Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Ugly Missionary #1: Gross Misunderstandings

I’m sorry for posting about ugliness here at the Koffi House. I do it for a purpose, however. I write these stories so that we will see what we should not be; how we should not think; and what we should not do. There aren’t any “old scores” I’m trying to settle. (Some of these stories will include my own actions.) Rather, I want us to evaluate and adjust, consider and repent, so that we will be effective missionaries wherever we are.

Bob is a former Bible college professor who decided to move to “the mission field” a few years back. He is a good man. Most missionaries are. He loves the Lord and wants to share what he knows with the people here. What does Bob know? The Bible. He has been teaching it for years. He knows theology, Old Testament history, the Roman empire—the works.

Bob is also an American. Proud of it. And when Bob moved to The Location it didn’t take him long to see some of the many cultural differences between his new home and his old.

For example, in The Location when a young couple gets married—it is not just up to the guy and girl to decide to become engaged and later inform parents, relatives and friends. No, before the engagement is official the parents of both the man and woman must meet and decide upon all the particulars, dates and arrangements. When the wedding takes place it is not only a marriage of two individuals, but a joining of two extended families.

Bob has a problem with this custom. He says that the Bible says a man will leave his parents to get married, and therefore this “joining of families” is not biblical. The American custom is better. Never mind that The People are better at community living. Never mind that the extended families help support the strength of marriages better than in America. Never mind that the divorce rate in The Location is much lower than in America.

Another example—in America it is customary for men to say their wives are the most beautiful women in the world, and compliment them as such. We know it isn’t true—even with our “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” defense. The wife knows it isn’t true either, but it is still nice to hear. We somehow feel that if we say anything less than our wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, then we are being mean or not loving her enough.

In The Location a man may think his wife is pretty but he would never say it to another person or to her in front of others. Why? To do so is considered arrogant. If you say, yes my wife is beautiful—even with her present—then it looks to others that you are bragging—not being nice to her.

Bob loves to tell the nationals that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. When asked why The People don’t ever compliment their wives as such, Bob says it’s because their native religion teaches them not to love their wives too much. He heard another expatriate tell him this was true. And so it is because they don’t love their wives that they don’t compliment them.

Bob was asked to teach at a meeting of missionaries. He talked about how we need to change the worldview of The People. One person mentioned how there were certain things in their culture that they do better than Westerners—and even more biblical. Bob objected to this assessment. No—their culture is broken. Yes, even American society has problems, but it is better because of its Judeo-Christian heritage. Nothing in the culture of The Location is redeemable—it is all broken. If people only smile when they are angry—it is not because they know how to control their anger better than us, but it is because they are repressing their emotions and don’t know how to be honest about how they feel.

Bob has it pretty much all figured out. He considers it part of his ministry to help orient new missionaries that arrive on the field. They learn from Bob and pass his vast knowledge on to others.

The only problem is that Bob’s assessments are often dead wrong.


  1. I think that Bob should be sensitive of the culture he is living in. His way isn't necessarily the right way and to me, though he loves God and is trying to do 'good', he is coming off as arrogant. I don't think the purpose of missions should be to make others like us and accept our cultural practices as theirs, no, missions is to help others in their culture and to spread the love of God.

  2. Please tell me you're not Bob!

    Because I want to hit Bob upside the head with a Jesus frying pan!

  3. Hi Koffijah. I am sorry that things are going so roughly at The Location with the missionaries. I don't want to come down too hard on them, since I haven't had the courage to do what you all do and actually leave home to teach others about Christ. But I can see how such an attitude would be problematic. I taught second grade here in the US for many years, and can say that if parents feel their culture is misunderstood by their child's teacher, cooperation is minimal. I imagine that The People don't feel much inspired to cooperate with misssionaries who misunderstand them and act superior.

  4. This is so sad. I just pray for you and Bob and all of us living in the mission field. May we see clearly, the way Jesus always sees.

  5. We all only know in part and it would be wise of us to learn from one another. Good story!!

  6. @Annie K--right on.

    @Katdish--no, I'm not Bob but I did hear and believe things that people like Bob told me when I first arrived. After a couple years it felt like I was going through some kind of enlightenment when I started to see things from The People's perspective and started realizing that we foreigners were getting a LOT of stuff wrong in our generalizations. Of course, The People also have incorrect generalizations of us, too. But in any case, I am not in favor of hitting anyone with a frying pan--a 'Jesus' or not.

    @Helen--that's okay. Again, my purpose is not to "come down" on them either!! My purpose is just to shed light and hopefully contribute to better understanding and better attitudes in the missionary community.

    @JasonS--yes, see as Jesus sees! Bob is not intentionally arrogant (but it is arrogance), but just needs to take time to have better understanding before becoming so firm (and dogmatic) in his conclusions.

    @karin--Yes, a learner's attitude goes a long way and prevents many mistakes.

  7. Hey K,

    Good stuff for you guys "over there" as well as for those of us "over here." One of the foundational things for us when we move in two weeks will be researching and learning the local culture so that we can better "incarnate" ourselves into it (which will be an ongoing process).

    Holy cow, I heart this blog! You're putting out some great stuff to ponder, K.