Friday, June 12, 2015

Culture and Missions... Don't get caught with your pants down on your mountaintop moment!


noun cul·ture \ˈkəl-chər\ 
     1. The beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time
     2. A particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.

Few things in long term cross cultural missionary work or service are, or should be as important as culture. The moment we cross a border we are entering into another culture, that essentially has, another culture.

culture, mexico, Oaxaca, missions, short-term missions

Sadly, in my experience in the field, and within personal relationships with hundreds of missionaries [both long and short term] and pastors, the understanding of local cultures and mores takes a back seat to all the other things that are believed to more important.

Recently a group of tourists in Malaysia was hiking on Mount Kinabalu. One of the members of the group decided to issue a challenge to the others. Who could strip and stay naked the longest on the cold mountain top. Despite pleas from their guide to not do so, the group was soon buck naked on the mountain top. You can read about it here.

What they didn't understand was that this particular mountain is considered to be sacred ground by many locals. That lead to arrests after an earthquake hit the region, killing 18 other climbers. The people who stripped, the Deputy Chief Minister said, had disrespected the mountain by posing naked, thus causing the earthquake.

Now, we can argue all day whether or not their nakidity had anything to do with the earthquake, but that misses the point. If the travelers had understood the culture, or had listened to and respected the advice of their guide, they would not have been arrested and facing a host of charges and fines.

One of the hallmarks of Adventures in Life has always been our desire to learn, and give others the opportunity to learn about the culture of the people they are serving.

Short term missions, mission trips, culture, Mexico, Guadalajara
The Cathedral of Guadalajara

Years ago, on our first mission in Guadalajara AIL Ministry Co-founder Grady Martine and I took our team to the Cathedral of Guadalajara. As we toured the cathedral and walked on what for many people from Guadalajara was sacred ground,  one of our team members came up to me.

"Dave" he asked, "why are we wasting time here when we could be outside witnessing and saving these people?"

That attitude, that any time spent learning about the culture, is time taken away from "real" Gospel work, in my opinion, tells locals that their culture has no value. It is a prideful attitude that hurts, and ultimately builds barriers to the types of relationships we need to share about Jesus.

Chances are you will not find yourself in a situation like that group of tourists in Malaysia. But a refusal to learn the culture of the people you are called to serve, can render you just as clueless as they were, and negatively impact your Gospel mission.

When you understand the culture of people you are trying to serve, whether they live across town, or on the other side of the globe, you will be a better witness and ambassador for Jesus.

Think about it.

Want more info? Check out the resources from Dr. David Livermore on Cultural Intelligence, or CG.


Z-man said...

I watch "Globetrekker" a lot and it's a great way to learn about the myriad different cultures in the world. What I like about the show is its nonjudgementalism. They had a segment on witchdoctors for example, I forget which country but the producers just documented the custom, made it interesting for the viewer without passing judgement on it. Great show.

KP said...

Dave, outstanding post.

How would you like to share this article/post at a website where I am an author on staff? The web site "The Moderate Voice"?

It has a mostly progressive clientele and group of authors. Many readers are believers but seem hesitant to say so.

I know the moderators, Joe Gandelman and Dr. Estes and am happy to refer you with introduction.

I love your work. If you prefer, I would write an article referencing your post and refer to your blog here in an effort to drive traffic, may be financial aide.

Let me know here or @

Keep On Truckin'

Kevin Purcell (aka KP)