Entering Into A Culture For Jesus' Sake

I will never forget the conversation we were part of soon afterarriving in Myanmar.

Rebecca and I were newbies in this culture, and the conversation was with a church leader whose home was a virtual grand central station for visitors from various parts of the country (that itself was part of her culture). Our friend was recounting how she had come across a woman, staying in their house, in her sister’s room, searching through her sister’s handbag. She was shocked and rushed into … an adjacent room. I too was shocked, and I asked, “Why didn’t you rush into the room and confront her?” That’s what I thought she should have done in such a situation. Our friend, and her husband, and others in the circle looked at me somewhat surprised, and after a pause replied, “That would have created a very awkward situation.” I didn’t push the matter, but I was unconvinced. The right thing to do would have been to confront this woman and demand to know what she was up to.

“Should have done”, “the right thing to do.” It took a long time for me to realise that our friend’s response was not wrong. Culturally, it was a different to my response but here’s the rub – we weren’t in my culture. We were in her culture and her response was the right one for that context. It’s not that they were willing to ignore this kind of behaviour, rather they had a different
way of dealing with it. The issue wasn’t finished by avoiding direct confrontation, it would still be dealt with.

This episode shows an unavoidable reality for new missionaries who have entered a new culture. Knowledge gained through courses and books on cultural anthropology and culture shock and knowing what to expect when you arrive on the mission field is essential for preparation but it’s not until you are immersed in another culture that you truly realise what you’re in for.

You cannot truly learn about a culture different than our own through studying it. Culture is rather absorbed by being immersed in it. It is a subconscious process and one day you realise that
you have changed. You find yourself irritated by something someone from your own culture says or does (“How rude!”) when it’s exactly the kind of thing you yourself would have said or done when you first arrived in the country.

If missionaries do not to go through this process of entering into the culture, they will never be able to understand why things are done the way they are. They will only be able to assess things through their own cultural lenses, and as a result they will cultural lenses, and as a result they will often be negative about the local culture and ministry – “they’re not doing it right.” From the perspective of the local people, your efforts to embrace their culture and learn their language tells them that you truly do love them. The opposite is also true! A fruitfulcross-cultural ministry requires theoutsider, the missionary, to enter intothe local culture for Jesus’ sake. Isn’t this exactly what Paul wrote?

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win theJews. To those under the law Ibecame like one under the law(though I myself am not under thelaw), so as to win those under thelaw. To those not having the law, I became like one not having the law(though I am not free from God’slaw but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19-23 NIV).

Some practical tips for newly arrived missionaries:

When new missionaries arrive on the field there is a nagging urge to want to do something significant in order to prove that they should really be there. Temper this urge withthe knowledge that you don’t yetunderstand why things are done theway they are being done. Don’t rush!

Make a significant effort to learn the language in your early years in the culture. You can’t truly understandthe culture without understandingits language. For example, in ourearly days we would sometimes askour language tutor, “How do you say[such and such]?”, to which hewould reply, “Oh, we would neversay that!”

Turn off the aircon in your apartment and open the doors so neighbours can drop in (like everyone else around you does).

Shop at the local market and eat the local food (it’s delicious!)


John is married to Rebecca. They both grew up in West Auckland and met at Lincoln Road Bible Chapel, which is still their home church. In 2005 they moved to Yangon, Myanmar, to work with the church there. They took Adam (two-and-a-half years old) and Grace (10 months) with them. Sarah and Charlotte were born over there. John taught Old Testament and Hebrew at the Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (MEGST), along with preaching and teaching in the local church. Rebecca was involved in women’s and children’s ministry, as well as home schooling the children. They returned to Auckland to live in October 2017, and John has found work lecturing in Biblical and Intercultural studies at Laidlaw College, based at the Henderson campus.