Go Ye Into All the World: A New Culture

 A veteran missionary tells of the need for sense and sensitivity on the part of the new missionary to a foreign land.

First Impressions

Having been graciously commended to the work of God by one or more assemblies, the new missionary invariably starts off to what he believes to be his Divinely appointed sphere of labor with a sense of euphoria. He is, after all, stepping out with strong conviction on a pathway that God has chosen for him. He does so with the warm best wishes of his brethren and sisters. It may even be with some sense of self-importance since he has gained the confidence of his fellow believers as the result of his usefulness in the home sphere. His faithfulness in assembly matters and his public ability, together with his evident exercise concerning the work of God at home and abroad, have been the basis of commendation and his being thrust forth into a far corner of the vineyard.

Modern travel allows little time for mental adjustment. In earlier days, four or five weeks on board a ship gave opportunity for a quiet assessment of the situation. An immediate return to the homelands was something that did take place on a few occasions. But, today, the new worker has hardly time to open his Bible and read a chapter or two before the announcement of arrival is being made. Then the shock of facing a different culture begins. A passport is demanded, intimating right away that he is a foreigner. As this knowledge is assimilated he realizes that the many “rights” as a natural born citizen in the homeland are no longer his. It is even possible that the laws and social atmosphere of the new country are unfavorable or opposed to what he stands for and what he has come to proclaim. He almost certainly will be called upon to register in some municipal or police office where he could easily be viewed with suspicion. Thereafter he will carry an identification card, which must be produced on demand, perhaps even at the most innocuous moments.

Getting the Language

The strange sounds enveloping him as he leaves the airport and, possibly, the unreadable symbols on roadside billboards will add to a strong feeling of strangeness. If the new worker has had a real exercise from God, and opportunity, he will likely have tried to study the language of his newly adopted country in preparation for this day. Nevertheless, he will find that what he learned from books and with a tutor is only a very insignificant beginning to what will probably become a lifetime study.

Having had good advice from brethren already on the field or from other knowledgeable believers, the new worker will be acutely aware of the importance of getting the language. “How can they hear without a preacher” are words, no doubt, ringing in his ears. Whether the language is one he can immediately relate to, because of certain similarities to his native tongue, or one completely diverse, the first order of business will be to get down to language study. This will be a full time job with, probably, a minimum of 5 or 6 hours daily, followed by attendance at evening meetings, held in the vernacular, of course. No longer does his public speaking ability give him a place of respect in the assembly and certainly not among unbelievers. These latter will probably look upon him in exactly the same way as recently arrived immigrants to his own land were viewed. Attempts to speak English, heavily accented, gave the impression that the speaker was less than intelligent. Now the boot is on the other foot.

At first glance the barrier of the new language seems to be a real hindrance to the gospel zeal of the young missionary. He has come to preach the gospel but has not the wherewithal to do it. Instead he is spending most of his days hunched over books and repeating, endlessly it seems, phrases that will not remain in his head, far less come off the tongue in proper sequence. If, as may be, he is cooking for himself, or, being married, his wife is studying with her teacher while he does a bit of shopping, his forays into the local markets or shopping areas to buy essentials will often cause snickers. He may have asked for “a pound of humanity, please” instead of “a pound of carrots”. In one language the two words are almost identical. It is humiliating to say the least.

Becoming One with the People

In actual fact, the time spent in language study is most profitable. It enables the missionary not only to learn to communicate (which will come eventually, contrary to the feeling during the first year or so), but also to understand the people with their many different ideas and habits. Many a young worker has been saved from making a fool of himself by the need to study how to communicate properly. In spite of a well meaning approach, the temptation to say, “this is not the way we do it in my country,” can sometimes cause the individual to act like the proverbial “bull in a china shop”.

In most languages there are degrees of intimacy implied by the use of some words. This is especially true in the Orient. Intimate words are most often of very plain speech, which is used constantly among friends. Many years ago while still in language study I had occasion to be graciously allowed to visit in a Japanese home for a few days. The host was an unbelieving elderly lady – very, very proper. I had picked up some words that were not rude but were very plain, carrying with them the thought of intimacy between good friends. I used them in speaking to the lady and she was highly offended. After all, we were not close friends. I don’t think she ever got over that and the brother who was boarding in her home, no doubt, was disappointed that she never was saved.

The religion of any land is closely linked with, and may even be the basis of, cultural habits. Frequently these habits are, to the new comer, illogical, and often senseless. They may be, but care must be taken not to give offence by attitude and remarks that so easily spring to the tongue of the “unlearned”. It is not that any compromise can or should be made with regard to Scriptural truths and idolatrous or religious error. Paul’s example in Athens (Acts 17) should be studied. He used the error of their idol worship to show the true character of the God of Heaven. This is exactly what is done when Chinese writings (pict-o-graphs) are used and also what is evidently Biblical truth hidden or perverted in the religion of these lands. To be able to do this takes much time and effort to accommodate oneself to the cultural differences encountered.

Willingness to Adapt

What then is needed to adapt to a new culture? The first prerequisite is, of course, a very strong conviction that God has placed me in this land to serve Him in the gospel. All things being equal, this will produce a holy determination to continue in the work of the new country no matter what difficulties are faced. It will erase any idea of “I’ll see how things go and if I like it I’ll stay on”. At all times, but especially in the beginning, there will be a very humble attitude with regards to the brethren and sisters of the adopted land, whether workers from abroad or local believers. It may be difficult not to feel superior to people who are poor, illiterate and backward, as the local folk may be, but the worker must remember that he is a “servant to all” and that for Christ’s sake. If he has any sense at all he will realize that, because of his lack of ability to communicate, he does occupy a low place among them.

A willingness to accept all that can be accepted in the new culture is also most necessary and to be as like the people of the country as possible. In many cases this will not be feasible because of extremes in economic conditions, but the attempt must be made. There is no point in trying to reach those who are in dire need of necessities if your living conditions are far beyond anything they could afford. Every effort will be made to minimize the differences. Things as they are found may be completely different to “back home” but that does not mean they are inferior or wrong.

Then, to be willing to be instructed even by those who are clearly inferior in gift or ability is also a must. It has been said that “we are all willing to learn but not to be taught!” Such an attitude will not endear the worker to those he has come to serve.

Finally, the worker will need to have a deep sympathy for the spiritual darkness of those he is now coming to know, since these are the ones to whom God would have him proclaim a message of love and salvation. It is possible that in the place where he now labors, both of these concepts will be noted only by the fact that they are completely unknown.

Ezekiel said “I sat where they sat” (Ezek 3:15) and did so for seven days in spite of the urgency of his message. The new worker should make that his God-given objective.