WHAT CROSS CULTURAL MISSIONARIES FACE AND HOW WE CAN SUPPORT THEM.
By Kim Woolley
A missionary once said, “Cross-‐cultural missions is like watching a movie going on around you, but not knowing what role you are playing in that movie”. Missionaries face many challenges as they endeavor to immerse themselves into another country and culture for the sake of furthering God’s kingdom. So what are the most common barriers and how can we help our missionaries navigate through them.
The first barrier is dealing with the obvious challenges that come with living in another culture i.e.: food, language, culture, weather, dress etc. The common term for these trials is “Missionary Stress”. Often missionaries are not prepared on how to respond to these trials Biblically and often respond in a worldly or sinful way. How can we support them? Remind the missionaries to look at their circumstances with a Biblical lens and to respond to these trials in a Biblical way (1 Cor 10:13, James 1, Romans 5, 1 Peter 1)
The second Barrier is isolation and loneliness. This is apparent on two levels. Firstly-‐ the way you look, you stick out like a sore thumb everywhere you go, being called ‘Foreigner’ all the time, constantly reminded that you don’t belong. Secondly-‐ how you behave, trying to understand and come to grips with the underlying norms and nuances of the culture. Things that people learn simply from growing up in the culture are a complete anomaly to the missionary. One can offend without meaning to, which can result in a struggle to connect with people and thus a feeling of isolation. One missionary describes it as ‘ living on another planet among aliens’. Some examples -‐ the social norm of having to invite a person three times before they will accept an invitation for tea or a meal, never giving anything to someone with your left hand, or couples not showing any affection in public (even holding hands is taboo). Then there are also the cultural norms in the new culture that the missionaries find offensive to their culture, for example personal space. Missionaries and their families coming from a western culture would find it offensive for people to go through your bedroom, personal items and being asked very personal questions, whereas in Eastern cultures this is perfectly acceptable.
We as the church can help by encouraging the missionary to use the fact that they stand out, to meet new people and to open doors for Gospel conversations. The missionaries also need to know that just because you are trying to adapt to a culture doesn’t mean that you accept everything in the culture without applying Biblical wisdom. We need to help them discern what in the culture is unbiblical/sinful and therefore cannot be accepted, and what is just different culturally and not necessarily wrong. A foreign country, may, for example, have many Festivals which are regular social events. It can isolate you from the community if they are not attended. However because of their religious association to pagan worship, it would not be wise for Christians to attend them. Thus it’s better in this case for the missionary to be isolated from the community at that time, and more significant to show that they are different. Another cultural issue, like local dress, is not sinful and thus can be adopted as the missionary assimilates into the culture. The church needs to be very active in combatting this loneliness by regular communication; whatsapp, skype, e-‐mail, sending packages and even visiting them on the field. We want the missionary to know they have not been forgotten.
The third issue is relationships between missionaries and other Christians on the field. The number one reason that missionaries leave the field is not the environment or the people they are ministering too but fellow Christian workers. The church can respond by praying for unity and to encourage the missionaries to quickly resolve conflict and seek forgiveness with one another.
The last barrier would be the relationship with the home church. The missionary is held in such high esteem as they leave for the mission field. However once there the people they minister to can be very hostile, there may be little or no fruit. When they have to come back on furlough and face everyone it can be a very real struggle for the missionary. Feelings of guilt and failure as they experience counter-‐ culture shock coming back to their home culture. The church can help by remembering that missionaries are ordinary people who are weak and vulnerable at times like everyone else, they need God’s grace and to be encouraged to continue to serve God faithfully.