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Cross-Cultural Issues Facing American Evangelical Missionaries in Romania

Andrew LaBreche

Editor’s note:

Andrew LaBreche has served as an American missionary in Romania since 1997. Former field director for Greater Europe Mission in Romania and Moldova, he works with a team of 15 fulltime workers and scores of short-term missionaries each summer. He describes his theological orientation as “low-key dispensational.”

In addition to published missiological and anthropological literature, Labreche based his investigation of cross-cultural issues affecting American missionaries serving in Romania upon the survey findings of the third European Values Study (1990 and 1999-2000), the World Values Survey (2003- ), and his own firsthand surveys. The author administered questionnaires to 66 American evangelical missionaries and 43 Romanian Evangelicals in 2004-05. For background on the European and World Values Studies see Wil Arts, Jacques Hagenaars, and Loek Halman, eds., The Cultural Diversity of European Unity: Findings, Explanations and Reflections from the European Values Study (Leiden: Brill, 2003); www.europeanvalues.nl; and www.worldvaluessurvey.org or www.wvs.ir.umich.edu.

In the mid-twentieth century Bible translator Eugene Nida pointed out that the greatest problem in missions is often not the message, but the messenger.1 For this reason the problems messengers face – or cause – on the field deserve serious attention. One particular challenge American evangelical missionaries face is their ethnocentrism.

Missiologist Miriam Adeney relates the story of a Mali Christian named Daniel Coulibaly describing how Mali believers sometimes feel working with American missionaries:

Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, “Mouse, let’s have a party!” So they did. Animals came from near and far. They ate and drank and sang and danced. And no one partied more exuberantly than Elephant.

When it was over, Elephant exclaimed, “What a party, Mouse! Did you ever see a more wonderful celebration?” But there was silence. “Mouse?” Elephant called. “Where are you, Mouse?” Then to his horror Elephant discovered Mouse – crushed on the floor, stomped into the dirt, trampled to death by the enthusiasm of his friend Elephant. “Sometimes that is what it is like to work with you Americans,” said Daniel. “It is like dancing with an elephant.”2

One significant problem that seems to arise among American evangelical missionaries working in Romania is their assumption that Romanian Evangelicals are not really that much different from themselves. Even if one concludes that the differences are relatively small, compared to American-Asian cultural contrasts, for example, one can still profitably argue that “cultures somewhat different from one’s own may in fact pose more problems for the culture crosser than those that are wholly different.”3

Almost any honest discussion with Romanians will lead to the oft-heard complaint of an American superiority complex: they think they have “all the answers,” “come with their own agenda,” and are “proud and arrogant.” Subtly and almost unknowingly, through both secular and religious culture, many American missionaries are imbued with a sense of triumphalism. Americans are eager for results that can be reported back home. They are captured by a “closure theology” that drives them to finish the job quickly. Missionaries, then, become teachers before learning the observational skills of good listeners. Too quickly they become the center of ministry activity rather than empowering those they have come to serve. As a corrective, my goal is to help American evangelical missionaries better understand themselves, know how they are perceived by Romanian Evangelicals, and ultimately learn how to better navigate Romanian culture for the sake of the gospel.

Many American evangelical missionaries working in Romania do not understand that they hold cultural values significantly at odds with those of Romanian Evangelicals. One significant reason for this ignorance is the missionary assumption that American values are the norm and universal to all cultures. Naïve ethnocentrism, which this sentiment reflects, amounts to “thinking one’s own group’s ways are superior to those of others.”4 Generally, people do not think about their value systems. They simply take for granted that their values are right. In fact, if they did not think they were right, they would not be held as values in the first place.

A Superiority Complex

The problem is not simply ignorance—assuming one’s own culture is the only culture. Nor is the problem belief in the good qualities of one’s own culture—all cultures have both good and bad elements, as Richard Tiplady has pointed out.5 The problem arises when people become aware of others’ values and reject them out of hand. This is true ethnocentrism.

At least since the 15th century the West’s technical, economic, and military advantages have resulted in such overweening pride and arrogance that the West came to assume it possessed a superior culture as well. Americans, for example, are beset today by feelings of superiority which constitute one of the greatest barriers to American missionary participation in the spread of the gospel.6 Thus, if an American missionary refuses to discuss, does not appear to know, or is not interested in the Orthodox contribution to Romanian culture, then this narrowness amounts to another instance of Western arrogance and ethnocentrism. Sadly, it is true that while many missionaries would agree with the need to understand the historic faith of Romania, in practice very few make any effort to take either formal or folk Romanian Orthodoxy seriously.

American missionaries should first of all be learners. Unfortunately, this is a maxim rarely followed. Because of ethnocentrism and the strong culturally derived passion to “fix things,” too many American evangelical missionaries come to Romania with “all the answers” before they even have any idea of what questions should be asked.

Because of ethnocentrism, American Evangelicals often mistakenly equate their cultural values with biblical values, not seeing any difference between their understanding of a biblical world view and their own American evangelical world view.

Problems arise not when other cultures and their values seem strange, or perhaps even irrational; rather, problems emerge when missionaries judge values different from their own to be fundamentally wrong and biblically deficient. The result has been that “missionaries have succeeded in bringing a biblically informed world view, but one that is thoroughly contaminated by their culture.”7

Both for Westerners in general and for Americans in particular, it is very easy to confuse what is biblical with what is cultural. Punctuality, for instance, which Americans treasure, does not seem to be addressed in Scripture. American missionaries should also remember that although the gospel is meant to bring change, this change must not be equated with adoption of Western or American values.

To an American missionary the message of the Bible may be clear. At least an American understanding of it may be clear. “Missionaries are often unaware of the cultural biases of their own Western ways of doing theology, which have been influenced by a Greek world view that stresses highly rational systems of thought. But this emphasis on detailed systematic theologies is foreign to many societies.”8

This emphasis upon detailed theology at times is more than just foreign; American insistence upon definite and precise formulations of faith can be a source of cross-cultural conflict, especially in contexts or cultures that do not value precise formulations.9 Romania is a case in point, where Orthodox Romanians stress an apophatic theology (defining what God is not), rather than the precision and rationality of Western and especially Protestant theology.10

This Western desire for a precise, logical understanding of faith also derives from the 18th century European Enlightenment which stressed strictly empirical reasoning and logic. With this outlook came the conclusion that more intuitive, less systematic thinking patterns in non-Western cultures were not only illogical but inferior.11 Rather than interpreting Scripture from a single cultural, and thus limited, perspective, a biblical hermeneutic must begin with the Scriptures, which stand in judgment of all cultures, affirming that which is good and condemning that which is evil. Such a hermeneutic must proceed with a well-informed knowledge of both one’s own and others’ cultures.12

Enormous potential for cross-cultural conflict exists at this point. American evangelical missionaries passionately cherish the Bible, and second, their interpretation of it. At the same time, Romanian Evangelicals do not always read the Bible in amanner identical to the typical American evangelical missionary working in Romania. For instance, in many Romanian churches—unlike American evangelical churches—women keep their heads covered, remain silent in church, and do not wear jewelry, all with biblical precedents. Equating Western cultural behavior as automatically “Christian” behavior seriously undermines the witness of Western missionaries.13

An ethnocentric attitude of cultural superiority among American missionaries also emanates from the supposed experience and age of the evangelical churches in America compared to, for example, the relative youth of the evangelical church in Romania (Baptists since the mid-nineteenth century, Pentecostals since the 1920s) completely disregarding the fact that Christian churches existed in Romania more than 1,000 years before Europeans set foot on the North American continent. Related to this attitude is the paternalistic idea that in some sense the American evangelical church is the “mother” or sending church. Apart from the fact that even the evangelical church of Romania for the most part did not have historical ties to the American church, the Bible makes no distinction between “old” and “young” churches. Romania’s Baptist churches are the descendents of German, not American, missionaries. Likewise, its early Pentecostal churches are the result of other non-American missionaries. Nowhere in the New Testament are the churches of Palestine treated as separate entities, distinct from those of Asia Minor and Greece. “Nowhere is there any question of any authority which the older churches exercise over the younger. Throughout the entire New Testament the church is referred to as a living whole, a unity growing out of a single root, and built upon a single foundation.”14

The danger of this overly “protective” attitude of missionaries is well known. J. H. Bavinck gives common yet unfortunate results of this attitude of superiority. First, “the young church is kept artificially immature.” Second, “the missionary himself begins to consider himself indispensable to the work.”15 As missiologist Sherwood Lingenfelter aptly notes, “Missionaries all too often appear as benefactors rather than as servants. This attitude grows not from an inherent carnality but rather is derived from the position of economic power that they so often have in relation to their national co-workers.”16

Western paternalism often is reinforced by the sometimes intense desire of Romanian Evangelicals to adopt Western church practices. Although other factors such as financial gain can come into play, uncritical acceptance of all things Western can also be seen in the tendency of some younger Romanian churches to adopt all things that might be considered characteristically American: its evangelical music and choruses, printed church bulletins, use of overhead projectors, sermon summaries, and the promotion of small group fellowships. As far as these cultural practices are helpful and meaningful in Romanian churches, they are fine. But are they always helpful?17 Should churches, instead, be planted that look and feel more Orthodox and less American? Or something different? These are questions for Romanian believers themselves to answer.

Of course, Romanians, as well as Americans, suffer from bouts of ethnocentrism. Romanian Evangelicals generally are unaware of the broader historical and cultural influences upon them. They tend to view their total way of life as biblical and also indigenously Romanian rather than as indebted to any foreign influence. Years ago a fellow missionary related to me a conversation he had had with a Romanian believer about the hymns sung in church. My colleague asked if the translations of the hymns they sang “sounded Romanian.” The Romanian stated that of course they did. They were all Romanian melodies, including that famous Romanian hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” written by that famous Romanian song writer, Martin Luther.

Overcoming Ethnocentrism

An objective study of culture can at least raise one’s awareness of one’s own cultural traits and distinctives. Besides the limited gains from a textbook study of anthropology, the process of actual cross-cultural living itself can often assist in helping one to develop a better understanding of another culture.18 As for cross-cultural conflicts, understanding the other person allows one to recognize, for example, that what appears to be offensive behavior by a person from the “other side” may not be intended to offend, nor considered offensive in that person’s culture. Once the parties in a cross-cultural “incident” understand that no one meant to offend, misunderstanding can be avoided. Particular behaviors may still strike one side as wrong, rude, or unnatural, but chances are they will no longer judge the other culture quite so harshly.19

Some very simple and practical advice for gaining a better understanding of other cultures was given in the 1950s by Coptic Bishop Antonios Marcos regarding his church’s mission in sub-Saharan Africa. The cross-cultural principles he taught follow:

• Listen well and observe carefully before drawing any conclusions.

• Understand the mind of the people and their way of thinking before doing anything that may conflict with their customs and belief. This will avoid initial rejection.

• Learn their language. You will thus win hearts because people’s tongues are very dear to them.20

One’s Own Culture

One reason for the importance of knowing one’s own cultural assumptions is the fact that culture creates unconscious blinders that hinder one’s ability to understand another culture and value system objectively. The simple fact is that people do not act “naturally,” that is, in accordance with a universal value system, but in accordance with the cultural assumptions they have learned since childhood.21

That is not to say that one must abandon biblical principles or absolutes in the name of cultural relativity. But it is necessary to learn to adapt to new and different ways of perceiving reality and to realize one’s own cultural biases.22 These two abilities are very difficult to learn without understanding one’s own culture. “Once we have an understanding of who we are,” then it is possible to “investigate the values of others.”23 Nothing is wrong with having been brought up in a particular Christian context, whether American or otherwise. What is important is to realize and remember that context is local and not universal.24 F


1 Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 251.

2 “Telling Stories: Contextualization and American

Report Missiology” in Global Missiology for the 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. by William D. Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 377.

3 Craig Storti, The Art of Crossing Cultures (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1995), 14.

4 For a website devoted exclusively to ethnocentrism see: www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Lobby/html. 5 “Let X=X: Generation X and World Missions” in Global Missiology for the 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. by William D. Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000). Richard Tiplady is president of International Christian College, Glasgow, Scotland.

6 J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterean & Reformed, 1960), 133.

7 Sherwood G. Lingenfelter, Transforming Culture: A Challenge for Christian Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 12.

8 Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985), 214.

9 Ibid.

10 Particularly helpful in understanding the concept of apophatic theology are Vladimir Lossky, “The Divine Darkness,” Chapter 2 in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976); Vladimir Lossky, “The Negative and the Positive Way,” Chapter 1, Section 2 in Orthodox Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994); Daniel B. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Western Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994); and Daniel B. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 56.

11 Nida, Customs and Cultures, 6.

12 An excellent critique of Western theology and its deficiencies is found in Reginald Bibby, Fragmented Gods (Toronto: Irwin, 1987).

13 S. A. Grunlan and M. K. Mayers, Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 56

14 Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions, 192.

15 Ibid., 197.

16 Lingenfelter, Transforming Culture, 144.

17 Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions, 105, 188, and 178.

18 Paul G. Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983), 445-46.

19 Craig Storti, Americans at Work: A Guide to the Can-Do People (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 2004), 3-4.

20 Francis Omondi, “Coptic Community, Spirituality, and Mission” in Global Missiology for the 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. by William D. Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 512.

21 C. M. Arensberg and A. H. Niehoff, eds., Introducing Social Change: A Manual for Community Development, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Aldine, 1971), 208; Serena Nanda, Cultural Anthropology (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1991), 27-28.

22 Marvin K. Mayers, Christianity Confronts Culture: A Strategy for Cross-Cultural Evangelism, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 241; David J. Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meaning, Methods, and Models (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 34.

23 Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin Keene Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1986), 119.

24 Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 235.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Andrew LaBreche, “Ethnocentrism. U.S.-American Evangelical Missionaries in Romania: Qualitative Missiological Research into Representative Cross-Cultural Value Based Conflicts,” Ph.D. dissertation, Evangelical Theological Faculty of Leuven, Belgium, 2007. Additional excerpts from this dissertation will be published in future issues of the East West Church and Ministry Report.