Culture Shock in Missions:

Does Facebook Missionaries experience part of the same “lostness” with cultural ideas that are foreign to them?

What ways can we become part of the Facebook cultures that we are witnessing Christ to?

What are some specific culture shocks that you have experienced on Facebook that posed a challenge to your ministry?

What are some of the specific solutions to overcome culture shock on Facebook with your ministry?

By Kathy L. McFarland

I remember my first overseas assignment in Tokyo Japan so well, that if I close my eyes I can still recall the sounds, smells, sights, and confusion. The minute we stepped off the plane, I smelled a fishy odor in the air; by the time I reached customs, every one of the Japanese, Koreans, and Thais that I met smelled the same way. I had not prepared for that. But I had prepared for cars driving on the road in the opposite direction as Americans; I was so proud that I remembered that until I stepped off my first curb and forgot to remember that pedestrians must look different ways because of different lanes of travel. When I looked left, I saw no cars, stepped out into the road, and almost got slammed by the car moving forward in its correct lane. You think you can prepare, but you cannot think about it all.

Our military rank did not permit base housing, so we had to go off base and live among the locals. We found a really nice, brand new, Japanese apartment with a 2ft wide x 4ft tall bathtub, a 1ft x 1ft stove with a tiny 1ft oven underneath, and a strange contraption coming out of the wall that had a nozzle and gas that had to be turned to high to get a bit of hot water. It was winter, and there was no heat; we did not know about kerosene heaters from the start, and the walls of our cold, cold apartment began to mildew all over the wallpaper as the still hardening concrete stayed wet without heat. The TV and radio didn’t speak anything that I could understand, and the noise of the traffic, bicycle horns, and drums preparing for a night festival penetrated my mind.

I started to experience culture shock; it is a real disordered process in one’s mind that can’t adapt because things are so strange. It was not homesickness (of which I also began to experience), but another physical/mental obstacle added atop that. The people living on base had a little bit of one; mine was full-fledged. Unless you have tried to establish a home in a foreign country without knowing the language, you cannot understand how crippling culture shock is until you experience it.

If someone had asked me about Jesus that first month, I doubt I would have had the proper words formed. But, during that first month, because I was so lost, I got a great deal of help from my local neighbors. They all delighted to have a young American amongst them (back then they liked it anyway), and went outside their comfort to help me adapt. These neighbors became some of my best and life-long friends; I never established closer ones when I finally made enough rank to live on base and just commute outside the gates into the culture even after being inside the country for eight years.

As I read the Brewster article on the difference bonding makes, I immediately thought of this time in Japan.[1] They recommend immersion into the culture immediately; basically, they are advising to initiate the culture shock hard and fast, and deal with all the conflicting, emotional, confusing, scary signals that overload a foreign brain.[2] Did I mention that it is common for those with culture shock to become sick with flu-like symptoms as the body must do without the brain’s usual clues to keep fit because it is preoccupied with survival from the shock? So in the thick of shock overtaking your brain, most also have nausea, congestion, and an achy body to go with it. And always, for everyone I’m almost certain, there will be tears. And, these authors are asking missionaries to subject themselves to that shock without much of a safety net; at least I had the U.S. Military ready to save me should I get in over my head.

Missionaries have two choices; they settle into the culture by staying away and isolated or they dwell amongst them. The “foray” method usually allows the missionary to live in a missionary compound that is familiar and safe; as the missionary goes out several times a week to spread the Gospel of Christ, there is always a familiar, safe haven awaiting the return of the expatriate.[3] Or, the missionaries bond with the culture and people, live their lives with them, and experience the horror of culture shock from the beginning.[4] This shock usually leads to a deep bonding, just as the author’s example of a newborn baby bonding to the parents at the moment of birth, and eventually establishes a sense of belonging with potent relationships with people developing in this shocking vacuum.

The authors warn that total culture immersion into a foreign language culture is not without risk.[5]But, it is this risk that starts the process of a bonding relationship, and eventually becomes the foundation of mission work that has the best potential of gaining the culture’s trust. It is trust within a relationship that best serves the delivery of the Gospel of Christ, and compels the listeners to walk toward Him. Author Reyburn calls this point-of-contact connection by the German words der Anknupfungspunkt which designates a deep process that connects the speakers with the listeners.[6] The identification of the missionary must adapt to the culture’s connection, or the message will never be heard. The unconscious habits and culture traditions become critical introductions to the missionaries’ presence, and offers the freedom to witness the Gospel to them when all of the pieces of connection fall together.[7]

But, even the concept of der Anknupfungspunkt might be misleading when it stresses the need to have common ground to bridge the gap between Christians and non-Christians. Karl Barth and Emil Brunner have deep divisions in necessity for this to occur.[8] Some argue that God makes that “common ground” connection, and the missionaries should stay out of the way of the culture. Barth stresses that every human being, believer and unbeliever, can have philosophic axioms and theorems that are contrary to each other, yet, the image of God is born inside them, ready for access to lay the common ground for the Gospel to be heard.[9]

Thus, a case could be made that missionaries can live in secluded compounds and still do a good job when they go out into the cultures, without having to absorb the actual culture understanding into their lives. But, my experience in Japan argues against this; a comparison of the close connections I made with the Japanese compared to my peers that lived on the military base prove that close living and sharing makes a difference, in my mind at least.

Bibliography

Brewster, Elizabeth S. and E. Thomas Brewster. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: The Difference Bonding Makes. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1992.

Henry, Carl Ferdinand Howard. God, Revelation, and Authority. Vol. 5. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999.

Henry, Carl Ferdinand Howard. God, Revelation, and Authority, Vol. 1. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999.

Reyburn, William D. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: Identification in the Missionary Task. Pasadena, CA: William Perry Library, 1992.

Footnotes

[1] Elizabeth S. and E. Thomas Brewster Brewster, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: The Difference Bonding Makes (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1992), 467-469.

[2] ibid., 466.

[3] Ibid.

[4] ibid., 466-467.

[5] ibid., 469.

[6] William D. Reyburn, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: Identification in the Missionary Task (Pasadena, CA: William Perry Library, 1992).

[7] ibid., 474-476.

[8] Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, Vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 396.

[9] Ibid.

Note to Facebook Readers: Please be brave and wrestle with the questions at the beginning of this post. Then answer them in reply my friends. I want to know your experiences on mission work on Facebook and how you learned to adapt to different culture difficulties.