One-Way Culture Shock: A Byproduct of Pride-Wrought Missions

I could only understand two words spoken by the Burundi man in front of me: “Burundi” and “American”. He was Burundi, had bloodshot eyes, a 24-ounce beer in his hand, and two kids in a stroller. I was American, had my own car, not a lot of time, and several hesitations about helping him. But against my better judgment, I gave them a ride.

I did more than what was culturally expected of me, yet it felt terribly weird. They were in my country, and now in my car, but I was uncomfortable. I usually don’t feel awkward around new people, so what what the problem?

Two very different cultures were interacting–and it was shocking. In the West, we talk about how culture shock is an experience that we feel when we travel to other countries. Most of the time, however, we fail to understand that our national brothers and sisters experience it as well. I think this is because we fail to understand the depth of the gospel–that Christ condescended before he ascended.

Nationals Experience Culture Shock Too

Jesus says we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). That includes our national co-laborers. A basic part of loving them is seeing them with gifts and struggles just like us. As we are seeking to relate to them on their terms, they are often trying to relate to us on our terms. That means they experience culture shock like we do.

But we fail to recognize it.

For example, I cannot imagine having to embrace a different form of learning the Bible. I am accustomed to inductive, expositional Bible study. Force me to try something else, and I’ll experience some form of shock. But when I have been overseas, I have had no problem making my national co-laborers suddenly embrace my preferred form of Bible intake. And I haven’t even thought about the shock that probably created for them. Simply put, this is self-centered.  

The call to missions is to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). That means neither the church nor the missionary should exalt himself or herself. But when we consistently fail to acknowledge the culture shock that we cause for others who are different from us, we are in danger of exalting ourselves over others. We just might be condescending Christ instead of following the condescended Christ.  

The Condescended Christ Was Not Condescending

The Christ we follow “was in the form of God, [but] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient” (Philippians 2:6-8). He lowered himself to serve others, but not so that he would be applauded. In this way, we are called be like him. Missions is a fantastic opportunity to lower ourselves just as he did.

If we are to represent him well in our being sent on mission, it should be with humility. But I remember leaving to go overseas feeling so impressed with myself, of what I had done, and what I would do. This is a temptation for any sent one. Every culture is ethnocentric, which means we’re all pretty impressed with ourselves. But ethnocentrism will not abide with the gospel. Missionaries who continue to be impressed with themselves and their own preferences will likely build their own kingdoms along with their own versions of the gospel. And in a strange turn of events, they can find themselves standing in direct opposition to the Lord, who will not share his glory with any other (Isaiah 42:8).

The good news, for both us and our national co-laborers, is that Jesus is committed to applying his death to us. Signing up for missions means signing up for your pride to get crushed. Just as he emptied himself, he will empty us. In one way or another, he will cause us to feel the effect of the culture shock we cause others. The question then is, how will we respond?

The invitation is actually not condescending, but ascending. If we respond with confession and repentance over and over and over, then Jesus will also apply his resurrection to us again and again and again. Our humiliation before our national brothers and sisters will likely be the very thing he uses to exalt himself in us. Growing in sensitivity to their challenges in cross-cultural ministry will not only grow our relationships with them, it will remind us we’re both human, full of complexities and needs.

Pride is an enculturated struggle for the missionary. It is causes us to fail to recognize the needs, giftings, and struggles of our national neighbors. It makes understanding the gospel impossible, and consequently leads us to seek our own glorification through ministry. If we are to find freedom from it, we must believe and partake in the humiliation presented to us in the gospel. Then his name will be made much of in our lives and ministries!