American Evangelical Missionaries in Romania:
Overcoming Ignorance and Ethnocentrism
Editor’s Note: Previous portions of this article were published in the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Fall 2010): 19; (Winter 2011): 13-15; and 19 (Spring 2011): 12-14.
Overcoming Ethnocentrism and Differing Values
In order for Americans to overcome their ethnocentrism, it is crucial for them to recognize the strong contrast between their preference for direct communication and the Romanian preference for indirect communication. Because Romanians are very adept at indirect communication, they tend to “read into” what is said, thereby deciphering what the speaker is “really saying.” When they do this with “straight-talking” Americans, they often miss the mark by assuming something was said that was not intended. From the American perspective, the indirect allusions and inferences, if caught, are seen as deceptive at best and dishonest at worst.
Obviously, lack of fluency in the Romanian language is also a huge problem for some American missionaries. It is unacceptable for a missionary in a country almost seven years to report only a 10 percent comprehension of sermons, and another in a country eight years with only a 40 percent comprehension level.
The American ideal of social equality is another major source of conflict. Although varying levels of respect and deference exercised by Romanians “above” and “below” them grate on American egalitarian sensibilities, American missionaries must concede that the existence of high context cultures is not necessarily evil. Democracy and social equality are not to be found in the Bible. If practicing some formality in addressing people of higher social classes promotes the cause of the gospel, is that such a huge price to pay?
A practical way for Americans to implement the Romanian value of formality would be first to learn the language and to use it properly, using formal pronouns when needed, as well as formal titles for people who possess them. In meeting new people, the Romanian equivalent of “hi” is inappropriate. Especially when first meeting someone, formal verb forms and pronouns and formal titles are best. The American tendency to hug, shake hands vigorously, and slap people on the back also can grate on Romanian nerves. Americans enter Romania with an ample portion of “social credit,” but they often squander it quickly with their informality.
Trust and Suspicion
Surveys indicated lack of trust or suspicion was also a common underlying cause of conflict. Americans as a whole are a very trusting people, whereas, in contrast, Romanians are a very suspicious people. Much of this difference undoubtedly has to do with very different historical contexts. For Romanians, foreigners who historically have been the oppressors are typically regarded with suspicion. Being cautious of others is not necessarily a negative trait, especially if naivety is the alternative. It is also clear, however, that Romanian Evangelicals need help in this area, and that suspicion of others is not something Americans need adopt—perhaps more cautious at times, but not suspicious.
In Romania lack of trust is a very serious problem. One European Values Study ranked Romania last (31st out of 31 European states) in level of trust (Tom van Schak, “Social Capital in the European Values Study Surveys,” 27 September 2002, 19; http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/22/22/2381883.pdf). In another survey Romania ranked 13th most cynical out of 47 cultures studied. In contrast, the United States ranked the 46th least cynical out of 47 cultures studied, with only Norway being less cynical. (Michael Harris Bond et al., “Culture-Level Dimensions of Social Axioms and Their Correlatives across 41 Countries,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 35 [September 2004], 563.) This lack of trust among Romanians has important spiritual ramifications. Romanian Evangelicals not only often distrust church leaders, they also, in my opinion, distrust God Himself, which feeds a Romanian proclivity toward fatalism.
Coping with Change and the Pace of Change
Americans value change as a means to progress and a better future. Romanians, on the other hand, are much less future-oriented and place much less emphasis upon planning and organization. It is very difficult for Romanians to plan for the future and to set goals. For the sake of both parties, the issue of expectations needs to be addressed. American evangelical missionaries, at the very least, need to adjust their expectations of the degree and speed in which change can and should take place in Romania.
Honesty is a very important value for both parties yet, surprisingly, both consider the other to be dishonest. The problem in this case appears to be primarily an issue of misinterpreted communications. Americans interpret the indirect style of Romanian communication as deceitfulness, whereas Romanians tend to read what they want to hear into what Americans are saying. Then when what Romanians “heard” does not come to pass, having heard a promise rather than a suggestion, they accuse Americans of not keeping their word.
Weighing the Value of Possessions and People
Because of contrasting cultural norms, Americans and Romanians hold different views of private property. In Romania, for example, borrowing a tool indefinitely is not stealing. The length of the loan is simply indefinite. The Romanian assumption is that the lender will ask for it back when it is needed. What difference does it make who is storing the item in their garage if neither is using it? However, because of the strong American attachment to private property, not returning the tool is thought to be dishonest, if not outright theft. For American evangelical missionaries the issue of biblical stewardship can come into play. The problem is that Americans can confuse taking care of property entrusted to them by God with jealously holding on to material possessions and placing greater value on them than on relationships with people. Ultimately treasures are supposed to be in heaven, not hanging on a nail in a garage.
Hospitality is one value that is extremely important to Romanians but very unimportant to many Americans working in Romania. Almost 20 percent of American respondents did not even consider “lacking in hospitality” as a sin. American evangelical missionaries must make a conscious decision to “practice hospitality,” following the biblical injunction in Romans. Too often missionaries tend to see their homes as an oasis where they can close the doors and “get away” from nationals. Understandably, everyone needs periodic breaks from ministry, but the home-as-oasis mentality signals to Romanians that at best hospitality is not important to Americans, and at worst, Americans do not really care for the people with whom they are working.
Another specific value that American evangelical missionaries need to respect is the high value Romanians place on reverence in church. In order not to offend, American missionaries need to regain a greater sense of reserve and respect in worship. American informality has little place in a high context culture like Romania in general, let alone in church. For the sake of the gospel, greater decorum and formality is a small price to pay. Included are such practical matters as dress, with Americans, for example, being willing to return to the past American custom of wearing “Sunday best.” As a matter of respect, Americans should also refrain from humor in the pulpit and should keep their children under control in church.
One final very important Romanian value is humility, which American evangelical missionaries need to take into account. The simple fact that Romanian Evangelicals cited “arrogance” and “superior attitude” as the second most common cause of conflict with American missionaries clearly reveals a significant problem to be addressed. All missionaries would agree that humility is an important value for Christians, but it does seem to be a particularly difficult spiritual quality for Americans. The response should be to acknowledge the sin of pride, become a learner, empathize, and as the Bible clearly commands, “consider others better than yourself.”
Confrontation Versus Third-Party Mediation
As opposed to the direct confrontational approach of Americans, conflict is dealt with in the Romanian context primarily through third-party mediation. On one occasion I was explaining this Romanian cultural pattern to a fellow American evangelical missionary. Shortly into the conversation the missionary interrupted me and with some disgust said, “Why don’t they just read the Bible? The Bible is very clear we are to go to our brother alone!” (Matthew 18). This American seemed totally unaware of the many examples of third party mediation in Scripture: The interaction of David and Abigail (1 Samuel 25), Jacob’s pacification of Esau (Genesis 32), Esther’s intervention, the high priest’s role as mediator, and, of course, Christ as mediator between God and His fallen creation. Nathan’s approach to David regarding his sin (2 Samuel 12), although not third-party mediation, is a very good example of indirect confrontation.
This ethnocentric tendency to interpret even the Bible’s “culture” through American eyes obviously can have serious missiological consequences. The danger is that missionaries will judge behavior different from their own not only as improper but also, as unbiblical. Not only can such an approach harm relationships, but it adds to the difficulty of conflict resolution when one party not only considers the other wrong, but also less spiritually mature.
Just as direct confrontation in American culture has its shortcomings, so too, mediation can have its pitfalls. In Romania the ideal of third-party mediation can degenerate to gossip and backbiting as offended parties seek out mediators. Neither direct nor indirect communication is foolproof. They both have their place, depending upon the situation.
Coupling Bible Knowledge and People Skills
American evangelical missionaries working in Romania must be competent in many fields besides biblical knowledge. An effective missionary must have at least practical competence in basic cultural anthropology, cross-cultural communication, and cross-cultural psychology. To be effective, missionaries do not have to be professional cultural anthropologists and psychologists, but they do have the responsibility to be the best at whatever God has called them to be. Social, interpersonal skills are very important ingredients in effective missionary work because knowledge is simply not enough. If a missionary couple knows the Bible from cover to cover but is so deficient in social skills that no one ever wants to be near them to hear the message, what good is that? F
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 1997.