Equipping Counselors in Other Cultures

May 17, 2012

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Cross-Cultural Ministry
Wayne Vanderwier

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Wayne Vanderwier

Equipping Counselors in Other Cultures

BCC Staff Note: For context for today’s blog post, you can find more information about the ministry of Overseas Instruction in Counseling at our BCC Weekend Interview.

Biblical Counseling Missionaries

Soon after Overseas Instruction in Counseling (OIC) began in 2006, we “accidentally” discovered one of the unique aspects of this ministry. While other missionaries typically have both formal and anecdotal training on cultural adaptation and experience an “assimilation curve” that is intended to help them identify with and feel at home among those with whom they are working (the indeterminate period of time known as enculturation), OIC missionaries are in and out of numerous cultures each year.

Some early and embarrassing cultural mistakes motivated me to study missiological anthropology, cultural adaptation, and societal etiquette and encouraged me to develop a simple “cultural learning” tool that could be used by OIC missionaries.

Now, you may be wondering… why wouldn’t we simply use some of the cultural awareness information—and quizzes—already developed by distinguished secular social scientists? Because, while these types of statistically- and socially-based projects are interesting and probably helpful to those for whom they’re intended, they have limitations that make them inappropriate for the specific type of snapshot culture-capturing needed by our missionaries.

Inappropriate how? First, the pool from which we intend to draw our data is very small. Next, we do not intend to do statistical analysis or publish research findings. Our questionnaire will be used only by our missionaries and its use will be repeated whenever we enter a new country. Finally, our “target audience” will be believers (usually leaders among the believers), whose motive for and interest in answering our survey will be different than those polled by sociological researchers.

The OIC Instrument: What Is Being Asked, and Why?

You can find the OIC Instrument here at A Getting Acquainted Questionnaire.

1. The Criteria

The evaluative instrument was developed around three key elements: the aspects, domains, and layers of society. Some parts of each element will prompt multiple questions; some none at all. Each is explained below:

  1. Aspects of Society: What They Think of Themselves
    This item employs “the journalists questions” to help us get a snapshot of the “cultural self-image” of the served people group. 

    1. Who?
      This question seeks to define the kinds of individuals in the culture being served, their roles, and the (expected, normal) qualifications required to assume specific roles.
    2. What?
      This component asks about the objects, clothing, tools, and technology in the surveyed group.
    3. When?
      This facet explores the culture’s view of time management by asking about scheduling, event timing, “cycles of life,” etc.
    4. Where?
      This section delves into how the receiving culture views and uses architecture and space, including the location of our proposed ministry.
    5. How?
      This ingredient probes the activities, rituals, and techniques of the served group.
  2. Domains of Society: Why They Do What They Do
    1. Organization
      Our missionaries must, at minimum, understand the formal political system in which they’re serving. Beyond that, they may also be helped to understand the less formal aspects of the society’s structure, including such things as kinship systems, guilds, and corporate/business models.
    2. Power structures
      The formal systems of organization in any society are maintained (both locally and globally) by some kind of authorized, and frequently multi-layered enforcement detail—the police and/or the military. Our missionaries should understand this relationship between the “enforcers” and citizenry in general and, more specifically, the Christians.
    3. Production
      How do the people in our receiving culture subsist? This question area explores their work, industry, agriculture, crafts, technology, cooking, cleaning, sewing, modern professions, and applied sciences.
    4. Education
      Our missionaries are significantly helped if they understand the learning—and learning systems—of the places in which they work. How are the publically-funded schools graded? How is higher education valued? What is their view of/practice concerning apprenticeship?
    5. Clothing
      Those who travel abroad to train Christian leaders under the OIC banner will engage in a “period of service” that will probably include a variety of settings. They will be helped to understand what attire is appropriate for the conference setting, for church services, and for casual and/or recreational activities.
    6. Recreation/Entertainment
      What’s the “play” in our served culture? This aspect of their shared lives includes gaining an understanding of their sports, toys, games, art, music, musical instruments, stories, literature, and theater. It also includes understanding what would be considered appropriate and inappropriate activities for our missionaries.
    7. Belief systems
      Finally, our missionaries would be helped to understand the receiving culture’s structures of stability, i.e. their religious beliefs and practices. This information should go beyond a “fact book,” or encyclopedic, description of the percentage of the populace identifying themselves with each denomination, but might also include descriptions of the broader aspects of religious practice: propitiation of the gods or spirits, satisfaction of superstitious tendencies, social manipulation, moral control, magic, theoretical and/or paranormal psychology, etc.
  3. Layers of Society: How They View the “Concentric Domains”
    1. Family
      The most foundational and most intimate level of any society, the family’s life must be understood by those serving in cross-cultural ministry settings. What are its activities and traditions? How does it conduct meals? What are its views on sexuality and reproduction, child rearing, and male/female and adult/child role differentiation?
    2. Community
      The larger circle of people that we still think of as “us” (and all that pertains to “us”), is a community, a subset of the larger society. It both prescribes and maintains cultural events. Missionaries would be well served to know (and, whenever possible, participate in) their served culture’s holiday activities, birthdays, rites of passage, weddings, anniversaries, and funerals.
    3. The Others
      The people beyond the host community, those that they think of and relate to as “them,” must also be understood by the missionary. This may include those of a subculture that differs only slightly (e.g. through geographic proximity and/or linguistic “accents”) or those of a subculture reviled by the majority population.

2. The Questions

Despite the quantity of the research and the complexity of the structure behind them, the questions on the questionnaire itself were designed to be quite simple. This goal was based on several factors:

  1. Those who receive and are asked to complete this survey are busy people. The targeted missionaries and/or missionary agency executives simply do not have the time to plod through the academic justifications for each item or decipher technical (cultural/anthropological) language.
  2. Those who receive and are asked to complete this survey will themselves sometimes be “simple” (i.e. not highly educated) people, therefore…
  3. The document itself should engender confidence on the part of the national host that the ministry of OIC will be thoughtful and practical.
  4. Those who receive and are asked to complete this survey will often require its translation prior to its completion.
  5. Those receiving and using the completed surveys must be able to quickly and accurately interpret—and almost immediately use—the information provided.

3.   The Results So Far

The OIC “Getting Acquainted Questionnaire” is a work in progress. But in its present iteration it has proven to be a useful tool in assisting our missionaries to “shortcut” the process of cultural adaptation.

Join the Conversation

What did we miss? How could we improve the OIC “Getting Acquainted Questionnaire” to make it even more useful for short-term missionaries? Do you know of other such tools?