Navigating your onramp – Five lane-markers…
Twenty-five things I’d like to say to missionaries serving their first 3 months of a long-term ministry.
by Mark Morgenstern
Without trying to stretch the metaphor of an onramp too far, piece by piece throughout this course I’m going to unpack for you a long list of ideas that will be helpful to you in the place and time you now find yourself. We’ll package those ideas into 5 lane markers, to line you up with the future-looking tasks and fundamental attitudes that this course is all about. Remember, change represents the circumstances that take place around you, while transition represents the healthy process of adaptation that you choose to work through in the midst of that change.
Lane marker 2 – Connecting to… my New Context?
Most of us clearly understand the importance of connecting well to a new cultural context. It’s not just about the place, it’s about the people, things, ideas and norms that you find yourself surrounded by and immersed in. You’re not the first to tackle this task. There are some basic concepts that can smooth out this part of the onramp.
Look for elements in your new culture that serve as functional equivalents to elements of your former culture. To a large extent, human needs and functions are the same for all people of the earth, but the ways that cultures create to fulfill the needs and accomplish the functions can be quite different, both on the surface and below. Find the equivalents. There can be great joy for you in the richness this will add to your life as you develop the ability to do one thing in more than one way.
There can be great opportunities for adventure in your new context as you uncover experiences now available to you that never would have been options in the past. Celebrate and embrace the adventure!
Connecting to a culture takes time. There is a balance involved. Generally, we want the process to go fast; but observation, questioning, seeing patterns, understanding explanations, and developing trusted relationships all take time. So slow down and enjoy the journey. But… don’t go too slow. There is a danger that one can stall out and just become satisfied with a lifestyle of just getting by and surviving, rather than pushing forward to a thriving, healthy, productive existence.
Many of your stressful experiences in the process of encounters with your new culture will actually serve to help you in uncovering your own egocentrism and ethnocentrism. Phrases like “I just want things to be the way I like them” and “the way they do it around here is wrong” will be measuring sticks for evaluating your present experiences that come up from inside of you. You can use or misuse these measuring sticks. Can you use your own discomfort and disorientation to learn about previously hidden pieces of your own egocentrism and ethnocentrism? You didn’t realize it until now, but they’ve been there all along! Feelings of shock and stress brought on by cultural differences can serve to help you grow or can be the beginnings of running away and giving up. Which will you choose? Ignoring cultural differences and just hoping your discomfort will go away is not one of the healthy options.
A hard reality of a healthy transition process is that embracing the new often necessitates first releasing the old. Gospel ministry is about relationships. And most of us have the capacity for a limited number of relational interchanges on any given day or week. In order to open up room for some (or most) of those relational interchanges to take place with local people in the new place and culture will usually necessitate letting go of daily relational connections with people back “home.” Today this is more challenging than ever as we have the opportunity for easy and inexpensive text, audio and video connection with dozens or even hundreds of individuals back home through electronic means. Just like parents today who are getting their kids away from the screen and purposefully pushing them to the social medium of the playground, we need to push ourselves to have our social and relational needs met out in the playground of our new cultural context
As you develop local relationships, many kinds of people can help you with connecting to your context. This includes your team, local people, kids, other expats, and church community local believers. The possibilities are vast for situations where at the same time you can grow a relationship and learn about your new context.
These days of your life may very well be your chance to experience one particular truth about God in a more real and deep way than ever before – God doesn’t change. Though all around me is changing, I find great comfort in the stability of God’s love and attentiveness to me. The disciples left all, risked all, followed Jesus and didn’t look back. Later Jesus sent them out with no bag, no extra clothes and a very simple strategy. Everything changed in their lives. Everything was disorienting and probably overwhelming. But He was with them.
- Learn and engage new ways that your new culture does the same things as your old culture.
- Celebrate and embrace the adventure of living and serving in a new culture.
- Don’t push the process of learning culture to go too fast, but don’t be satisfied with going so slow that it stalls out.
- Use culture stress and shock as a tool to uncover your own moments of egocentrism and ethnocentrism.
- Let go of most of the time you spend with relationships with those back “home” in order to make room to connect with new relationships locally.
- Get culture-learning help from many different kinds of people as you connect to your new context.
- Even though everything changes, God doesn’t.