secondly, his purpose was to “gain the more” (v. 19), “that I might by all means save some” (v. 22), and “this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you” (v. 23). Likewise, a foreign missionary is encouraged to labor diligently by faith according to a strategy of cultural assimilation for the furtherance of the gospel and the spiritual advance of the kingdom of Christ among the nations. Doing so faithfully as he administers the Word each week, a foreign missionary may labor in the confidence of faith that Christ’s Spirit of Pentecost will graciously gather His eternally chosen, catholic church.