An enormous part of cross cultural missions is the examination our worldview and our behaviors. In order to separate our own cultural understanding from the Bible’s message, we’re duty-bound to carefully study both the Bible and our own cultural perspectives. Additionally, we must find ways that our non-biblical cultural views (time, money, family, nature) differ from local views. We change how we act in the non-essentials of life while holding firmly to what we believe to be true about the Bible.
Simple to say, yet not easy to accomplish. However, since we are changing our thinking and behavior, it really isn’t impossible.
What happens, though, when the problem is not your thinking or your behavior? Suppose the real quandry is that who and what you are causes you not to fit into a specific culture. Far from being a behavioral issue, this is instead a problem relating to the reality and nature of your existence.
Confused? Consider the following actual situations.
– Bob and Ellen move to Zipponia. They take with them their three children, two of whom are adopted. They notice locals dote on their “real”child more than on their adopted kids. Gatherings of multiple families make more obvious the degree to which their adopted children are ignored. After 18 months in the country, Ellen realizes locals do not believe a reasonable mother would ever give up a good child for adoption. Therefore, Zipponians assume that Bob and Ellen have two problematic, untrustworthy, and possibly dangerous children. The children are heart-broken while Ellen is stressed. Bob wants his family to be a godly testimony, but knows that two of his kids are not very welcome in the community.
– LeeAnn, a single 28-year-old, enthusiastically moves to the Republic of Salami. She discovers there that a single woman has an important role: work in the home of her parents and brothers, helping to manage the household until the day she marries and moves into the home of her husband’s family. LeeAnn is continually frustrated because she cannot spend time with men, and all the single women with whom she expected to connect have no time for her. Married women have the usual family stuff plus kids, so forget that. The men dislike that she is unattached and outside of male supervision. The women don’t trust her because she apparently doesn’t work; that is, does not manage a family. Her work opportunities are limited and her friendships are non-existent.
– George and Beth relocate to Engordia, a country whose residents value gregarious, boisterous families filled with children. Beth and George, however, have never felt the burden to extend their family beyond the two of them and, in fact, feel as though their childless contentment is a sign that this is what they were made to be. The Engordian people view the newly minted missionaries as selfish, cold individuals who cannot love anyone since, apparently, they don’t love children. Nationals never invite the transplanted Americans to social gatherings, since apparently these foreigners hate kids, and George’s sermons on loving one another fall flat in light of his apparent lack of love for families.
– Dalton and Gloria, along with their 4 kids, pack up and move to one-child China. You get the picture.
– Grant and Zoe, who has a port-wine stain birthmark on her left temple, move to Smogaria. Smogarians view obvious physical defects or marks as being indications of Allah’s displeasure with the individual, the individual’s family, and by extension the society at large. The people usually respond by routinely beating, neglecting, or even killing children born with such defects. Any who survive to adulthood are shunned. Grant is viewed with an attitude that roughly approximates awe for his fearless love of divinely-cursed Zoe. Zoe, on the other hand, is unwelcome in people’s homes. Grant struggles to teach nationals of God’s acceptance of all who approach the cross; struggles, that is, in light of the assumption of God’s apparent rejection of Zoe and all other marked people.
– Jeremy and Stacy – deaf to varying degrees, multi-lingual, college-educated – move to places where people assume deafness causes idiocy. Predictably, life is difficult. Doctors don’t listen to them. School teachers talk down to them. Taxi drivers refuse to take directions from them and routinely drop them off at the wrong address. Shopkeepers assume they don’t know math and give incorrect change. Things they teach from the Bible are doubted and double-checked. Stacy loses most of her independence. The work isn’t hindered, but life really stinks sometimes.
All of these situations are true; with the exception of the final one, certain details are different in order to hide identity. What’s more, none of these situations happens in a vacuum. Each limited or ignored missionary gets to see other colleagues who are free and unrestrained by this clash between who they are and where they live. They see the impact in their work (“How can I share with people when they have no time for the likes of me?”) and in their families (“Mommy, why do the neighbors play with my brother but not with me?”). The clash takes a financial toll (“Cheated me again!”) and carries an emotional punch (“I hate it here!”).
Now…what’s the solution?
What responsibility does the missionary have in all of this? One could argue that the missionaries in question should have done their homework first. Someone else would reply that God calls us to specific places regardless of our limitations; He will accomplish all things to His glory. Then someone points out that this does little to comfort the missionaries and their families on a daily basis. That leaves us with no solution.
What duty does the commissioning church have? If Snot Rock Baptist Church proudly lays hands on and sends out Grant and Zoe, does the church have a responsibility to help their long-distance siblings in Christ get through all of this? Should they send volunteer teams just to spend time with Zoe and ease her loneliness?
I don’t think anyone would argue that the missionaries should quit. Nor is it reasonable to suggest that the missionaries can just work to change the culture; no one has enough time for that.