Serving in different cultures

Serving the purpose for which you have been called in a foreign culture presents many learning opportunities.  The process of learning these lessons can be fairly painful at times, as you find yourself learning things about yourself, your faith and your culture.  Over the past few months this has been my experience.  I am learning exactly what it means to serve Jesus in a different culture.

Recently, I have been reading a book called When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. This book is a must read for anyone who is looking to serve the poor or do missions in a foreign culture.  It was recommended by Mark van Straaten when he visited Bulgaria recently.

One of the key learnings in the book is that in cross-cultural engagement there are a number of differences in value systems between those who you intend to serve and those of the person who is aiming to serve the community.  The primary differences include:

  • Peoples view of who or what is in control of their     lives – internal or external locus of control
  • The nature of risk and uncertainty – how we live our     lives either in a place of safety or we are willing to take risks
  • Organisations and the role of authority – understanding     that as individuals we are able to or not able to challenge the authority     of organisations
  • The nature of time – the difference between time being     limited or that there is always more time
  • The role of individuals versus groups – the concepts of     identity as individuals or as a group

As a white South African, we are very influenced by western culture. We often look down at other cultures that do not embrace our worldview.  We see them as second rate.  However living in Bulgaria, which is very eastern in its way of life (although becoming more western now that it has joined the EU), gives me time to reflect on the last two areas where we tend to differ.  In reflection, I believe that in our western culture we are tending to miss some valuable lessons.


Corbett and Fikkert state that western culture has a “monochronic view of time” which means that time as a limited and valuable resources.  To which I say amen.  We all have one short life to lead and we need to make the most of it.

The eastern culture has a “polychronic view of time” which that time is somewhat of an unlimited resource and there is always more time.  They go on to say that people in these cultures often have a deeper sense of community and belonging.  To which I say “ouch”.

Having recently spent some time in Istanbul with Grady and Janet Smalling, some missionary friends, I can vouch for this.  When they chose to visit a carpet shop to look at the products for a family member, I found myself frustrated while we went through a ritual that appears to be commonplace.  The business owner spent at least 30 minutes drinking tea and getting to know us before even beginning to show us carpets.  His mantra is “You may not buy a carpet but I want you to leave here as a friend”.  Wow.  Somehow I think that they have something that we have to rediscover.  Perhaps life is more enriching when we care about people rather than deadlines.

Still a long way for me to go.

Individual versus the group

In this case it is the difference between finding and focusing on the intrinsic value and uniqueness of each person and contrasting that to the view of collective cultures which minimize individual identity and focus on the well-being of the group.  Loyalty and self-sacrifice is deemed virtuous.  In many ways western culture seeks to place the demands of individual before those of the collective.  We have a Bill of Rights and we are often looking at whether the government is infringing on these rights.  However in eastern cultures there is often a lots of abuse that is tolerated because the view is “that is the way we do it!” and nothing should be done to damage the culture, even when it is detrimental to individuals.  Here I think about the abuse of woman and the tolerance of monomaniacal leaders.

In this case I must confess that I feel that our identity in Christ is both individualistic and collective.  We are His workmanship and He formed us in our mother’s womb.  Individually we need to make a personal decision whether to follow Jesus and believe that He is our Lord and Saviour.  BUT the church is His Body and we are His people.

In conclusion, I must confess it is absolutely fantastic and frustrating to have one’s worldview challenged in this way.  I must say that I have not got this right yet, but perhaps my schedule needs to change to reflect the value of people more.  Perhaps the way I do business should reflect my care for my customers more than the profit I can make.  Perhaps we should all expose ourselves to a different culture and examine ourselves to see whether there are things that we can learn from each other.