Cultural Expectations

Fitting in?

The American who moves into the slums when his countrymen almost always live uptown. The third-world-born doctor, the female cab driver, mixed-race families. These are people who deliberately choose to not conform to social expectations. When someone bucks the system, people take notice.

Basic to our missiology are the concepts of cultural norms and expectations. Every culture has pre-determined ways to think about and interact with different kinds of outsiders. Everyone has their place. In a global city, for example, some outsiders are the scapegoats. These are usually a lower-status immigrant group that takes the blame for all of society’s ills. These cultural norms tend to be built around social stereotypes, and when an outsider doesn’t behave as expected, he doesn’t fit the pigeonhole. This can be seen as good or bad, but it’s always remarkable.

Usually, missionaries put their efforts into conforming to cultural expectations. Follow the norms, the thinking goes, and people will be more likely to hear the message. In missiology, this is called contextualization; minimizing the differences between the missionary and those to whom he ministers so that the unevangelized can hear and understand the message without getting hung up on the “other-ness” of the outsider’s presence.

That’s why field workers learn language, dress appropriately, and do all the customary social things. In Asia, one might bow deeply to show respect to an elder. In the Arab world, women avoid eye contact with men. In Russia, there’s kissing. Every culture has some sort of greeting, public comportment, and mealtime rituals. These things may not seem to have any direct bearing on the communication of the gospel, but they really do. Failure to follow the rules only serves to highlight the foreign-ness of the outsider and his message.

But blending in isn’t always our goal. As Jesus-followers, there’s a time to blend in and a time to stand out.

Obviously, believers should stand out in some ways. The Bible is clear that we ought to repay evil with good, forgive every offense, be known for our love (both for one another and for our enemies), and live such good lives that unbelievers glorify God in heaven. Being in Christ makes us pilgrims and strangers, even in our own hometowns. Our other-ness marks us as God’s “called out” people.

In some cases, breaking societal norms will get a person into trouble. Because of the company He kept, Jesus earned a reputation for being a “glutton and a drunk, a friend to tax collectors and sinners.” (Luke 7:34) Some people certainly used this as an excuse to write off anything and everything Jesus said. The religious may have accused Him of syncretism- going too far in His efforts to contextualize.

In other cases, breaking the norms can add credibility to our claims of internal spiritual transformation. Humble submission to one another may not be a norm in many cultures, but it is a distinct value of the Kingdom of God. Revenge may be acceptable in many cultures, but Christ-followers are called to stand out by repaying evil with good. Following Jesus makes us irreparably different and necessarily foreign.

Note: How is a missionary to know when to conform to social norms and when to break them? The Holy Spirit, who knows culture and the hearts of men. He alone can guide us into incarnation of the gospel that is both cultural and acultural; specific to context yet universal. Culture cannot be navigated from afar. Only the faithful worker on the field, walking in the Spirit of God and committed to incarnation, can understand the implications of meeting or breaking cultural expectations. While it is entirely appropriate that, for accountability’s sake, a sending church question a worker’s approach to cultural immersion, we must take care not to impose our cultural meanings of the norms of other cultures. This is missionary work.

4 thoughts on “Cultural Expectations

  1. How to know when to fit in and when to buck is a great question. What I have found is open-mindedness goes a long way to helping you know. When we drop the pretense that “my” culture is perfect and “their” culture needs improvement is when we can see that both cultures have good and bad points.

    For me, personally, I have found that maintaining my own style of being and dress has helped me to stand out in a positive way. I cannot hide here, I tower over most men, so trying to fit in does me no good. It is my uniqueness that has opened doors for me.

    I am in a country that runs on soccer, but it is american football that has given me a voice nationwide. I am a coach and a player in a start up league that has allowed me the opportunity to be on national television, consult with powerful leaders, and share Christ with others.

    On a side note, for those looking to go into missions, if you cannot fit in to your home culture, if you feel odd or strange among your own kind, if you have ever been described as socially awkward you may want to reconsider. The skills that allows one to fit in at home are the same that help them fit in abroad. I have seen so many missionaries serve ineffectually or leave disillusioned because they thought a change of location would help them relate.

  2. Your last paragraph about “a sending church question a worker’s approach to cultural immersion,” makes me think of the one thing that we always get questioned on. Why we wear our wedding rings on our right hand. The answer is simple. that’s how they do it in Germany and we don’t always remember to change it to the left hand when we’re in America. After explaining this to someone, they said, “Well keep a little bit of your Americanness.” I think it’s strange they are worried about what hand my ring is on when my biggest spiritual fight is how discouraging it is to be surrounded by atheism and skepticism in Europe.

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  4. You are right to say, “Only the faithful worker on the field, walking in the Spirit of God and committed to incarnation, can understand the implications of meeting or breaking cultural expectations” especially when comparing to people’s thoughts from back West. I used to think I knew so much, but I had so much to learn once I arrived here and still do! Holy Spirit is always our guide. When I think about this I want to have to motivations, glorify God and win to win people to Christ. These are the Apostle Paul’s words. When I pray with hands folded in a way like a Buddhist or any other similar thing, I do it for with those two motivations in mind. We have become and are becoming as Dave Gibbons says, “Third Culture Misfits.”

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