I’ve been paging through one or two mission manuals I have at home trying to see what is written about culture shock. I was quite shocked (pun intended) to notice that very little seems to be written about this and especially on how it could be handled in a positive way. A previous post which I wrote on how we handled culture shock still seems to be one my most popular posts which indicates to me that this is a real issue for those intending to become involved in missions. As for ourselves, we had very little preparation before we moved to Swaziland. What I can say today about our initial move to Swaziland, is that God is indeed gracious and somehow we survived, in spite of many mistakes which we had made.
The question which most people would struggle with is how far you should go to become part of the culture of those you are working with. On the one hand we have the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 which tells us that we have to sacrifice everything to become part of the culture in order to win those people for Christ. And we also have the example of Hudson Taylor from the China Inland Mission who, through wearing the clothing of the traditional Chinese people, also aimed to win them for Christ in that way. But on the other hand we also have things in many cultures which cannot be accepted by Christians and which Paul would also not have accepted.
An example would be the annual Reed Dance festival (Umhlanga) in Swaziland. Carike Gerber wrote something of her experiences about this, which you can read here. The fact is that, although she claims that she was dressed in the traditional Swazi way, this is in fact not the truth, as the traditional clothing worn by the Swazi girls during the Umhlanga is probably less than 10% of what she has on in the photo! So there is always this conflict between our own culture and the culture of those where God has called us to work and the decision has to be made which values which I consider to be important may be sacrificed in order to reach others for Christ. Furthermore, when you start to understand the background of many of the traditional festivals it becomes even more difficult to decide whether one should become part of this or not.
For ourselves, we have tried to listen to the advice of the local Christians in making these decisions. Most of our Swazi Christian friends do not attend this festival and also do not allow their daughters to attend. (This is the festival where the king is also allowed to choose a new wife for himself every year out of the young girls who attend.) My experience has been that we have never received bad advice from committed Christians.
Many years ago someone made the remark that a missionary has to be like a small dog in the presence of a big dog. The way in which the small dog defends himself is to turn on his back, thus making himself vulnerable to the big dog, should he wish to bite the small dog. It’s a chance that the small dog has to take. In most cases, the big dog will not harm the small dog. When moving into a new culture, a missionary also has to make him/her self vulnerable to those under whom they wish to work. And we have to learn to trust them that they will give us good advice on how best to become part of their culture.