The third area requiring you and me to adapt when we enter cross-cultural ministry has to do with God, and ourselves and the world in relation to God. Because the spiritual world is the “real” world (II Cor. 4:18), and our motivation and rationale for changing and coping are based in the spiritual, we must re-work certain questions. This especially involves a challenge to our concepts of God – a re-examination of our role as God’s child and agent, and a scrutiny of others who (we may have been taught) are authority persons, representing the voice of God for us.   No matter what we are taught, it is likely to be challenged by the new reality we encounter.

Challenges to faith and trust: Who is God, really? We face major challenges to faith and trust when we engage in ministry, and especially in cross-cultural ministry. Scripture teaches that God is engaged in a cosmic war with Satan, and that the earth is one realm in which that war is fought. We are soldiers in the war, engaged in ministry in order to defeat God’s enemy, who seeks to devour and destroy (I Peter 5:8). As soon as we go “front-line” in battle, that is into active and full-time ministry, we become more visible targets for attack from our enemy. They also occur within us, especially in the form of doubt about God’s power in the world and His intentions for us and others. The central core of our spiritual self and motivation comes under attack and must be re-worked because we face hard questions:

  • Why doesn’t God act in X? Does God care?
  • Where was God when X happened? How can God let it happen?
  • If God called me here, why this? Why doesn’t God answer prayer even though I claim all His promises?
  • Where is God’s power when I need it?

My husband and I, in our work with hundreds of global workers, have seen that U.S. Christians seem to not have a working theology of suffering. Christians are often taught that if we are obedient, we will be “blessed” and won’t have to suffer. We wrongly think, “If I suffer, I must have done something wrong, or I am disobedient, so I must try harder.” One of the difficulties is dealing with the question, “Why didn’t God prevent…”

All of these questions and issues center around the nature of God. They strike at the heart of who we perceive Him to be. When He has all the power, yet does not evidence it in the world, even when we implore Him, what are we to make of it? How can we reconcile what we believe of God with the realities we face?

Superhuman expectations: In addition to the challenge of re-working your concept of God, faith and trust, your ministry may carry inordinately high expectations for yourself, for others, and for achievement possibilities.   This is even truer of when you are a worker, adding to the usual expectations of ministry your high hopes of becoming acculturated and effective in a foreign setting. One young global working pastor in rural, tribal Africa said to me, “Why do they insist on teaching us in our training that we can bond totally with the people we go to serve? We find that impossible because the cultural gulf is too great, and so we feel guilty all the time. Can’t they be more realistic?”

Our experience is that most cross-cultural workers must settle for a comfortable accommodation or adaptation to the other culture, rather than total assimilation. Bonding does occur, but may take you and me a long time. A very effective and experienced globalworker in Africa lamented to us that even after decades it is difficult to become intimate friends with nationals because certain cultural connections are illusive.

Our expectation for achievement and success may also be superhuman. A couple we know was sent out, in their twenties, “to evangelize Indonesia.” Like most young and inexperienced cross-cultural workers, they accepted this assignment in good faith, believing it must be possible if their experienced leaders deemed it so. Ten years later they were in deep spiritual and emotional trouble, having been unable to achieve the goal. Like most of us, they believed they could influence a whole culture and society, but their actual influence on entrenched systems proved woefully inadequate.

David Martin Lloyd-Jones, in his book Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, points out the idealistic nature and high motivation of people in ministry which set us up for depression. We think that if we only work hard enough and manifest enough commitment, we will get results. That is seldom reality, however. Yet, we persist in expecting visible change to happen quickly.

Of course, spiritual growth is possible. Conversion of non-believers does take place. Global work efforts around the globe attest to the fact that some change is possible. Whole nations are now different because the Gospel and the Scriptures were once introduced. But at a personal level, most of us in ministry must give up our expectations for the self as being a “strong, super-Christian” or one through whom whole societies will change.

Authority structures/relationships: Besides having to re-work our concept of God when we are in ministry, we also have to sort out lines of authority. Who does, in fact, speak for God? Who is the authority? Our sending church? Our organization headquarters? Our field leader? Or the Word of God? What if these appear to conflict?

Another problem is that our attitudes and values about leadership and authority are often heavily “spiritualized” involving issues of obedience, submission, and “having a sweet spirit” (being non-aggressive, compliant). If we question, we may be perceived as unspiritual or uncooperative. This cuts off a normal flow of dialogue between our leaders and us.

Organizational and leadership issues usually get worse because of the lack of resources, in both people and money. Sometimes the problem is not knowing how to set clear objectives and goals. We may not know how to write a job description. Lack of adequate communication and conflict resolution skills may be additional setbacks. Because of the nature of ministry, our failures or errors cause us greater distress than they might in other settings. This too means we must re-work our attitudes and understanding about the leader as representing the voice of God.

Here are some ways you can help yourself and encourage your friends who are struggling through these spiritual issues:

  1. Say you understand the maddening nature of “crazy making” realities. Point out the nature of spiritual warfare and the casualties it produces: Hebrews 11 is a sobering reminder that not all the heroes of faith survived the earthly battles! Romans 8 tells us we can never be separated from the love of God. Truth does not always win and the righteous sometimes do lose out at this stage of the war. Our challenge is to mourn our losses, and yet somehow adopt God’s eternal perspective as we fight on.

You can also teach your friend about spiritual resources. For example, each of us can claim this promise for our growth: “God has given us everything we need for life and godliness” (II Peter 1:3). You can pray and apply the Word of God for healing and growth.

  1. Help your friend see the difference between faith (a cognitive matter) and trust (an affective manner). Faith or belief may be adequate “mental assent” to truth, yet trust may be faulty. We may suffer lapses in trust, the emotional feeling of God’s care and presence, even though our minds believe. Fortunately, we can learn to trust “Abba, Father.” (See Romans 8:15, Gal. 4:6, Psalm 103:14.)
  2. Affirm that it is right to have ideals even though we have human limits. Even Jesus was subject to hunger, weakness, the need for sleep, and solitude.
  3. Help your friend discover and identify her unstated expectations for rewards. For example, my husband, as a physician recovering from burnout after prolonged service on the field, came to realize he had always expected some “payback” from the practice of medicine – some illusive reward which never cam. Thus, he felt let down, disappointed, waiting for what he never experienced.
  4. Encourage your friend to sort out her attitudes and experiences towards authority, leadership and following. She may discover that seeing authority as unapproachable is rooted in a family pattern of abuse of authority, which allowed no questioning. You can help her learn appropriate attitudes and assertiveness skills if needed. (Appropriate assertiveness enables a woman to express her desires, limits, wants, and needs in a way that the authority has more information upon which to make decisions.)
  5. Explore your attitudes about self-efficacy, vulnerability, fallibility, owning appropriate levels of responsibility, and honesty. These all interact in relating the self and the cosmos, of sorting out who God is, what He expects of us, and the role of others in His direction for us.

The needs and issues we have discussed in these three articles overlay the normal issues and stages of life. It is helpful to sort out which of our distresses are due to these ordinary life stresses and which result from cross-cultural ministry. All of these “usual” or ordinary issues may get worse when we add the stresses of cross-cultural ministry and vice-versa. Below you will find additional suggestions for helping yourself and others as you wrestle through the questions of who God is and where He fits in cross-cultural ministry.

  • Listen!
  • Try to understand how the particular cultural context, stressors, and field experience interact with a woman’s personality type and her past experience. This can shed light on why she reacts as she does.
  • Be God’s resource of love, acceptance, forgiveness, Biblical knowledge, and wisdom. Help to sort out what is her responsibility and what is God’s responsibility in the world.
  • Talk about how she feels and perceives herself now compared to before cross-cultural ministry. Promote her sense of worthiness.
  • Remember that we may “spiritualize” our difficulties if the only framework or vocabulary we have to describe problems, causes and solutions is “spiritual” language. In reality, most of our problems can also be described and addressed from other perspectives, such as normal life cycle issues, developmental stages and so on.

For further study
Ephesians 6, Colossians, I Corinthians 15:53-54, I Timothy 6:16, Psalm 120:1, Psalm 121, Isaiah 63:9, and II Timothy 1:10


©1998 Thrive

View the original print magazine where this article was first published.