Living in another culture

you begin to understand how much you’ve been shaped by your native land. I never realized how “Western” I was until I moved to an Asian country and began trying to fit-in with all the strangeness around me. Being left-handed I still sometimes forget, for example, not to take and receive things with my left hand, a faux pas in most Asian countries since the left hand is considered unclean. I also often forget that I’m not supposed to touch the top of my children’s heads, something that is disrespectful (I guess I’m even doubly wrong when I do so with my left hand!). However, as strange as things may often seem, acculturation is a necessary process that every missionary must go through if they’re going to have credibility with the people they’re trying to serve. Although most cross-cultural missionaries understand this and desire to adapt to different cultures, traditions, and social norms, there’s often internal friction with the unfamiliar present and the familiar way things used to be.

In my estimation, the greatest area of friction for Western missionaries is not learning a new language or getting used to new foods and customs. But the greatest area of friction is perhaps relating to wealth in a very different environment from the materialistic soil on which we are raised. It’s an understatement to say that consumerism has found a friendly home in the West; for most of us abundance so characterizes our lives that it feels superficial to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The “right” to prosperity has become embedded in our worldview and thousands even feel they’re entitled to occupy Wall Street in order to get a shot at that very thing. And when Westerners, like myself, begin living among people who are very different – mostly impoverished with little education – this worldview assumption becomes more and more obvious. One observer of Western missionaries wrote,

“The word that perhaps best sums up the plethora of secular values which influence all North Americans – including missionaries – from infancy throughout life is consumerism, the way of life established upon the principle that the great goal of human life and activity is more things, better things, and new things; in short, that life does consist in the abundance of possessions.”[1]

In the Bible many ethnic groups and nation-states were characterized by specific sins (cf. Hab. 1:6-10). Certain idols had gripped the collective hearts of these people. Similarly, when learning about different Asian ethnic groups, we learn that one group is easily angered, another group is loud and obnoxious, while another will habitually steal. We’re also told that most Asians think all Westerners are wealthy, no doubt because of the obvious way in which consumerism has gripped our hearts and consciousness (after all, someone who has that many pair of shoes must be a wealthy man). To many this is an envious position, but it is perhaps the greatest existential obstacle Western missionaries face in reaching a people with the gospel. It is also perhaps the greatest reason why most of the progress in God’s Kingdom is happening not through the missionaries of abundance, but through the missionaries from the poorest churches – the indigenous missionaries.

Hope for change

For the most part, Western churches have given in to the “spirit of the age” and lost the prophetic voice necessary to call God’s people back to faithfulness in handling wealth. The costly church buildings scattered across America are monuments to this reality. We have become like the church in Laodicea, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). But, fortunately for us our Lord’s prognosis doesn’t end at rebuke and condemnation. Just as there was hope for the church in Laodicea, there is hope for us. Their hope resided in listening to the reproving voice of the Glorified Messiah and repenting (v. 19). Our hope resides in no less.

How do we listen to Christ’s voice and apply his word in a culture of prosperity? Or, coming from a culture of prosperity to one filled with poverty? Must we renounce our wealth and live ascetically in order to follow him who had no place to lay his head? Did men like St. Francis of Assisi follow the path of obedience when they chose to do this? I don’t pretend there are easy answers to these questions, but I do believe the Bible has given us everything we need for life and godliness. So fundamentally, our understanding of wealth and how it can be obediently stewarded must come from the pages of scripture.

[1] Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books), 34-35.