How to grow your culture knowledge

In January Rachel Pieh Jones asked the question How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation? and challenged all of us to move beyond culture learning that focuses primarily on food and language. I have to admit that I fist pumped the air as I read and probably said a few too many

“Yes!”

“Yes!”

“Yes!”

Little did Rachel know, but I was working on just such a resource. Her words felt like a confirmation of God’s heart and desire for us to know the people we have come to serve.

One of the tricky parts of culture and cultural knowledge, however, is that it it’s easy to measure and judge each other, especially internally.

“My language skills will never be as good as hers!”

“Oh my word, I cannot believe that he didn’t know how rude he was being.”

The truth is, there is always someone who knows far more than you and someone who knows far less than you do. So, when it comes to culture, we need to be like runners who keep their eyes on their own lane and focus on making progress themselves. How about instead of judging each other, we encourage and equip each other to keep growing.

Sounds good, who is going to push back on that? But if you’re like me, I want to grow, but the busyness of life can get in the way of my good intentions. That’s why I created a four-week challenge that fosters a culture growth spurt by focusing on one area of culture each week: history, the arts, pop culture, and religion. 

The challenge has two tracks, one for those of you new to a culture, and one for those of you who are old hands in culture. Each week you will be emailed three options for how you could grow that area of your culture knowledge and you choose one of the options. The challenge is designed for a one-to-two-hour time commitment each week.

Growth doesn’t just happen, but you also don’t have to figure out what to do all on your own. This challenge works well for individuals, families, and teams to do together and is available until May 13th. You can join here.

Here is a taste of the challenge. The challenge uses the metaphor of a tree to picture your culture knowledge. This is part of the history week: 

History can be a mixed bag, can’t it?! If you’ve already completed the option you picked earlier this week, you might have learned something about your host culture that inspired you. But it is just as likely that you learned something that broke your heart, angered, or confused you.

History is all of these things! It is inspiring and angering. It is laced with beauty and laced with injustice. It reveals God’s character and reveals the need for God. You need all of these aspects for your culture tree to grow in a balanced way . . . not just one part—a lone branch or leaves without a trunk.

If you haven’t started on the history options yet, that’s okay. Take a moment to think about when you will. This weekend? Tonight? Don’t overthink it, but do block out thirty minutes to an hour.


Just think of where your culture knowledge will be in four weeks if you don’t take the challenge. Probably not that different from what it is right now. But with the guidance and support of this challenge over the next four weeks? When Rachel asks the question How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation? With this challenge you can answer, “Better than I did!” You can join the free challenge today here.

P.S. Thank you Rachel for calling all of us to keep climbing! And here is a Prayer for Old Hands in a Culture — you can pray it for yourself or old hands you know.

Photo by Magdalena Love on Unsplash

How Do Cultural Factors Influence a Missionary’s Decision to Leave?

by Andrea Sears

In reviewing the cultural factors that are part of a missionary’s decision to return to their passport country, it is relevant to consider where survey participants served. Of the 714 survey participants who answered this question, the following chart represents the proportion that served in each region:

For the purposes of the chart, Mexico was included in Central America with other Latino cultures, though it is technically part of North America. Fifteen percent of participants served on more than one continent, and were given the “various” designation since they could not be assigned to only one continent. All others served in only one country, or in various countries within the same continent. The majority (68.2%) of participants served in one country only, 18.6% served in two countries, 7.6% served in three countries, and 5.6% served in four or more countries during their time on the mission field.

Because survey participants served all over the globe in very disparate cultures, their struggles were at times common and at times very different. We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be host-country-related factors:

  • I struggled with the local language of my host country.
  • I struggled with the local culture of my host country.
  • I struggled with local relationships in my host country.
  • I missed the developed world.
  • I experienced security issues.
  • I had limited access to electricity and/or technology.
  • I felt taken advantage of by locals for resources.
  • I experienced conflict with locals that grew out of cultural differences.
  • I experienced conflict with locals that was unaffected by cultural differences.
  • I had to leave the country because of immigration/visa issues.
  • I was in danger of persecution because of my faith/vocation.
  • I was in danger of persecution because of my nationality.
  • Political instability or armed conflict made it too dangerous to stay.
  • National economic instability made it untenable to stay.
  • The government restricted missionary activities to the point that I was unable to work in the area of my calling.
  • The climate was difficult for me to live in.
  • A natural disaster caused me to be evacuated.

 

Results
This group of factors has relatively low strength indexes for most of the items. While some cultural factors have very high numbers of people experiencing them, usually these factors did not affect the decision to leave, and if it did, it did so to a small degree.

Two of the strongest factors in this group were: (1) having to leave the country because of immigration/visa issues and (2) having security issues. Interestingly, the issues experienced by the most people are thankfully those that are at least in part within the missionary’s locus of control, such as the first four statements on the list. This is a place to look for preventable attrition and prepare missionaries to better weather cultural stress.

 

Language Study
We also collected data on how long each participant studied the language of their host culture (in a formal sense), in order to see if there is a correlation between length of study and tenure, or between length of study and reporting a struggle with the language.

Based on this data, the greatest proportion of those who studied formally did so for at least 9 months, though there is a small bump at 3-6 months. Those who spent at least 3 months in formal language study stayed on the field for at least an average of 9 ½ years, while those who did not study or studied for less than 3 months had an average of 6-7 years of tenure.

The majority of participants admitted to difficulty with the language, regardless of whether or how long they studied it. However, those studying more than 6 months tended to have their language struggles factor less into their return decision. Those studying less than 3 months more often reported that language was a moderate to strong factor in their return decision.

 

Culture Struggles
We also collected open comments on the following question: “What aspects of the local culture did you struggle with?”

Themes that consistently emerged in the comments, ranked by prevalence, were: (1) honor/shame culture and the resulting style of indirect communication, (2) income disparity, (3) gender inequity, (4) corruption/crime, (5) demands of hospitality and having less privacy, and (6) less focus on order/efficiency.

Other themes also frequently mentioned were visibly not fitting in, language difficulties, fatalism, different concepts of time/pace of life, local supernaturalistic beliefs, and different cleanliness/hygiene standards.

Unfortunately, comments about culture often contained tones of negative judgment, with indirect communication being categorized as “dishonesty” or fatalism being called “laziness.” One thing we can learn from these responses is that our own worldview permeates deep in our psyche and defines for us what we think is the “right” way to do things, leading us to evaluate others unfavorably when they don’t share our values. Part of being a successful missionary is intentionally rooting out our own ethnocentrism in expecting others to be like us (or to work on becoming like us).

 

Local Relationships
We also collected comments on the question: “What did you struggle with in your local relationships?”

Themes commonly mentioned were language barriers, developing intimacy and trust, the time required to build friendship as an outsider, differing relationship expectations, and distinguishing between true friendships and ministry.

 

Conclusion
Culture shock and culture stress are common, but also expected and apparently not a primary direct cause of missionary attrition. But they certainly affect the quality of the missionary experience and impact the overall resilience of the missionary. And lowered resilience certainly does affect missionary attrition.

Conclusions and recommendations include preparing missionaries to cross-cultures well, including a list of topics to cover in training and coaching; learning and using the skill of cognitive reframing to minimize ethnocentrism; curbing certain Western tendencies to adjust to different settings; and self-care.

To see the full detailed report and discussion of results, click here. You can subscribe on the website for notifications when future results are published. You can also email andrea.d.sears@gmail.com for a pdf if you want to save or share the results.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Andrea Sears is co-founder of the ministry giveDIGNITY, which works in the marginalized community of La Carpio in San Jose, Costa Rica. The ministry focuses on Christ-centered community development initiatives in education, vocation, and violence prevention. Her family has been in Costa Rica for 8 years, and served as the Missionaries in Residence at John Brown University during the 2017-2018 year while on furlough.

A Trip to the Embassy

by Seth Lewis

I was excited. We’d only lived in Ireland a few months—long enough to begin to feel the reality of deep differences, but not nearly long enough to adjust to them. Our second son had just been born, a different experience in a different medical system, and we needed to register his birth at the United States embassy. American soil, in Ireland. It would be nice to get a little taste of all we’d left behind. A few hours on the motorway got us to Dublin, where we found the US embassy—a big round thing looking out of place on its street-corner, like a landed UFO. Like us. 

To get through the outer wall, we had to go through security. I hadn’t anticipated that, but it made sense, and I knew what to do. On the other side of the metal detector, the ground was American. Even the flowers were red, white, and blue. This was going to be fun.

I opened the door to the UFO, and was immediately struck by the lack of country music. Not even rock. Nothing. Just another security guard, another metal detector, and a sign that said “Please take a number”. A number? I’m not a number, I’m an American! This is my embassy! 

I took a number. White walls and tiles. Uncomfortable chairs. Drop ceiling. I knew there was a ballroom in the building, but no one offered to show it to me. Come to think of it, the room did look familiar. I’d seen this set up before, in America, at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Office. 

An embassy is a US government office. I should have known it would look like one. That I would hear several people being refused before I got a turn to hand my number through the thick (bullet proof?) glass and hope I had every form and supporting document exactly right. Somehow I had thought they would be as happy as I was to see another American. I had wanted a taste of things we left behind. I got one.

We walked out past the red, white, and blue flowers and through the security gate. On the other side, the Irish ground felt a little more like home. In the car, I played country music.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Seth Lewis has lived on the south coast of the Republic of Ireland for the last ten years with his wife Jessica; two of their three children were born there. He works with a network of local churches who are committed to church planting and also assists with a local Bible college and youth camp ministry. Before moving overseas, Seth worked with a church in Virginia. His accent doesn’t really fit anywhere anymore, and he’s okay with that. You can find him online at sethlewis.ie.

When Debriefing, Leave Your Shoes—and Socks—at the Door

When we first moved to Asia, one of the customs we needed to learn was not wearing shoes in someone’s home. It’s one of those cultural things. But starting out, we had our reasons for wanting to leave our shoes on. It’s convenient. What about the holes in my socks? I don’t want you to smell my feet—and I don’t want to smell yours! It just doesn’t feel right.

But It didn’t take long for going shoeless inside to become our habit, and even our preference. Then we’d fly back to the West and upon landing we’d again be in the land of most-people-wear-shoes-in-the-house. Of course, we still could take ours off, and we often did. But sometimes it was easier just to leave them on. Then it was back on the plane (where, a recent headline proclaims, you should never take your shoes off), and we’d start to reset our minds about a whole range of things.

Back and forth. Back and forth. It can all get pretty confusing. Sometimes we need help sorting things out—things much bigger and deeper than clothing choices. A great opportunity for processing on those issues, whether you’re finishing a term, or a lifetime, overseas, is a set-aside time for in-depth, personal debriefing. And for that kind of debriefing, regardless of the location, shoes, and socks, don’t belong.

OK. Now I’ve moved to speaking figuratively, so let me continue in that vein and talk a little about feet. Most of us aren’t that crazy about how ours look. There are crooked toes, calluses, bunions, blisters, and unclipped or ingrown toenails. And then there’s that smell. Yes, missionaries may have the beautiful feet of Romans 10:15, but they don’t always seem that way to the ones who own them—thus the socks and shoes. Debriefing, though, should be about openness and trust, showing your feet, so to speak, as they truly are. But that’s not always easy.

Maybe you’d like to keep your running shoes on. Debriefing is just another mile marker in your race from agency to church to summer camp to appointment. You’re on a tight schedule, and while you’re tired and thirsty, the most you can do is grab a paper cup of water as you run by. Even when you stand still, you’re jogging in place.

Or maybe you don’t want to take off your work boots. You come to debriefing only reluctantly. This is your spouse’s idea or your team suggested it or maybe your agency told you you had to come. So you make phone calls during the breaks and answer emails until late at night. Mental multitasking keeps your thoughts half a world away.

Or maybe it’s your dress shoes that you don’t want to take off. You’re ready for the debriefing questions the same way you’d be ready for a job interview or performance evaluation. It’s like when your boss asks you “What’s your greatest weakness?” The trick is to come up with something that sounds honest but doesn’t reveal too much, maybe even sneaking in a strength, all the while avoiding the too obvious “I struggle with being a perfectionist” or “Sometimes I just care too much.” When you’re asked how you are, you say “fine” and tell how well your ministry is going.

That’s not the way debriefing should be. Effective debriefing requires barefoot honesty and vulnerability. But I do need to add here that that’s not solely on you (no pun intended). You need to be in the right environment, the right culture, to bare your feet. Not everyone can offer that.

You probably don’t share everything with your agency, church, supporters, or family, because they’re, well, your agency, church, supporters, or family. And that’s what makes the debriefings offered by independent member-care individuals and organizations so valuable. Yes, debriefing can cost money and time that you could spend elsewhere, but it also has so much to give in return.

It has experienced facilitators who know the right questions to ask and who know how to listen, even to words unsaid. They see beyond your status as a missionary, knowing how much your vocation impacts you, yet knowing that there is much more to your identity. They won’t decide your future but can help you figure out the path ahead. They are safe. They are encouraging. They won’t report to others what you tell them but, if needed, can guide you to those who can give you more care.

And if you join with a group of other missionaries for debriefing, you get the extra blessing of forming a community that speaks the same language (and I’m not talking about English here), that can relax around each other, that can laugh at shared jokes and cry over shared losses, that can find comfort in each other’s quiet presence.

No one can demand your trust, but your trust can be earned. No one can make you take off your shoes, but when the ground below you becomes holy, removing your shoes becomes a natural response. And it will invite those around you to a deeper level of honesty.

When you travel abroad, pick up on the cues where you are and follow their shoe-wearing customs. When you fly, you should strongly consider leaving your shoes on (seriously, here’s another article on that topic). When you go to debriefing—and I encourage you to do so—I hope you’ll be able to leave your shoes, and socks, at the door. It’s one of those cultural things.

[photo: “Shoes,” by Long Road Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]