Missionaries must become aware of culture—their own and the culture in which they serve. This awareness leads the missionary to learn to use the symbols of the host culture. The cross-cultural minister will be aware that cultures, though displaying stability, also demonstrate a willingness to change. The adaptive nature of culture means that the missionary must show the people how the Christian faith and life will better help them meet the challenges of their environments.
One central and demanding question for the missionary is how he or she will relate personally to a specific culture. This personal adjustment to living and ministering in the new culture constitutes an early and imperative demand upon every cross-cultural worker. It marks an early opportunity of achieving effective service in the new culture. Adjusting to culture is a distinctive and demanding missionary task.
There are some unhealthy means of adjusting which the missionary must avoid. Living within the new pattern often places intense stress on the person entering a different cultural environment. Learning to communicate, both in the verbal and nonverbal patterns of the host culture, often leads to what Louis J. Luzbetak has called “culture jolts” (1988:204–206).
Culture jolts are those new experiences and demands that lead to feelings of discomfort and sometimes distress. Cross-cultural ministers may react with either healthy or unhealthy responses to culture jolts. Taken together, cultural jolts and these unhealthy reactions to them eventuate in “culture shock,” which basically constitutes a series of unhealthy reactions to life in a different culture.
Among unhealthy responses to culture jolts, the tourist response, the rejection response, and the toleration response are the most serious. Some cross-culture workers begin their adjustment to the new culture by seeing everything through “tourist eyes.” This tendency leads the new worker to see the people and the cultural traits in the new culture with unquestioning and positive responses. Missionaries in the tourist stage of adjustment bestow on the new culture a vision of idealistic perfection.
This tourist stage may be followed by one of rejection as the early positive responses prove unfulfilled and personal difficulties arise. In the rejection stage, the cross-cultural worker may find the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and relationships of the new culture unacceptable, disgusting, difficult, or degenerate. Persons infected by the rejection response often hold exaggerated remembrances of their own culture.
Workers who remain in the rejection stage may forfeit the opportunity to serve in the new culture. Rejection response will most likely result in the rejection of the cross-cultural workers by the local people! Real effectiveness in Christian service becomes virtually impossible when the cross-cultural worker remains in the rejection stage.
Some cross-cultural workers move from the rejection stage to the toleration stage, which may have nearly the same detrimental effects on service as the rejection stage. The toleration stage causes the workers simply to accept the situation in the culture without genuine appreciation or affection for the people. The workers simply “put up with” the way of life and mannerisms of the people. Such toleration, without identification, glaringly shows through and distorts relationships. Better means of adjusting to new cultural ways are available—namely, accommodating to culture.
There are healthy ways of adjustment. The most productive way for the missionary to adjust to the new culture lies in properly accommodating the cross-cultural worker’s lifestyle and mannerisms to the new (for him or her) culture. Accommodation to culture rests on an acceptance of the new culture—its ways, its sounds, its tastes, its means. This acceptance begins with respect for the culture. This respect, however, goes beyond simply understanding what the people do and why they do it. Respect leads the cross-cultural worker to appreciate the ways of the new culture and to be able to behave in culturally approved ways which do not conflict with biblical teachings.
The cross-cultural worker must move beyond mere toleration to this respect of the new culture. Respect leads to acceptance of the food, the ways of relating, the ways of speaking, the types of music, the means of dress, and the general patterns of living. Accommodation means neither a total denunciation of one’s own culture nor acceptance of sinful ways of acting. Proper accommodation does involve a genuine attempt to accept the people and their ways and act appropriately in the new culture. Accommodation results in a cross-cultural worker who behaves in the ways of the local culture.
John Mark Terry, Ebbie C. Smith, and Justice Anderson, Missiology: An Introduction to the Foundations, History, and Strategies of World Missions (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 266–267.