Culture shock: God’s crucible?
A few years ago, I wrote several posts on the value of crucible experiences, particularly concerning leadership development. Crucible experiences are difficult, often painful events or losses in our lives that have the potential to refine us. But as I repeatedly said in those previous posts, difficult life experiences in themselves do not refine us. Our response to the crucible experiences of life and ministry is what allows the crucible to become transformative.
Marriage is a crucible
Crucible experiences often come in every-day life experiences. I just finished reading (listening to) Gary Thomas’s great book, Sacred Marriage: What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy? Repeatedly Thomas helps the reader see that marriage is in itself a crucible that has the potential to burn away some of the most basic weaknesses of our human nature. Here are a couple of quotes from the book:
The real transforming work of marriage is the twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week commitment. This is the crucible that grinds and shapes us into the character of Jesus Christ. Instead of getting up at 3:00 a.m. to begin prayer in a monastery, the question becomes, “Who will wake up when the baby’s diaper needs changing?” Marriage calls us to an entirely new and selfless life.Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage, Kindle Loc. 339-342
Patience can be formed only in the crucible of frustration — making marriage, with its multitude of tasks, one of the best schools of patience there is.Thomas, Kindle Loc. 3734-3735
I admit that marriage has repeatedly helped me see my own selfishness and lack of patience. I did not always welcome the light shining on my weaknesses, but I know that this crucible was part of God’s gift to me — part of the process of making me holy.
A new culture is a crucible
Then a couple of days ago, I had the chance to listen to another fine webinar sponsored by Missio Nexus. The title of the webinar is The Crucible of the First Term: Understanding and Helping So It is not the Last. Dr. Connie Befus is the facilitator. Her title suggests another way that God makes us holy. It is by putting us into the stressful context of a new culture.
Duane Elmer would agree.
Culture shock is when you experience frustration from not knowing the rules or having the skills for adjusting to a new culture.Duane Elmer, Cross-cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting in Around the World.
Those who suffer most
We often think of culture shock as a bad thing, something we want to avoid or minimize. But in her webinar, Dr. Befus made the rather startling observation that those who one day will most thoroughly understand and adapt to a cross-cultural environment may well experience the most intense culture shock. Those behaviors that are indicators of a high cultural intelligence actually are also behaviors that can lead to high degrees of cultural shock!
It makes sense if you think about it. Those who feel the most empathy with their host culture are probably also the best in building strong friendships with people from the host culture. They are forced to recognize the deep differences in worldview and cultural values between their culture and the host culture. It stands to reason that they might suffer more from culture shock than those who are less relationally-sensitive and less connected to the host culture. Those who simply see other people’s views and values as wrong or inferior would withdraw from the host culture. Hence, they would not suffer as much with cultural shock.
Can be the most effective
A study by Ruben and Kealey in 1979 supports this conclusion:
When reviewing the behavioral orientations associated with culture shock, it is interesting to note that many of those same behavioral orientations are associated also with effectiveness (e.g., orientation to knowledge and non-judgmentalness). Thus, it may be that in some cases at least, the persons who will ultimately be most effective can be expected to undergo the most intense culture shock during transition.Ruben & Kealey, “Behavioral assessment of communication competency and the prediction of cross-cultural adaptation, p. 40-41.
Have you seen or experienced evidence that this conclusion is true? Do you know missionaries that have really struggled with cultural shock but nevertheless have become very effective cross-cultural workers? Maybe you are one.
Different, not wrong
In our pre-field training, we talk about the importance of viewing other cultures as different, not wrong.
Remind yourself that difference is not wrong; therefore you can learn new ways and fit in. Repeat silently to yourself: It’s not wrong; it’s just different.Elmer, p. 51
We tell our new missionaries to suspend judgment.
To withhold or suspend judgment means that we refuse to think negatively about the other person or culture until we have made deliberate attempts to understand.Elmer, p. 38
These pieces of advice are much easier to say and to teach, than to practice. To be thrown into this crucible of a different culture is stressful and at times painful. We want to withdraw, to go to a place that is more comfortable than interacting with those who have different values and a different worldview than we do. But playing off the title of Gary Thomas’ book, what if God designed cross-cultural ministry to make us holy more than to make us happy?
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