Below is an excerpt from an excellent article that can help you become comfortable in a new culture that you are going to call home. Written by E. Thomas And Elizabeth S. Brewster, it is extremely helpful in training new missionaries that arrive on the mission field.
The Missionary Analogy
There are some important parallels between the infant’s entrance into his new culture and an adult’s entrance into a new, foreign culture. In this situation the adult’s senses, too, are bombarded by a multitude of new sensations, sights, sounds, and smells—but he, too, is able to respond to these new experiences and even enjoy them. Just as the participants in the birth experience, his adrenaline is up and his excitement level is at a peak. Upon arrival, he is in a state of unique readiness, both physiologically and emotionally, to become a “belonger” in his new environment. But then…
Just as the infant is snatched away by the hospital establishment and put into the isolation of the nursery, so the newly-arrived missionary is typically snatched away by the expatriate missionary contingency and thus isolated from his new language community.
He is ready to bond—to become a belonger with those to whom he is called to be good news. The timing is critical. Ducklings do not become imprinted at any old time. Imprinting occurs at the critical time. Bonding best occurs when the participants are uniquely ready for the experience.
The way the new missionary spends his first couple of weeks in his new country is of critical importance if he is to establish a sense of belonging with the local people. It is not uncommon for a baby to become bonded with hospital personnel instead of with his own parents. The baby then cries when with the mother, and is comforted by the nurse. New missionaries, too, tend to become bonded to the other expatriates rather than to the people of the new society. It happens subtly, maybe while the newcomer is subject to the hospitality of an orientation time.
When his sense of belonging is established with the other foreigners, it is then predictable that the missionary will carry out his ministry by the “foray” method—he will live isolated from the local people, as the other foreigners do, but make a few forays out into the community each week, returning always to the security of the missionary community. Without bonding he does not have a sense of feeling at home within the local cultural context. Thus, he does not pursue, as a way of life, significant relationships in the community. When normal bonding is not established, rejection of the people, or even abuse, can occur. It is often reflected in the attitude behind statements like, “Oh, these people! Why do they always do things this way?” or “Somebody ought to teach them how to live!” or “Won’t these people ever learn?”
Implications of Bonding for the Missionary Task
A missionary is one who goes into the world to give people an opportunity to belong to God’s family. He goes because he, himself, is a belonger in this most meaningful of relationships. His life should proclaim: “I belong to Jesus Who has given me a new kind of life. By my becoming a belonger here with you, God is inviting you through me to belong to Him.”
The missionary’s task thus parallels the model established by Jesus Who left heaven, where He belonged, and became a belonger with humankind in order to draw people into a belonging relationship with God.
We are convinced that the normal missionary newcomer is ready physiologically, emotionally and spiritually to become bonded with the people of his new community. Fulfillment of this unique readiness must be initiated at the time of arrival.
The timing is critical.
During his first couple of weeks, the newcomer is uniquely able to cope with and even enjoy the newness of a foreign country and its language. There have been months or even years of planning, and his anticipation, excitement and adrenaline are now at a peak.
The newcomer who is immediately immersed in the local community has many advantages. If he lives with a local family, he can learn how the insiders organize their lives, how they get their food and do their shopping and how they get around with public transportation. During the first couple of months, he can learn much about the insiders’ attitudes and how they feel about the ways typical foreigners lives. As he experiences an alternative lifestyle, he can evaluate the value of adopting it for himself and his own family. On the other hand, the missionary whose first priority is to get settled can only settle in his familiar Western way, and once this is done he is virtually locked into a pattern that is foreign to the local people.
Culture shock is predictable for the missionary who has not bonded with the local people of his new community, but is much less likely for the bonded person. The one who feels at home does not experience culture shock.
In our first culture it comes naturally for us to do things in a way that works. We know which way to look for traffic as we step off the curb, how to get a bus to stop for us, how to pay a fair price for goods or services, how to get needed information, etc., etc.
But, in a new culture, the way to do things seems to be unpredictable. As a result, newcomers experience a disorientation which can lead to culture shock.
The new missionary who establishes his sense of belonging with other missionary expatriates has his entry cushioned by these foreigners. It is generally thought that this cushioning is helpful for the adjustment of the newcomer, whose arrival is often planned to coincide with a field council powwow.
We would like to suggest, however, that this cushioning is an unfortunate disservice, because during the first two or three weeks the newcomer would have been especially able to cope with the unpredictable situations encountered in the new culture. Indeed, he might even revel in all the variety. But the critical first few days are the only time such a response is likely. The way these days are spent is, therefore, of crucial importance— and cushioning is the last thing he needs.
The first prayer letter the cushioned missionary sends from the field will typically describe his airport meeting with the local missionaries, the accommodations provided by them, and the subsequent orientation by these expatriates. After writing about how he has been accepted by the other missionaries (one of his high priorities) he will invariably close with something like: “Our prayer request at this time is that we will be accepted by the local people.” A noble desire, but a concern that is being expressed about three weeks too late!–and now without a viable strategy to achieve the goal. The initial blush of life in the new environment is now gone.
The individual who hopes to enter another culture in a gradual way will probably fail to do so, and he may never enjoy the experience of belonging to the people or having them care for him.
Better to plunge right in and experience life from the insiders’ perspective. Live with the people, worship with them, go shopping with them and use their public transportation. From the very first day it is important to develop many meaningful relationships with local people. The newcomer should early communicate his needs and his desire to be a learner. People help people who are in need! Then, when potentially stressful situations come up he can, as learner, secure help, answers, or
insight from these insiders. (The one who is being cushioned gets outsiders’ answers to insiders’ situations and his “foreignness” and alienation are thereby perpetuated.)
A couple who has chosen to be isolated from Western people during their first months in a Muslim context wrote us about the victories they have experienced: My husband and I knew before we left that we would have different types of adjustments. I knew the hardest time for me would be at first and he felt that his hard times would occur after he had been here a while. So it has been. I really had a hard time leaving our family. But after I started getting out with the people here, my homesickness faded. The local community has so warmly received us. At Christmas, 125 of these friends came to our Christmas celebration. And during that season, the closeness of our interpersonal relationships amazed us.
I’m not exactly sure why my husband just recently went through a depression. Christmas for us was different than it has been. Plus he was laid up for a week with the flu. During that time, he yearned for familiar things. And he says he was tired of always trying to be sensitive as to how he is coming across. The Lord has blessed our work here, and two Muslim converts that he is discipling are what is helping him get over this. We really have been alone in many ways. We supported each other but at times the burdens seemed so big and we didn’t have anyone else to talk to or look to for advice. But I suppose that is why we have such good national friends.
Bonding is the factor that makes it possible for the newcomer to belong to “such good national friends.” Of course there will be stressful situations, but the bonded newcomer, experiencing the wonder of close relationships, is able to derive support from the network of the local friendships he has developed. This in turn facilitates the acquisition of the insiders’ ways and gives a sense of feeling at home. The one who feels at home may feel discouraged or even melancholy for a time and some cultural stress is to be expected, but it may not be necessary to experience culture shock. Culture shock, like severe postpartum blues, may be a problem of the structure more than a problem of individuals.
It is significant to note that the new Muslim converts mentioned in the letter above are the result of the ministry of relative newcomers. At a time when other missionaries might typically be experiencing the cushioning and isolation of a language school, those who are bonded and carrying out their language learning in the context of relationships in the new community also have the opportunity to pursue the development of their new ministry from the earliest days of language learning. A few years ago the authors supervised the initial language learning for a team of eleven newcomers in Bolivia. We published an article describing that project, in the April, 1978, Evangelical Missions Quarterly:
…Over 30 people came to know Christ as a result of the involvement ministry that these new language learners were able to develop during those (first) three months. Many of these were either members of families with whom we were living, or were on a route of regular listeners. In both cases, as a result of the personal relationships that they had developed, they were able to follow up and disciple the new believers. Little wonder that this was a fulfilling experience for these new language learners. (pg.103)
Insights gained through relationships can help to ensure, right from the beginning, that the wheels of ministry are not only turning but that they are on the ground and moving in a direction that makes sense to the local people.
Bonding and effective interpersonal ministry are realistic even for short-termers, and should be encouraged and facilitated. (The rapid international expansion of Mormonism is virtually all being carried out by short-termers, most of whom immediately move in with a local family and become belongers in the community. We were recently told by a Cantonese man from Hong Kong that the missionaries there who have learned the language best are Mormons!)
Only a minimum of the target language is needed to initiate bonding relationships. For example, we recently received a letter with the following comment: “The best thing that happened to me was on the first day when you challenged us to take the little we knew how to say and go talk with fifty people. I didn’t talk with fifty, I only talked with forty-four. But I did talk with forty-four.” (The “text” she was able to say that first day was limited to a greeting and an expression of her desire to learn the language; then she could tell people that she didn’t know how to say any more but she would see them again. She then closed with a thank you and a leave-taking.) The ice was broken on her very first day and, from then on, she was able to begin to feel at home in her new community.
Having local friendships is essential for feeling at home. A report developed by a mission for whom we recently consulted on a language learning project compared the 18 maximally involved learners with a control group of missionaries who had been through language school. The report revealed that the individuals of the control group (the resident missionaries) each had an average of one close national friend, while each of the learners—after only eleven weeks—had a minimum of 15 close local friendships. Since each learner had contacts with dozens of local people, there were at least 1000 nationals who had positive experiences with the learners during the weeks of the project. The report continued: “Who knows how all of this low-level public relations will ultimately benefit (the mission); it is highly improbable that it will be detrimental. ‘Maximum involvement’ language learning is where it’s at.”
Language acquisition is essentially a social activity, not an academic one. As a result, gaining proficiency in the language is normal for the person who is deeply contexted and has his sense of belonging in the new society. But language study will often be a burden and frustration for the one who is bonded to other foreign missionaries.
It is therefore important to facilitate an opportunity for new missionaries to become bonded with (and hence belongers in) their new community. New missionaries should be challenged with the bonding objective and prepared to respond to the opportunity to become a belonger.
Preparation should include an orientation to the importance of bonding, with a commitment to do so. A few sentences of the new language that will be helpful for entry purposes could be learned. Also, skills should be developed in how to carry on language learning in the context of community relationships. [A recent study by Stephen M. Echerd (an in-house mission report, p. 3) included a comparison between learners that had been trained in advance and others who developed skills after arriving in the country: “Those in the group who had previous exposure to L4MP (Language Acquisition Made Practical) made 11.78 time units of progress compared to 5.82 time units of those who had no previous exposure— more than double!”]
Then, most important, from his first day he should be encouraged to totally immerse himself in the life of the new community. He should be permitted to choose to remain in isolation from other missionaries for his first few months. He should seek to worship with the people, away from churches where missionaries lead or congregate. (Our observation is that experienced but non-bonded missionaries can be a primary obstacle to the new missionary who wishes to pursue the bonding goals. We have therefore occasionally recommended that a new missionary arrive about three weeks before the other missionaries expect him.)
If a newcomer is going to successfully establish himself as a belonger, live with a local family and learn from relationships on the streets, a prior decision and commitment to do so is essential. Without such a prior commitment it doesn’t happen.
When we have accompanied missionary learners at the time of their entry into other countries we have found that a prior preparation of perspectives and expectations is helpful. We therefore expect all participants in projects we supervise to meet four conditions:
I) Be willing to live with a local family,
2) Limit personal belongings to 20 kilos,
3) Use only local public transportation, and
4) Expect to carry out language learning in the context of relationships that the learner himself is responsible to develop and maintain.
A willingness to accept these conditions tells a lot about an individual’s attitude and flexibility.
With a prepared mentality, a newcomer is freed to creatively respond to the bonding and learning opportunities that surround him. We have seen that with a prior decision to do so, it is almost always possible to live with a local family (though non-bonded senior missionaries are typically pessimistic). Our experience is that the new missionary—whether single, married, or even with children— can successfully live with a local family immediately upon arrival. (Live-in options may be multiplied with sleeping bags.) We have seen newcomers find their own families by learning to say something like: “We want to learn your language. We hope to find a family to live with for about three months, and we will pay our expenses. Do you know of a possible family?” It would be unusual to say this ‘text’ to fifty people without getting at least some positive response—a mediator to help you or a family to live with.
We do not intend to imply that immediate and total immersion in a new culture is without risk. There is no other time with so much stress and danger as birth; and entry into a new culture has its own accompanying stress and risk factors. It is likely, however, that the stress and risk components themselves are essential to the formation of the unique chemistry that makes imprinting and bonding possible.
And there is another side to the risk question. If one doesn’t take the initial risk and seek to establish himself comfortably with the new society, then he is opting for a long-term risk. It seems that one or the other cannot be avoided. The problem of missionary casualties suggests that there is a heavy price to be paid by those who fail to become belongers—probably half do not return for a second term, and some who stay despite ineffectiveness may be greater casualties than those who go back home.
Indeed it is not easy to live with a family, make friends with numerous strangers and learn the language, but neither is it easy to continue as a stranger without close friendships and without knowing cultural cues, living a foreign lifestyle with all the time, effort, and alienation that entails.
Once the new learner is securely established as a belonger he need not relate exclusively with the local people.—he has not rejected either America nor Americans. (The bi-cultural apostle Paul ministered primarily to Gentiles, but when he was back among the believing Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 21) he did not reject them, but readily shaved his head, took a vow, and purified himself in readiness for a sacrifice.) The bonded missionary will probably continue to live and minister with the local people, but after the first few weeks it might not be detrimental from the bonding perspective for him to participate in occasional activities with other expatriates. It might even be helpful for him to spend Saturday evenings with other learners or a supervisor (and, of course, he may seek to listen to the Super Bowl with other Americans).
[The question has been raised: “What about missionaries who go to the field as a team?” A team is a team because its members share certain commitments. As a group they can decide that each will become bonded in the local culture, and they can encourage each other in the pursuit of that goal. For the initial months, a sharing time each week or so should be sufficient to maintain their commitments to each other.
The concept of bonding implies a bi-cultural individual with a healthy self-image. Bonding and “going native” are not the same thing. “Going native” generally implies the rejection of one’s first culture— a reaction which is seldom seen and which may not be possible for normal, emotionally stable individuals. Nor is being bi-cultural the same as being schizophrenic. The schizophrenic is a broken, fragmented self. But the bi-cultural person is developing a new self—a new personality.
The development of this new personality, adapted to the new culture, can be facilitated and symbolized by taking on a new, insider’s name. (The Scriptures give various examples of individuals whose names were changed to symbolize changed roles and relationships.) The new personality, with its new name, does not have an established self-image to protect, and it can therefore be free to behave in uninhibited, creative, and child-like ways; it can make mistakes and try, try again. The newly developing personality enables the individual to feel at home in a second culture.
For the Christian missionary, the process of becoming bi-cultural can begin with the recognition that God in His sovereignty does not make mistakes in creating us with our first ethnicity. Yet in His sovereignty He may step in and touch us on the shoulder, as it were, and call us to go and be good news to a people of a different ethnicity.
To become a belonger in a legal sense, through formal immigration, might also be considered by some serious missionaries. Immigration need not imply a rejection of one’s first country, but rather acceptance of a new one. Throughout history, people have immigrated for political, economic, religious and marriage reasons. The challenge of reaching a people for Christ should have the potential to similarly motivate some of Christ’s bondservants. The missionary’s heavenly citizenship should lift him above the provincialism and ethnocentrism of a continuing allegiance to a country where, in obedience to Christ, he no longer lives. This “recovered pilgrim spirit” was the challenge presented by Joseph F. Conley in a recent Regions Beyond editorial (December 1979):
For most North American missionaries, North America is home. That is where he goes when he’s sick, and when the going gets too rough he can always return to blend in with the scenery. Tomorrow the quick retreat may be cut off. We may be forced to relive those days when missionaries went abroad, never expecting to return. Many governments which refuse entry to missionary expatriates, hold the door open to naturalized citizens of colonizing communities. The Moravians led the way in this as they set up Christians colonies around the world.
Surrender of treasured U.S. or Canadian citizenship admittedly calls for a rare variety of commitment. But is that unthinkable? To such our Lord’s words will find new and glowing exegesis, “He that hath forsaken lands,… for My sake… shall receive an hundredfold and shall inherit everlasting life.”
Can a missionary who has lived overseas for a time without becoming a belonger and without learning the language very well change his course? Is bonding possible after the first critical months have passed? In the past decade our work has carried us to almost seventy countries, giving us opportunity to observe missionary activity in many places. Only a small percentage of these missionaries manifest the kinds of relationships with local people that would demonstrate that bonding had occurred. It is not too difficult to tell the difference-the bonded missionaries are typically the ones who feel that even their social needs are fulfilled in their relationships with local people.
“Happiness is belonging, not belongings.” Yet the lifestyle of the majority of Western missionaries is a major deterrent to bonding. lt is hard to devote time to pursuing the meaningful relationships with local people when concerned about getting barrels of stuff through customs and unpacked and settled. This sense of belonging to one’s belongings is a bonding of the worse kind—bondage. Unfortunately, it is a subtle bondage that is difficult to throw off. “When the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.. a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” (Thoreau, Walden)
Is it possible for an established non-bonded missionary to experience a belated bonding so that his life and ministry are then characterized by a sense of belonging with local people? The answer must be yes because it is a normal human process to establish belonging relationships. But we must confess that we have seldom seen overseas Americans shift their sense of belonging for their expatriate community to the people of the local culture.
Yet we believe that potential missionary effectiveness is so greatly affected by the bonding factor and by being truly bilingual and bicultural that the issue must be pursued. Again we seek an analogy with another divinely ordained relationship of intimacy—the marriage relationship. This model may be helpful, for in it adult participants achieve a belonging relationship with each other. In our culture, readiness for bonding is established during courtship; with the honeymoon, the bonding is culminated.
The analogy would suggest that an established but non-bonded missionary might release the potential of his ministry with steps paralleling the marriage model: acknowledge the potential and desirability of a belonging relationship with the local people; implement a decision to make such a commitment to the people; then set a date and inform the missionary community of the scope and implications of the potential change in his relationships. In all cultures, times of major life transition, like puberty, graduation, marriage and death, can be facilitated through festivities at the peak of emotion. The festival itself can serve to intensify the emotion which in turn can help facilitate the transition.
The commitment to belatedly join a new community might successfully be initiated by a festive transition celebration. When the date arrives, the honeymoon analogy suggests the necessity of becoming established with the local people by moving in with a local family (maybe in another community) and adopting a Learner role.
The mutual ownership of assets by a married couple might suggest the need to heed Jesus’ instructions to the rich young ruler. The minimum would seem to be a need for a means of reciprocity with the people. Bonding, like marriage, implies a radical adjustment of lifestyle.
The Dilemma of the Bonded Missionary
It must be pointed out that the new missionary who pursues the bonding objective may find himself in a dilemma: his non-bonded colleagues and superiors may be threatened by the initiative he takes in pursuing his ministry through a lifestyle of relationships with the local people. His total involvement lifestyle of ministry may contrast all too sharply with the foray ventures of other missionaries.
A few years ago we became friends with an African while he was in North America. We later had opportunity to visit him on the mission station where he worked in Kenya. In the course of our conversation he related a dilemma he was experiencing. A new missionary had arrived a few months earlier who loved the Kenyans arid demonstrated it by his lifestyle. Our friend liked the new missionary and wanted to encourage him in his identification with Kenyans, but he was afraid to do so. Over the years he had observed that the missionaries who had not learned Swahili or the tribal language—and hence did not relate to the Africans— were the ones who were then advanced to administrative positions on the station and in the mission. It was his experience that new missionaries who loved Kenyans became an unacceptable threat to these administrators and did not last; and he did not want to hasten the termination of a man whose missionary approach he valued.
The bonded missionary is invariably viewed with suspicion by non-bonded colleagues. At best they may think him to be a maverick, at worst a traitor. We know those who have even been accused of losing their faith because of their efforts to make sense to the local people.
Time and again we have received feedback from new missionaries describing the resistance they experience in their efforts toward a total lifestyle approach to language learning and ministry. This resistance is expressed by other missionaries in at least four ways: rejection, jealousy, guilt and fear.
Rejection may result if the bonding behavior and motives of the newcomer are misunderstood or misinterpreted. The missionary community may feel that the newcomer has rejected them. But what he has rejected is the foray approach.
Jealousy can arise if an established missionary observes that the newcomer has many close friendships with local people while he doesn’t.
Guilt may occur if an established missionary recognizes that the newcomer’s bonding approach may have more potential for effectiveness, particularly if he feels that he, too, should become a belonger, yet remains unable to make such a commitment.
Fear may surface if it appears that familiar, secure ways are going to be complicated by this new mentality. Change from traditional ways in which missionaries relate to nationals can be viewed as a movement into slippery, uncharted areas. Change implies risk and potential failure. Missionaries may also fear the newcomer’s well being, fearing that his involvement with the people could cause him to lose the theological distinctives of their group, his own orthodoxy, or even his faith. There may be fear that he will go too far or lose his cultural identity.
Some of their fears may come true. The bonded newcomer could cause raised eyebrows in mission circles through his nonconformity. But it should be pointed out that through his bonding, and even his nonconformity, this bicultural missionary has the potential of an added dimension of cultural sensitivity. His ability to gain an insider’s perspective might also be a means of reducing the likelihood of syncretism among new believers.
Pioneer missionaries on most fields may have established belonging relationships with the people, but too often those who came after them have not followed their example and now there are few models for young missionaries to follow. If the concept of bonding has validity for the present-day missionary task, then it seems that established missions must find ways to affirm and encourage newcomers who choose to become bonded with the local people.
The quality of relationships between new missionaries and their senior colleagues is, of course, a primary concern for all parties involved. Open lines of communication are needed. Maybe discussion about the bonding issue could give potential missionaries information that would be helpful in developing these relationships, or even in selecting a missionary agency. Prospective missionaries might initiate this interaction with both the home and field leadership of missions they consider joining. The new missionary must communicate his concerns in an attitude of love, and refrain from condemning or being judgmental of his predecessors who have ministered faithfully according to insights available to them. The fact is that he would have probably done things in much the same way. But new options are now open to him due to fresh insights and perspectives. A possible approach might be for him to request permission to personally experiment with a bonding strategy.
It could be that individuals who desire to become belongers within a new community might best be able to maximize their missionary potential by volunteering for service among an unreached, or hidden, people group rather than where missions have already established traditions of non-involvement. Indeed, the present practice of many established missions in regard to bonding could be the stimulus that might propel a significant number of young North American missionaries into the thousands of remaining groups of unreached peoples.
In summary, we have observed that the newcomer goes through a critical time for establishing his sense of identity and belonging during his first few weeks in a new country. If he becomes a belonger with expatriates he may always remain a foreigner and outsider. But at this crucial time he has the unique opportunity to establish himself as a belonger with insiders, in order to live and learn and minister within their social context. The bonded missionary, because he is a belonger, has the opportunity to gain an empathetic understanding of insiders’ ways, their feelings, desires, attitudes and fears. He can listen with sensitivity to their otherwise hidden values, concerns and motives. Thus he can acquire insights and adopt habits of lifestyle and ministry that will enable him to be good news from the perspective of local people in order to draw them into a belonging relationship with God. Bonding is therefore a perspective many missionaries may choose to value and a goal they may choose to pursue. Making this kind of significant cultural adjustment is not easy but it is possible, especially if initiated at the critical time for bonding.
1. Explain why timing is critical in bonding.
2. “Language acquisition is essentially a social activity, not an academic one.” Describe the relationship between bonding and language acquisition.
3. What connections do the Brewsters make between bonding and the discovery of redemptive analogies? Between bonding and pioneer missions?
4. How can language learning be considered as a ministry?
E. Thomas And Elizabeth S. Brewster
Taken from: Perspectives On The World Christian Movement, A Reader, Revised Edition, by Ralph D. Winter & Stephen C.
Hawthorne (William Carey Library, Pasadena, 1992)
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