Americans recruit people and promote people by criteria different from those used in many cultures. Long term loyalty is the most important qualification in some countries, while Americans are ready to give a position to a newcomer with obvious abilities. Sometimes Americans give a native power by funding his ideas, though that person may not be trusted by the church leaders who know him. Americans like to use the young and eager, because they are quick to learn, but we should be careful not to undermine the positions of the old leaders.
The goal-oriented American wants to use people who will get the job done, but the people who see themselves as the trustees of the institution want to make sure it is kept in the right hands. Time, much gracious discussion, and understanding of everyone’s concerns are necessary to build a cross-cultural ministry.
The famous missionary J. Hudson Taylor wore Chinese clothing and the typical pigtail of the Chinese men. Morgan Street speaks of becoming a “sister” to “Peter” (see page 5). In Central America I wore a mustache during my first four-year term – and when I shaved it off some Guatemalans asked if I had turned away from them.
These were efforts to fit better into the local culture. A missionary in another land has multiple differences that make him foreign – skin color, facial features, language, physical stature, clothing styles – and his foreignness makes the gospel also foreign. Even when he learns the local language, his accent and pronunciation are different.
Therefore, whenever he can do things that are not sinful and which help him more closely identify with the locals, he helps open the door to a fairer hearing and increased likelihood of peoples’ accepting the gospel.
Become a student! Rediscover the reasons why certain cultural practices began. Is there a story or tradition that points to deeper truths? Does it contain a signpost that points back to Jesus? Use these cultural windows to reveal the Truth like Paul in Athens (Acts 17:22-34), rather than railing against them.
Recognize that what is different is not always wrong. Separating our middle class, American cultural understanding from what is Biblically right or wrong is sometimes harder than it looks. Some things just don’t “feel right,” though it may be hard to prove it with a chapter and verse or even a principle. Why? Because we are all creatures of habit, and cultural thinking is hard to change. Just ask Peter (Acts 10:9-48). If we can approach festivals, food, friendship and life as students rather than as teachers, then perhaps we can become culturally closer to those whom we serve.
Three words: Enjoy. Eat. Listen.
1) Enjoy other cultural customs.
Imagine a visitor to your home who says, “Thank you for inviting me, but my house is really much nicer.” Would you be offended? Learn to enjoy the “home” you are visiting - the festivals, holidays, and customs of the place you serve.
2) Eat other foods.
Imagine a visitor to Sunday dinner who brings a picnic basket because, “I don’t like your food.” You might feel a bit insulted. Learning to eat (and enjoy) the foods of those we serve is important for crossing cultural barriers.
3) Listen to other people.
Americans are sometimes seen as "know-it-alls" who have the answers and never listen. As missionaries, we may not know which cultural practices are acceptable and which are associated with idolatry or pagan practices. Listen to spiritually mature Christians who know their own culture. Respect their wisdom.
A Second Response:
Listen. Listen. Listen. The “Ugly American” is the traveler who has all the answers and never listens. That caricature is unfortunate for a tourist; it is disastrous for a missionary. If we want to be closer to those we serve, we must learn to listen. This will teach us areas in which we can adapt to our host culture. Hudson Taylor came to appreciate the need for Chinese clothing by listening to the believers he was there to serve.
In addition, listening will warn us of areas in which we should not adapt. Attempting to relate cross-culturally, missionaries have sometimes taken on cultural practices that offended young Christians. Some “innocent-looking” practices may be offensive because of their identification with idolatry or pagan practices.
As foreigners, we will not always know which practices are acceptable and which will damage our Christian witness. Listen to spiritually mature Christians who know their own culture. Respect their wisdom.
Here are a few important suggestions:
1. Language Learning: Language learning includes cultural learning. One cannot learn the language without grasping a solid cultural understanding. One’s ministry will NOT BLOSSOM until the process of language learning advances.
2. Adjusted Lifestyle: American missionaries often are able to afford a higher standard of living than many nationals; however, making adjustments to lessen that economic gap is helpful.
3. Cuisine Enjoyment: Learn to enjoy –not merely endure– national cuisine. However, be real. Missionaries are not expected to enjoy every national dish, but learn to enjoy several things. [Yes, there are even a few PA Dutch dishes I do not enjoy! :o) ]
4. Worship Appreciation: Learn to appreciate some aspects of their worship styles. This may be difficult for some to do, but it is important.
5. Solid Relationships: Build some solid –not merely trivial– relationships with national Christians reflecting respect for them.