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More American and Romanian Values at Odds

Andrew LaBreche

Editor’s note: Previous portions of this article were published in the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Fall 2010): 6-9; and 19 (Winter 2011): 13-15.

Contrasting Qualities in Choosing Leaders

For American missionaries working in Romania, differences in values between the being-oriented or contemplative thinker and the action-oriented “doer” cause problems, especially in the area of leadership. Americans look for influential youth motivated toward action rather than older people who have gained the respect of the community through relationships they have nurtured over many years. Thus when recommending persons for leadership, Americans often use their economic leverage to support individuals who would not naturally be recognized in Romanian culture.

Americans frequently place a higher value on personal achievement than on relationships. The American stress upon self-fulfillment often trumps concerns for family and friends. When a better job appears elsewhere, Americans often rank family and friends second to career advancement and higher incomes. The results are high mobility and a tendency to limit group activities to superficial relationships in voluntary associations that are easily expendable.1 In contrast, in more collectivist Romanian culture, relationships are much more highly prized.

Gaining Trust—A Long-Term Proposition

It is often difficult for American missionaries to be accepted into an already established, in some cases, centuries-old group. After 10 years in the country, working with the same Romanians, Americans will still be thought of as “outsiders.” Part of Romanian reluctance to enter into deep interpersonal relationships with missionaries is the fact that the latter are so transient. Many Americans come vowing they will be in Romania for 20 years, only to leave in frustration in the first couple of years. It is no wonder Romanians are hesitant to invest time in someone who, considering past experience, will simply pack up and go home halfway through the relationship. It was only after we bought land and started building a house that Romanians actually believed we were staying. It is important for missionaries to understand that relationships and especially group membership are a very long and time-consuming process in Romania. Friends are not made overnight.

Americans believe indecisiveness is bad and action is good. From an American perspective, Romanian meetings often appear inefficient and time-consuming with seemingly little progress. What actually is taking place is the relationship building needed to get to the point of discussing a contentious issue. Picking up on subtle communication clues, Romanians, lacking consensus, will often defer a decision until behind-the-scene negotiations (often through intermediaries) can resolve an issue. However, solving problems by means of quiet mediation often strikes Americans as manipulation and subterfuge.

Measuring Ministry by the Numbers

Romanian Evangelicals often complain that missionaries tend to focus only on results and measure ministry success in numbers. Because of potential financial ramifications, Romanians can sometimes feel forced to conform to American expectations and can find themselves in awkward positions when the need comes to report on progress. For their part, American missionaries are confused by the seeming lack of interest by Romanian Evangelicals in instituting bigger and better programs.


Self-Reliance Versus Interdependence

Another recurring cross-cultural conflict repeatedly raised among Americans concerns Romanians “always borrowing things.” For Americans, while friends are expected to help one another on occasion, too many requests by one party may threaten the relationship. This attitude is confusing to Romanians who come from a culture stressing closely knit friendships involving economic and social interdependence.2 By way of contrast, for Americans, the goal of self-reliance is paramount for success in life.3 Even being completely aware of this cultural difference does not remove the emotions Americans feel when they think they are “being taken advantage of” and their friendship is being abused.

Based on the strong American concept of private ownership, missionaries often refuse to let nationals use their material possessions freely and thus are considered stingy. Sherwood Lingenfelter points out that the anxiety among American missionaries about personal (or church) property is one of the key obstacles to reaching other cultures. This behavior is often justified based on the biblical principle of stewardship, whereas the American passion for private ownership may actually be the driving force in decisions about the husbanding or sharing of material possessions.4

Because of the income disparity, Romanian Evangelicals believe American Evangelicals should give generously to their poorer brothers in Christ. Americans, who are very sensitive to the concepts of self-reliance and good stewardship, are generally offended, and they do not like feeling pressured into giving.5 Because Americans place such a high value on gratitude and appreciation, they consider the relative lack of voiced gratitude in Romanian culture to be morally lacking, unfortunately, all the more reason to not want to give. Americans pride themselves on being generous but have the fault of liking to be known and appreciated for it.

Contrasting Concepts of Personal Space and Deportment

Romanians and Americans also have differing concepts of personal space. Physical touching, close body proximity, generous use of gestures, and speaking in a loud voice characterize southern Europeans. In contrast, North Americans typically keep their distance. In personal conversation, Romanians place themselves closer to each other than Americans find comfortable. Conversely, Romanians interpret the distance Americans attempt to maintain as a sign of reluctance to form close personal bonds.6

Americans and Romanians also have differing concepts of modesty. Members of one conservative American evangelical missionary family admonished a female Romanian language teacher for wearing pants because they considered such attire to be immodest. For her part the Romanian teacher considered this missionary family to be immodest because it lived in a fancy rented home and drove a new car. Simply put, different cultures have different understandings of modesty. In many conservative Romanian churches, personal distance between the sexes is maintained rigorously. Men often sit on one side of the sanctuary and women on the other. Personal touching is frowned upon. Men and women do not touch in any way whatsoever in church. For Americans who are very informal and often touch freely, this difference can cause great misunderstanding and conflict. What is considered an innocent gesture by Americans can be misunderstood and can lead to gossip. Hugging, which is common in American culture, is fraught with danger because it is a very rare public expression in Romania.


From a missiological perspective, even a simple awareness of differences can potentially help missionaries avoid unnecessary conflicts. Many Americans are not aware of their unique cultural perspectives. Similarly, American Evangelicals tend to assume their values are biblical and universal rather than culturally conditioned. If Americans and Romanians could view each other’s cultures as mutually valid, but with different means of explaining reality, then many of the cross-cultural conflicts that occur could be avoided. Ethnocentrism, however, can destroy that possibility. As guests in Romanian culture, the onus is on American evangelical missionaries to cross the cultural bridge.

Too often American evangelical missionaries working in Romania have been, to use Romanian Evangelicals’ own words, “grossly ignorant” of the cultural differences between themselves and those with whom they work. Some missionaries surveyed considered simply learning the language to be enough, although not all even bothered with that crucial task. Some were totally unaware of fundamental value differences. Other missionaries who were aware of the differences concluded that Romanian values were morally wrong. Obviously, simple awareness of differences is not enough.

Often Americans are also—as I suspect all peoples are—unaware of their own ethnocentrism. Three specific results are an attitude of cultural pride, a propensity toward cultural bias and insensitivity, and perhaps most insidious, a belief in one’s superiority. These three results of ethnocentrism were observed in survey responses regarding what Romanians especially disliked about American missionaries: their “arrogance,” “pride,” and “superior attitude.” Ethnocentrism is clearly a very grave problem for American evangelical missionaries working in Romania. If Romanians’ overwhelming impression of American missionaries is that of pride, arrogance, and a condescending attitude, what are their chances of actually being a help to the Romanian evangelical church, or of having meaningful relationships with Romanians in general?

Ideally it would be helpful if Romanians working with missionaries would meet them halfway across the cultural bridge. But as a practical matter, missionaries must be willing to travel all the way across the cultural bridge whether or not Romanians care to or are able to do so. Standing in the middle hoping Romanians will come halfway across may be pointless. Ultimately, missionaries are called to live cross-culturally, not those they hope to reach. F


1Edward C. Stewart and Milton J. Bennett, American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective, rev. ed. (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1972), 56.

2Paul G. Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983), 248.

3S. A. Grunlan and M.K. Mayers, Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 211; Sherwood Lingenfelter, Transforming Culture: A Challenge for Christian Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 24; Sherwood Lingenfelter, Agents of Transformation: A Guide for Effective Cross-Cultural Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 198; Serena Nanda, Cultural

Eugene A. Nida, Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 247.

4Lingenfelter, Transforming Culture, 51-53.

5Ibid., Chapter 5; Lingenfelter, Agents of Transformation, 87, 92, 242-46.

6Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1959); Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966); David J. Hesselgrave, ed., Theology and Mission: Papers Given at Trinity Consultation No. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978), 299, 301-06; Hiebert, Anthropological Insights, 96; Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology, 35; Mark L. Knapp, Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972); Lingenfelter, Agents of Transformation, 36; Nanda, Cultural Anthropology, 86; Ruth S. Freed, “Space, Density, and Cultural Conditioning,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 285 (1977), 593-604.

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.

Andrew LaBreche is an American missionary who has served with Greater Europe Mission in Romania since 1996.

Editor’s note: The final portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 19 (Summer 2011)


 Reprinted with permission from Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburg, Scotland: Edinburg University Press, 2009), 275.

Editor’s Note: Four previous issues of the East-West Church and Ministry Report have included missionary statistics; 2 (Winter 1994), 5; 3 (Spring 1995), 10; 5 (Spring 1997), 10; 10 (Winter 2002), 15. With growing restrictions on missionary service in many post-Soviet states, ministries have become more reticent to share data with the East-West Church and Ministry Report, making it harder to calculate the size of the missionary force. Nevertheless, based on conversations and correspondence with mission personnel, it would appear that some of the missionary estimates in the Atlas of Global Christianity for post-Soviet states are high. For example, the East-West Church and Ministry Report 5 (Spring 1997), 10, gave a figure of 5,606 Protestant missionaries working in the former Soviet Union in 1996. Despite abundant anecdotal evidence of retrenchment in the past 15 years, the Atlas still reports 20,000 missionaries in the Russian Republic alone in 2010. Similarly, it seems questionable that the number of missionaries serving in Romania has grown from 453 in 2001, the figure published in the East-West Church and Ministry Report 10 (Winter 2002), 15, to 1,200 in 2010.