Cultural Baggage – What do we leave at home, and how do we leave it at home?

One of the major concerns in missions is the historic tendency to influence cultures more towards who we are (Americans, Koreans, Westerners etc.) rather than the Kingdom of God. Jeff and Maria Gilbertson discuss this in an excellent post on this site under Training For Pioneer Missions. At Jeff’s suggestion, It would be good if we make this a topic of discussion rather than being buried in another thread. Let’s read it and then let’s talk about it!

Here is what Jeff wrote:

Dear All,

If we are to be fruitful sending house churches / apostolic teams from the western world into the last remaining unreached people groups, I believe that we must look at the “unknown/unseen” baggage that most westerners will carry with them. My wife and I call it: “the White Man’s Burden”. (WMB)

Simply put the WMB is: “the supposed or presumed responsibility of white people to govern and impart their culture to nonwhite people.”

In an excerpt from a speech by William Jennings Bryan, a gifted speaker, lawyer, and three-time US presidential candidate, basically sums up the position that there is such a thing as a the “white man’s burden”.

No one can travel among the dark-skinned races of the Orient without feeling that the white man occupies an especially favored position among the children of men, and the recognition of this fact is accompanied by the conviction that there is a duty inseparably connected with the advantages enjoyed. William Jennings Bryan — July 4, 1906

This speech, made on Independence Day 1906, was not that long ago. You see in his own words that he is not joking and that he really believes that the white man has an “especially favored position” vis-à-vis, the dark-skinned. YUCK!!

You can’t argue with success, Baby.

“Success is probably the highest value in American life. It relates to so many other characteristics of American life — individualism, freedom, goal-setting, progress, experimenting, social mobility, making money, pragmatism, and optimism.” Stan Nussbaum

We have seen the visible signs of this “burden” from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. As white missionaries enter poor nations they automatically, like “default mode” on your computer, enter in with ideas of how they can help, “What this country needs is . . .” etc. Most of the time they simply transpose what works in their country to the country they are in, with little thought to what is indigenous or reproducible at the local level.

One example from our experience is the effort made to bring into a poor nation in Central Asia “solar ovens” that would help poor villagers cook meals so that they would not further deplete their scarce wood supply. Well, as things actually worked out, the solar ovens – which can be produced with local materials although the concept is foreign – are not being used to cook meals at all but are used by some to boil water for tea.

I guess this is a “hybrid type” of success story but nevertheless the principle of “what worked for us is what will work for you”, carried on by the power of the WMB, still remains alive and well on planet earth!

I have read of poor African nations almost being forced by Western governments to purchase huge farm tractors to jump start their “deplorable” economy. Well, a few years later the tractors are converted into “city taxis” and farming goes on as it has for generations. But now the country suffers under more debt to rich nations for purchasing the tractors in the first place.

Your feedback would be much appreciated.

Jeff and Maria Gilbertson

4 responses to “Cultural Baggage – What do we leave at home, and how do we leave it at home?

  1. Good stuff, Jeff + Maria! I agree that we need to take great care in what we do and how we do it, wherever we go, and what to leave home.

    When I travel, I go with the conviction that the best things I can offer my hosts are things like a knowledge of the NT and ministry principles drawn closely from it, and a sense of how to apply these to the situation my new friends live in. Most other things I try to leave at home.

    For someone who loves to talk as much as I do,
    it’s been amazing for me to discover that a listening ear is one of my best ministry tools.
    Rather than doing my blah blah ‘teachings’ every place I go, my best ministry is usually done after I listen to local leaders, and especially to the Holy Spirit. Often what I have prepared is much less important than something that comes to mind AFTER listening.

    Over time I have learned how important it is to be simple, non-western, non-american, and radically New Testament based. It’s more and more interesting to me how little I know and how much Jesus and Paul know…

    A good place to learn some things to leave home is the Int’l Journal of Frontier Missions, with archives available free online at – articles there often discuss contextualization issues that are very helpful in this regard.

    In my experience, a good tool help answer Jeff & Maria’s questions is to ask, “Is this (teaching, initiative, tool, material) basically North American, or is it something that will fit very naturally in an Asian/African/South American context?

    Good post, Gilbertsons, hope some of these ramblings add to the conversation.

  2. The problem is further complicated by the fact that this world is shrinking with increasing speed. Urbanization is largely the result of this ‘success’ mindset. Men and women who have lived in the villages for a hundred generations are suddenly ‘forced’ to move into the city for a ‘better’ life. Why? Where is the better life and how exactly is it better? But if they stay in the villages they are miserable. They are no longer content to wear grass skirts, and let’s face it; grass skirts suck. So, we come in not with our own expectations but with their expectations which have been radically altered already. I believe in the true nature of community development: that they should learn to love God and each other as the primary means of improving their lives. But that message is drowned out by a truckload of money. That you are correct is irrelevant: How will you be heard?

  3. I appreciate Bruce’s comments about listening first rather than steam-rolling through with a prepared monologue and believing we are depositing something of value. The core issue here, I believe, is sensitivity…

    Sensitivity to the culture and the customs. Sensitivity to the local economy and what effect dramatic changes would cause.
    Sensitivity to the true NEEDS of the people group vs. our perceived or desired NEEDS for them.
    and finally and most importantly, as was also well pointed out, SENSITIVITY to the Holy Spirit to lead and advise.

    If we are sensative to the leadings of the Spirit and the true (not perceived) needs of the people, the “truckload of money” issue can become an asset. It is when we in our own haste and desire for instant gratification try to force the PACE of development to meet Western levels that we risk becoming a detriment to those we seek to help.

    Culture shift and culture transition in and of themselves are not bad things. By introducing Christianity, we are inevitably shifting a culture in much the same way that buildings, electricity and tractors do. The question of pace is what often defines the breaking points of any material, and I would suggest as a metaphor, of any people group. Try to get anything to flex faster than it can withstand and it breaks. Move it slowly, and in a way that is beneficial to what it was designed to do, and it will withstand reshaping, being better suited for its calling in the end. We as a people are much the same.

    When I first engaged with an African Pastor seven years ago, I was anxious in my haste to see his community changed at my speed. Over the years, we have developed a saying that often causes us to laugh: “T – I – A”. It means “This is Africa”. It reminds me that in TIA time, urgency is measured often in months and years, and not in seconds, minutes, days, or even weeks, and that those timelines are absolutely OK.

    Blessings, and thank you for the forum and the discussions! Looking forward to meeting you all at h2h.

  4. Greg & Chad, Good stuff. Will enjoy meeting you both and the whole crew in Dallas.

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