"Go into all the world" and culture shock...
* * *
A few years ago, my older sister gave me a world map called, What's Up? South, as a Christmas gift. I love maps, and so I was delighted. When I opened it up, I discovered that it wasn't just any world map: the entire image had been flipped so that North was at the top, and South at the bottom...
Even better! I've cherished the gift ever since.
Years later, I decided to hang up the map in my office at the pastors college. It had only been up for a few days when a couple of men came into my office and saw it on the wall. Their reaction was visceral. They hated the map, and they told me that they wanted to take it down and burn it. I had expected to get a few comments about it, of course, but I hadn't anticipated such a strong, negative reaction. By the end of the exchange, I was annoyed. "Who were they to tell me what I should have on my wall? After all, it's just a map! What's the big deal?"
My sister currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and teaches at an international school. I caught her on Skype one Saturday and told her about the exchange. She laughed, and then made a very interesting observation. She pointed out that the reaction of the other men was a perfect example of culture shock: anxiety, annoyance and disgust at a world that is upside-down (pun intended). If you've ever lived in a foreign country that is very different than your own, you'll know what I'm talking about. When you first arrive, the cultural differences that you encounter may seem interesting and even romantic. Weeks later, your romanticism is replaced with frustration and anger. You can't find food that you want to eat. After each conversation, you wonder whether what you meant was communicated. You notice things all over the place that are just plain wrong.
At first, you may try the "reform" tactic: the culture needs a reformation, and–happy day!–their Martin Luther has arrived. You scurry around busily "fixing" the culture, to the great annoyance of all the locals. You pontificate. You demonstrate. You lecture. Soon, however, you recognize that your attempt at reformation has borne very little fruit. At that point, it's very likely that you'll settle into a depressed bitterness. "I just want to go home..."
There are important lessons for would-be church planters to learn here. In case you're anticipating where I'm headed, let me say that this is not a post about "cultural appreciation" or "tolerance". The truth is that a pair of outsider eyes may be able to cut through the veneer of a culture's pretensions better than those of a native. But whether you're planting a church in Ouagadougou or in Orlando, you must love the people to whom you minister. There is no easy way to adjust to a new place or new people, but if you love the people, you will be able to endure the rocky road of cultural adjustment that is inevitable.