"This life therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal, but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed." --Martin Luther

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

understanding culture

To be able to minister in another culture you must be able to understand that culture. (And let’s face it, there are plenty of different cultures right where you are-you don’t have to go outside of your own hometown often to find different cultures. But this is more related to other geographical location cultures.) How do you do that? Reading about it is a good place to start to begin to learn about another culture. Talking to others that live in the culture (or have lived) full-time is an excellent way. From there experiencing it yourself is the next step. I am not really talking about the 2 week mission trip. They are fine; I see the good and bad in them. (another post for another time) But on those trips, you do not get a realistic picture of what the culture is really like. You run from one place to another doing “ministry”, and the nationals you spend a lot of time with put on a good show for you. I’ve seen the show put on for several months and as soon as the westerners leave, things change. To a large degree we have created this culture. How do I mean? We have created an entitlement culture. It is bad enough that we have done it over here, now we have gone and done it over there. A lot of Zambians believe the government is supposed to take care of their needs (fertilizer for farming, good prices for their crops and more). They often see missionaries and other ex-pats as an ATM. The 2 week-ers feel bad because they have “more” then the national. Wrong perception! Many of the nationals do just fine without our handouts. Or they say the national does not make enough because he is only making $3 a day. Wrong perception again! $3 a day out in the bush is an excellent wage. You can screw up a local economy very quickly if you decide that they should be making more in line of the Westerners. You must work within their parameters- not ours here in the west. Zambians grow up thinking that personal comfort is a privilege and not a right, whereas Americans are brought up to believe the opposite.
I have seen a great deal of damage done by those that have meant well because they assumed they knew and understood the culture. {this is not necessarily just about our experiences-some of this has come through talks with other missionaries.} Can you imagine how much fun it is for the full time missionary to have to try pick up the pieces after a team leaves? And of course the team has no idea that they have done any damage, they just feel good because they “helped” someone (often it is more about them than the nationals). From what I have seen or heard there is very little training done for those who go on a “summer team”. There is a term that someone coined “the 2 week expert”. It is someone that comes in thinking they are going to solve all the problems of an area in 2 weeks. They mean well but they have little or no understanding of the culture. And the problems they are going to solve have been there for centuries and they are not going to fix it in 2 weeks. They typically do not understand why the missionary there does not do it (their way) and can be critical of that missionary. All you have to do is “this.” The 2 week-er does not understand the culture; their perception might very well be correct, but they do not understand that as soon as you leave they are just going to go back and do it the way they always have. You may think that sounds fatalistic, and maybe it is but it is also true. It is not fair to the national to expect them to do it (anything) in a western way. If you want it done in a western way, have a westerner do it.
You might say that that is a good reason to support nationals and not the western missionary. Support the national missionary so that the Westerner doesn’t come in and try to do things the Western way. (Well, if you believe that that is all a Western missionary does, you don’t know how most missionary agencies are set up. Most go to where the people are and learn and study and become a part of THEIR culture, so their knowledge can be passed onto the nationals in a culturally relevant way. There are many missionaries out there who don’t necessarily plant churches. They are out there training church leaders and helping with oversight of existing churches) I have to mildly disagree based on my own experiences and what I have heard from other missionaries on the field. I am not saying that we should not help people, we should. I am not saying one way or the other if you should or should not support national missionaries. Just asking questions. The first question that needs to be asked, is it Biblical? Remember, it is not about you and if it makes you feel good. Is it Biblical? Who should support your local pastor, you or someone else? If you are not because you chose not to or cannot, should someone else from outside your local church do it? Are you robbing that church and its pastor of the joy of seeing God provide (through themselves?). There are good arguments to why one should. But is it Biblical? That is and should be the bottom line. To further it though, does it matter if it is Biblical? Is it wrong to “help” someone out? We give to charities and other causes here in the States, is it wrong to do it around the world? If it is not specifically Biblical, when does it become Unbiblical? This is another area where you need to understand the culture. As you write your check, you think you are giving a support gift, something to help someone out. But in their culture…they see it as a paycheck, their church sees it as a paycheck so they don’t even have to support the pastor (and they could, they have nice church buildings, sound systems, etc). In fact, we have seen it become a status symbol. You can tell who has help and who does not. Most of the pastors are still going to have their own farms or other jobs even with your gift (or I should say their wives are going to keep farming. That could also be another post. One of our other missionary friends also wrote about it on his blog. During his training he found it was the men’s job to sit and visit while the woman did the work. We saw this too. It was much easier to teach the woman about agriculture than the men, they were willing to try new things. The men usually did the plowing, but the women did the planting, fertilizing, hoeing, and harvesting. Anything we tried to teach the men wasn’t passed on to the women; we had to go directly to them if we wanted to suggest they try something new. I always thought it odd that the men acted like they knew everything there was about the farming when they didn’t even do the work, so how did they know?!). It is just a bonus. Which in a way, is what you are giving them, but do they think of it that way? (disclaimer-we are not singling out any one agency. There are numerous agencies that do preacher sponsorships, Gospel for Asia, Final Frontiers, our former agency; do a google search and find more. There is another kind that supports the national church planter until the church is going and established. Then the support switches over to the church. Then the church planter goes out to start another church before his support starts again. So we have seen and know many organizations that do gifts directly to the national.) I have seen on both sides of the ocean pastors that do what they do because they were called by GOD and they do it no matter the hardships, they do it because they love Christ and I have also see that there are some that are just in it for the money. Often in Africa, as well as many other countries, they blend Christianity and local pagan religions into a perverted form of religion and they see nothing wrong with it. All too often culture supersedes scripture instead of scripture superseding culture. We all do that because change is hard. And going against the flow of culture can be very isolating. The hard part is standing firm on what is solid scripture and being able to bend in the other areas of the culture (a GREAT book to read is “Bruchko” by Bruce Olson on his work with the Motoline Indians). The waters often get rather murky at times. The key is to know scripture, not just read it. It is studying it in context and then understanding it and then applying it. I think that a lot of believers (including myself) are rather illiterate when it comes to scripture. It is human nature to add a bunch of rules that are not there and then ignore the ones that are there.
In Africa I was told that if you drink alcohol you can NOT be a Christian, if you smoke you can NOT be a Christian; but they see no problem going to a witchdoctor.
It is okay to call on a spirit of divination to find water.
If something is left outside it is okay to take it, it is not considered stealing. It is not stealing if you don’t get caught.
Lying is accepted and expected. (We have friends who have a list of about 30 culturally acceptable lies in Zambia) It is not lying if it helps you survive or if you benefit from it or if it is what I think you want to hear.
Balancing the books and keeping close tabs on the money is considered being stingy and it is frowned upon if a national is doing it.
If someone says “maybe” to something it means yes. There where may occasions that a part-timer said that they “might do something, or they would try” and it was seen and heard as -it was going to happen. Then I had to come back and explain. They see the westerners as people who do not keep their word.
Do you see where this is going? These are things the part-timer does not know. But the full-timer does. But if the full-timer is not listened to (which is often the case) things can and do get very frustrating for the full-timer. Often the full-timer has all the responsibility but no authority. That just does not work. To try and run a business from a distance (here in the States) often does not work all that well. Then, try and do it cross-culturally where the Leadership often doesn’t understand the culture themselves because the show is always put on for them. You need to either be there or you need to give the authority to the one who is there, that is just the reality of it. In our discussions with other missionaries, it was very sad to see that there was only one where its missionaries really felt like they had the say and it was the Home Office who had their back; not the Home office giving the orders and the missionaries don’t have much of a say, even if they know it won’t work or whatever. I am not saying that you don’t need oversight, but the full-time people on the field really need to be listened to.
So should you not do short term trips? Not to give another post away, but to end this one. Yes, short term trips can still be good. Just do your research before you go! Email your missionary or someone in country or who has been in the country before you go. Go with the idea of ASSISTING the missionary in their work; not coming to solve problems. Find out what and where they are already working so they don’t have to come up with a project just for you. Listen to what the missionaries on the field tell you, don’t think you know better. Strive for better understanding once you are there so you know how more effectively you can pray when you get back. Oops, better stop or there goes another post…
I guess this post is really going in a lot of different directions! Here is a quote from “Bruchko.” (It is now on the “recommended reading list”). He says, “My experience with the Motilone Indians has taught me how to deal with other cultures; how to promote positive change without tearing social structures apart at the seams. I try to share these things. But the most important thing that I can say to those who want to help primitive people is this: They will not be helped very much unless they find purpose in life through Jesus Christ. Without Him whatever development takes place always will be twisted or corrupted. It will embitter those who try to hold it together, and those who don’t care about it will be ruined by apathy and alienation.”

No comments: