One of the most helpful things missionaries can do as they prepare to serve overseas is to go through cross-cultural training. Different mission agencies might go about this differently, but there is agreement that before a missionary sets out to leave lives in a different culture, there needs to be proper preparation. Thus, Cross-cultural training helps introduce the missionary candidate to the challenges they will or might face as they leave live in a culture different from their own.
While this is a good thing to pursue and to continue doing this training, most, if not all, missionaries who have gone through these programs will testify to the challenges faced in their respective ministry settings. Not sooner than later after they arrive, they face cultural challenges that easily become stress producers. The honeymoon period of being in a new ministry context evaporates quickly as one daily realizes their limitations and lack of proper knowledge about the culture of the target people. The result is cultural fatigue that leads to different varied responses from different missionaries.
How can one explain this in light of the cross-cultural training that these missionaries receive before hand? There is no denying that the training they received was valuable and helpful. One cannot imagine the intensity of the challenges they would face if such training had never been given. At the same time, this reality raises another question: Is there a missing element in the cross-cultural training that our missionaries receive before they leave? My intention here is to highlight one of these elements and make a proposal for an adjustment in our preparation of missionary candidates.
I am one who would have thought that I could survive in any culture given that my background is multi-cultural. Yet, as I have traveled and served in different settings, it has become clear to me how limited I am in my own cultural adaptability. Each ministry setting is different, with its own specific cultural expectations and practices. These practices are not known to the western mind and therefore cannot be part of the cross-cultural preparation for our missionaries. Sometimes I get the feeling that people think that all the African tribes have the same cultural practices. That is far from being true. Within each African country, there are many tribes and many more dialects and customs. Thus, even within one country, there is not a general rule on the culture of that country. As one moves from tribe to tribe, he or she faces continued cultural changes and expectations. The question, then, is how can an American mission agency adequately prepare missionaries for these variegated missionary contexts? As it stands now, the motivation for cross-cultural training is good and helpful. Yet, I fear it might be too broad to be helpful. Thus, my proposal.
In addition to the current cross-cultural training, there needs to be a focus on a culture-specific training for our missionaries. When missionary candidates get together for their cross-cultural training, each is heading to a different part of the world. While helping them realize the challenges of living cross-culturally, it is equally important to help each person understand the demands or challenges of the specific culture to which they are going. A missionary heading to Africa will need to understand the cultural expectations and practices of their ministry context. For example, what are the religious practices of your people group? How do they bury their dead, give into marriage, view child birth etc.? What are their inheritance laws? What is their view of the family? How do they see the role of each individual in the community? What are proper behaviors in public? What is expected of you when someone travels for a day to visit you? Knowing these things in detail will enable the missionary to be better informed and also to have a realistic picture of whether or not they are fit for such a ministry context. Sometimes the desire to serve blinds us from seeing the challenges/hindrances to that service.
An advantage for this proposal is that it helps the missionary to arrive at his location better prepared. A stranger in the village who shows knowledge of the worldview of the villagers and appreciation of their day-to-day cultural practices will win the hearts of their audience before even saying a word. On the contrary, a stranger who exhibits shock at the cultural practices and expectations remains a stranger, and though accepted, will find it hard to make a breakthrough. Rather than us Americans deciding what our missionaries need to know before they go, let us ask what the people in their various ministry contexts would like them to know before they come.
If we desire to make a difference in our respective ministries contexts, let us strive indeed to be all things to all people in order that we might win some through the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23).