(Note: This article was first written by Jim Yost, then co-authored with Karl Frankln)

Jim Yost and his wife Kathie are partners at the Latigo Ranch in Kemmling, Colorado. Karl Franklin and his wife Joice now work out of Dallas, Texas at the International Linguistic Center. Jim (PhD in anthropology from the University of Colorado ) and Karl (PhD in linguistics from the Australian National University) have both had extensive cross-cultural living and consulting experience, Jim in Latin America and other parts of the world, Karl in Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Pacific. When the first person pronoun is used in the article in Latin America and African contexts, it refers to Jim, in the Pacific contexts it refers to Karl. To be perfectly clear, we have sometimes added our names in parenthesis after the pronoun. Both authors have taught anthropology and consulted with numerous missionaries of various denominations and agencies.

At the end of the article we also suggest some readings that can help you learn a foreign language and understand other cultures.

Abstract: To gain insight into and be effective within any culture you can follow a few simple principles: observe, listen and interact. These events must then be recorded systematically, mined for patterns, and re–evaluated over time. Never assume you already know the answer to a cultural question or observation and, above all, don’t marry your conclusions. Ask questions of yourself as well as others.

The flip side of understanding another culture is to understand our own. Effective understanding and communication demands that we become aware of our own presuppositions and values. A great deal of emphasis has been placed here upon the quality of interaction, that is, recognizing that all of us are tainted by our own culture and limited in our understanding by the sin of presumption (i.e. we believe that our own culture is somehow superior).

Contrary to what advertising disclaimers say for everything, try this at home! Applying these principles is not a full–time job that only a professional can do. It can be done almost as a matter of course in your usual day, but it does require intent. This article will help you get started.

Why Bother?

Recently, some missionaries and missionary candidates from several Latin American countries asked how they could use anthropology to be more effective in their work or to better connect them with national and indigenous friends. One indigenous man who was hoping to begin work in another tribe poignantly asked how he could use anthropology to avoid the pitfalls he had seen foreign missionaries commit among his own tribe. These are the kinds of questions anthropologists dream of hearing. All of these people had exposure to anthropological theory and were convinced anthropology could make a legitimate contribution to their ministry, but they were struggling with application. Anthropology was still too diffuse and theoretical for them to use in day to day interactions. What they needed was something they could practice. So what follows addresses the application of anthropology in a more pragmatic way – giving some basic procedures and principles to practice.

What is given below skips the justification of anthropology for missionaries. If you aren’t beyond that point, this probably won’t speak to you. It assumes a certain familiarity with some basic anthropological terms, but these are not essential to understand the principles that follow.

Adjust Your Urgency

Missionaries, government workers, business enterprises, economic developers and aid agents all have two things in common: they have a goal and they have a sense of urgency. They have a time–line, either explicit, such as getting an oil well drilled as soon as possible to save money, or implicit, such as saving as many people as possible before they die or the world ends, or, in the case of the aid agent, getting this generation to learn new skills before the agent goes home. This sense of urgency is often their downfall if they wish to learn enough about the local culture to utilize it. Generally they assume they don’t have time to learn because they have to get to work changing, saving or even exploiting people.

In consulting with missionaries and businesses around the world we have run into this problem more often than any other. The typical scenario goes something like this:

“We have had a team working in this village for several years and progress has been miserable. The people are resistant and uncooperative. They treat our team with no respect and in fact are hostile toward them. We can get little to no help. We are thinking of pulling our team and sending them to another village that is more responsive.”

However, often the team has spent little time trying to learn about the values, real needs or motivations of the local people. They acknowledge that “anthropological insights” might help, but don’t feel that committing their time to such issues is an appropriate use of their limited time. All too often though, they defeat their goals by advancing and pursing them before understanding the implications. They believe that they can “learn it as they go”, but often critical mistakes either delay their work for long periods or even abort it.

For it to be most effective, cultural learning has to be made a priority, and time has to be consciously given to it or it won’t happen. A systematic approach in learning is essential because it not only forces one to do research, but also hastens the learning and yields a more valid result. Systematic means. For example, determining that for a week you will visit several homes in a given area several times with the intent of observing one type of behavior (e.g., how are children disciplined) or discussing one topic (e.g., who the ideal person is in this village).

Then, returning home you write up your observations and at the end of the week examine the observations closely for recurring events that form patterns. You then draw conclusions and remain alert as you go back into the community to see if your conclusions are valid. From the patterns, you will inevitably come up with more questions, which lead to more research and a deepened understanding of the culture. All cultures exhibit variations in behavior and beliefs, some quite contradictory to each other. Never become so attached to your conclusions that you can’t change them or that you ignore contradictions to them. Those contradictions are keys to sharpening your insights. Learning culture (or language) this way becomes scientific rather than haphazard.

Live There

One of the most basic of all principles, that of living where the people are, should be self–evident. Unfortunately, there are missionaries who still want to conduct their ministries at arms length from the villages, and consequently, from the people they hope to influence. Their strategy is to have the people come to them either in a town or on a mission base. Of course, some have no choice; there are locations around the world where missionaries either aren’t allowed or the situation is too dangerous for them to be there. Rather, we are referring to those who do it in the name of efficiency or self–comfort. It is well known that seeking to learn a language outside the context in which it is used on a daily basis not only slows the learning process, but also results in less accurate grasp of that language. (Computer help desks in foreign countries where the respondents are poor in English illustrate this point well.) Learning a culture is no different. While there are similarities between learning a language and learning a culture, learning a culture is much more complex because so much of it lies beyond the immediate senses of hearing, seeing, touching or smelling. In scientific terms, the variables involved in learning a culture are far more numerous and complex than those encountered in learning a language.

Before you challenge and reject that statement, consider this: Learning to operate effectively in a culture means you have to take what you hear, see, touch or smell and make generalizations about what is significant and what is not significant in each experience. Seeing two people touch one another on a crowded street may mean nothing at all; but seeing the same thing when they are the only two people on a trail or road may signify something very important. It may be that touching is expected of any village member meeting another; or that all people of a given relationship are expected to do so; or that the two are communicating something by an out–of–the–ordinary act; or that the contact was strictly incidental. Only by making a number of observations of that event in numerous contexts and asking questions can you be certain of the meaning.

So why “live there”? Why not just hire someone to come to your house or town and just ask them what things mean? The answer is multifaceted.

  1. Someone brought out of their own environment, particularly if alone, will not behave as they do in their home environment.
  2. They may be inhibited or intimidated by the new and foreign environment, making them hesitant to discuss or even think of things that would be common at home. In particular, our technology, which is always so prevalent wherever we go, can overwhelm them, making them feel too inferior to express themselves.
  3. They may not have the opportunity to experience something in the new environment that would be common or normal at home. For example, unless you bring dozens of people out, you will miss close to 100% of normal social interaction, and even then the interactions they do display will undoubtedly be skewed.
  4. You cannot possibly imagine or create all of the permutations of human behavior, so you will either create scenarios that are meaningless to your culture helper or fail to mention some that could occur, some with frequency or regularity and some of importance. For example, (stet) to ask a Waorani woman in Ecuador how she could pass on to her daughter her vague, indefinable ability to grow manioc with more tubers (“feet”) But once I saw her rub her infant daughter’s hand on a particularly large tuber the question became relevant. By discussing the matter with her, this single experience opened up a massive world of insight into Waorani conceptions of cause and effect, logic and assumption. In effect, it enabled me to begin to predict Waorani behavior. From a Western perspective what seemed to be illogical “superstitions” suddenly became logical outcomes of an underlying system of metaphysics. I began to see that we share some of the same logic, but have vastly differing presuppositions and assumptions about the nature of the world around us.
  5. Since you are already part of a different culture, there will be situations you will either intentionally or subconsciously avoid discussing because of your own values. Seeing people operate in their own context undermines our notions of what is normal, right or wrong.

I Think of the situation common around the world, in which villagers visit a town to buy or sell, get medical help or meet governmental requirements such as voting or registering. For example, in the Oriente of Ecuador people from numerous tribes come to the town of Shell for whatever reasons, and it is impossible in most cases, particularly for the new observer, to distinguish the visiting villager from local inhabitant. They all seem to dress in western clothing and to be doing similar things. However, to assume that – the interactions observed for one individual in the market are normal for that person or the population in general may be totally incorrect. A Waorani man may be doing something he would never do at home, either because of opportunity or etiquette. Only by observing that man in his own village can you be certain that what he is doing is part of his own culture. Yes, it is true that what he does in Shell is part of the wider Ecuadorian mestizo culture, but it may reflect very little about his own culture. If one is willing to impose mestizo values and behavior on all cultures, observing behavior out of the local context will accomplish just that. But if one wants to understand and operate within the assumptions and values of the culture that mean most to a person, one has to observe them in their “home” context. Only by observing people in their own environment can you make accurate generalizations about their culture.

Some of the more damaging impacts of a mission’s work have been because they have assumed that all “Indians” were the same and had the same needs. They believed all ethnic groups needed to become nationals in culture and therefore had to be taken from their villages and their own cultural contexts to learn the “right” way of doing things. These missionaries never spent more than a few days at a time in the various cultures they impacted and therefore never knew that their work was undermining not only the indigenous culture and society, but also the indigenous church. Their returning students repeated the mission’s blind ways, becoming alienated from their own cultures and too often becoming hostile to the growth of the church. Yes, the missionaries were making the indigenous individuals into nationals, but the impact of those acculturated individuals for positive spiritual growth within their own culture was very negative. In fact, far too often they became leaders who were opposed to the mission’s work.

Consider the case where a couple who were hesitant to live in a village because they didn’t want their children to learn the “wrong” things. Obviously, no matter where such a family chooses to live, they will face that same challenge. When we see what children learn from American television or hear what is going on in the schools, it is doubtful that the challenges of village living could be worse.

On the other hand, couples with children have an additional advantage when they live among the local people rather than in a missionary ghetto. Children learn from their peers much more quickly than adults do and therefore often hear the impressions local people have of the missionaries (usually reflecting what their parents are saying about the missionaries, which is no surprise to any parent). The missionary family that has open communication will find that these impressions are an advantage in learning not only how they are perceived, but also what approved behavior is in the local culture. These insights are useful in adjusting your behavior as well as identifying those areas in the local culture that may need to be addressed by the Christian community. (Note that it is the local Christian community, not just the missionary, who will ultimately motivate and implement Christian praxis and theology.)


One of the least intrusive means of discovering what a culture is all about is to simply observe.

As you walk around the village or city, notice the basic actions that you normally take for granted. How do people walk? Slow? Fast? With intent to a direct goal? In a meandering fashion? Erect? Stooped? In a group do they walk side by side? In a line? In contact? How much space between them? Who is in front? Behind? Is there a systematic pattern concerning the sexes? Do you know the status of those in front or behind? Is there a difference how people dress?

These very basic exercises may seem pointless at first, but, taken seriously, they will train you to be systematic in your observations and to take nothing for granted. However, even in your observations be aware that in some cultures staring is threatening, while in others it may not even be noticed. Be aware, and act accordingly.

The kinds and number of observations you can make are seemingly infinite, so you need to determine your purpose. As already mentioned, set definite goals for your observations. Over time you will develop hypotheses to test, e.g., the proper space between men talking to men, to women, to young girls, to young boys, to superiors, or to inferiors. How do these differ with women? Spatial orientation is called the proxemics of a culture. Note also the posture and gestures; these are the kinesics. For example, what does “shaking hands” signify in the culture and what are other symbolic acts that you note? (e.g., hugging or, in American culture, “high–fives”.) Determine the appropriate gestures that accommodate greeting or leaving and those used to express various emotions.

Answering questions like these will, in turn, raise questions about social status and roles, questions about what is common as opposed to unusual, and questions as to what is “right” within the culture as opposed to what is changing as a result of contact with the wider world – all questions for further research, but questions that require answers.

Don’t neglect to investigate the village lay–out. Observe the distances between houses, community buildings, gardens, animal enclosures, etc. Then ask yourself why they might be that way. Who lives next to whom? Or in the same house?

A suggestive list of the kinds of thing you can simply observe might include:

  • dress
  • ornamentation and adornment
  • proxemics (especially distances maintained during interaction)
  • kinesics (eg. gestures used to communicate anger, concern, doubt or other emotions)
  • color (how is it used to communicate emotions, status, role, politics)
  • layout of village – distribution of trades, clans, age grades, etc.
  • size of homes, gardens
  • state of repair of buildings, surroundings
  • number of conspicuous possessions like cattle, bicycles,
  • mode of transportation for various status groups and roles
  • household composition (of persons living there)

Having observed aspects of each category, determine what the deeper meaning behind the patterns might be. Ask yourself “why?” frequently. Note that each of the items listed above communicates something about the actor/owner, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously.


As we have said, write, look for patterns, draw conclusions, test conclusions, re–evaluate. To do this, you will need to write down your observations, although it is best to wait until you are home to do so. Writing while with others almost always disrupts or distorts the situation, producing artificial results. This means exercising your memory or developing mnemonic devices that enable you to reconstruct your observations. Don’t worry if you forget some things. In the long run, you will remember most things and will make progress. The important thing is to be proactive about observing.

Observing does not have to be a full–time job. It can be done almost as a matter of course in your usual day. However, it does require intent by focusing on a particular issue and jotting notes on it. Later evaluation of the notes will reveal patterns that might otherwise be overlooked. Carry a small spiral notebook in your shirt pocket. When you have a moment alone or at the end of the day jot notes concerning your observations and reactions. Include the date and location for each set of observations. Although it may seem tedious and discouraging initially, when you look at the notes years later it will remind you of events you had totally forgotten.

It is surprising how little time this exercise actually requires, given what it produces after a year or so. And it is never too late to begin. Even though I (Jim) didn’t begin until I was thirty and often wished I had begun when in my teens, it doesnre’t detract from what I learned. My notebooks, which now fill a file drawer, have become invaluable aids for publications, sermons and speeches, not to mention a resource for my wife, children and grandchildren. In addition, they have served a more personal use in enabling me to track the evolution of my own thinking and emotions, giving me insight into why I sometimes react the way I do.


Hang Around

Listening to conversations between others will begin to flesh out your visual observations. (It goes without saying that there is no substitute for speaking the local language so that information is not lost in translating into a secondary language like a trade language.) When you hear conversations, note the relationship between the speakers, including the status and role differences. As they speak, be alert for judgmental statements that reveal deeper values in the culture. Make a mental note of the conversations, record their essence later, and then analyze as above. What are the predominant themes in conversation? Economic issues? Kinship tensions? Spiritual concerns? Desire for recognition? Fear of reprisals? Catalog the themes as well as content, all the while looking for patterns.


In addition to hearing conversations between others, you will need to actively engage some conversations, a step pivotal to gaining the kinds of insights you will need to make your message at all contextual. One of the best methods for this is to employ informal interviews. An informal interview is not sitting with a list of predeteremined questions and asking them as though following a grocery list. Instead, a list of questions can be compiled and then committed to memory. You should also develop the skill of directing the conversation so that the answers come up naturally, as though the list never existed. Following this procedure, it is rare for all the questions to be answered in a single conversation. In fact, some questions may take weeks or months to resolve. In the process, the list of questions will undoubtedly lengthen. But this is a good sign; it means you are not making superficial observations and judgments.

Similarly, responses should be noted mentally and written later in order to avoid the intimidation and interference of writing during a conversation.

If conversation can’t be moved in a direction you had intended, either the topic is not relevant to their needs, or that it is a very delicate or taboo topic in the culture. In either event, the avoidance is instructive concerning values, fears or anxieties.

It is important to note that conversing is a two–way process involving both speaking and listening, with the latter as the most important. The more we talk, the less we learn about what others feel, think, fear, crave, dread, enjoy or anticipate – in essence, the less we learn about another’s culture. We need to speak enough to motivate others to share, but we must be cautious against dominating the conversation. And, of course, we need to develop the skill of recognizing the difference between what they say of their own volition and what we influenced them to say.

Don’t Judge

A real challenge for missionaries is to listen to conversations without interjecting or pronouncing judgment. But to do so prematurely can alienate one to the extent that, in the future, matters of importance will be concealed lest the speakers be condemned. Insights into the culture are often hidden from missionaries out of fear. It is far more effective to listen and wait until you understand the total context of the conversation. Once you have gained respect you have the right to speak. If you wait until the appropriate time to speak in your own culture, why barge into judgments in other cultures without understanding what is going on? To do so reduces the likelihood that you will gain a hearing. You may be so anxious to communicate what is dear to you that you fail to recognize that even your comments must be communicated at the proper time and place. (Jim) had the unfortunate experience of counseling a couple in Africa who were on the verge of being ejected from the village where they worked. They had been there less than two years, but were giving very forceful “advice” to the villagers, the teachers, the pastor and the village council – all of this with the most minimal abilities in either the local or the trade language. They were baffled by the village’s resentment of them.

Had they taken the effort to ask “why?” as mentioned above, they might not have been so quick to condemn. But even asking “why?” can be elusive; far too often the people we are observing have not really considered the answer to the question “why?” in their own lives or cultures. Or they may give superficial or glib answers. Truly understanding “why?” takes a lot of probing – searching for deeper meanings. Sometimes to ask “why was he angry?”, provides a response that echoes the question, such as, “He was angry.” Or when asked “Why didn’t you come?”, the answer may be “I didn’t come.” The standard (and frustrating) aspect of the answer is that to answer “why?” prompts a repetition of the question. In such cases, the people don’t try to analyze or project a person’s motives. The answer to “why?” has to be determined by examining numerous examples and seeking patterns.

The hallmark of a good anthropologist is an insatiable curiosity. He or she learns to ask, ask, ask. Never assume you already know or that something is too trivial for understanding. I have known missionaries who after 20 years on the field were missing some very basic insights into why people were rejecting their message, primarily because the missionaries had formed an opinion early on and never re–evaluated their analysis. And remember, cultures do change. That means that attitudes, values and behavior that existed when you began your work a decade ago may not still be common.

Obviously, the manner in which asking is done must be culturally appropriate. Of course, the phrase “culturally appropriate” may seem like a circular trap, since that is precisely what you are trying to learn in the first place. This is where the principle of first listening to others and learning the rules by observing others comes into play.


It may be obvious to you that simply observing will not accomplish much. At some point you need to become a functioning part of a society to have an impact. Although you need to develop the skills of systematic observation outlined above, you also need to interact with those around you. When you first begin, you will not know the culturally appropriate ways of interacting; those you have to learn over time. However, it is not a hopeless matter since there are some ways you can begin to interact that are likely culturally universal.

Recognize Others

Social scientists have developed a list of human “needs” that seem to apply to almost all people in all cultures. One of these is the need for acceptance and social interaction. If you can demonstrate acceptance of someone, you have a far greater chance of eventually communicating the love of the Saviour to them. The first step in this is just plain recognizing that they exist – acknowledging them both in conversation ( no matter how limited your abilities may be) and in other culturally appropriate modes of communication. It sounds almost silly to have to say it, but when you can’t speak the language and know nothing of the culture, the tendency is to avoid interaction with others to avoid embarrassment or miscommunication. There is a temptation to pretend that either you or they don’t exist. But something as simple as a smile, eye contact and “good morning” may begin to break the stereotype that foreigners are evil or harmful. There are times when these principles have to be modified. For example, within some cultures, contact must be very brief to avoid raising suspicion. This is particularly true in societies dominated by an oppressive government or by a social class above the local people. A certain level of trust must first of all be established within the community. So watch and see how the local people act before you barge in. But do be proactive in opening communication.

Show an Interest

Even before you can speak the language, you can interact by showing an interest in what people are doing, or in something they are obviously proud of. In so doing you are showing respect to them and their interests. Ironically, many tourists who are totally oblivious to cultural sensitivities make quick inroads into communication simply because by the very nature of tourism they show interest in people’s activities, children, food or possessions.

There are few cultures that do not value children; most recognize them at the very least as essential to the survival of the society. In fact, in the vast majority of cultures adults take great pride in their children and invest deeply in their well–being. Numerous outsiders have discovered that when they give attention to children and genuinely enjoy them they are immediately accepted into the community.

However, there is the rare belief in some cultures that openly saying a baby is beautiful is thought to invite calamity on the child. In this instance, admirers may comment instead on how ugly the baby is. However, knowing this should not encourage you to avoid this crucial form of interaction out of fear of violating a local belief. It does demonstrate that, even in such extreme situations, there is always an appropriate method of interacting. In this case, observe what others say and do to give you the lead.

As you gain facility in the language, showing an interest in how others categorize or classify the world around them will produce immeasurable results. Not only will you gain a wealth of information, but you will likely find that people are enthusiastic to teach you how their universe functions. They become the experts and you the student, a reversal of the typical expressions of paternalistic superiority.

In summary, the worst thing you can do is avoid interaction. There has to be some way you can interact without offending. It is a given that you will make social and cultural blunders, but genuine concern and interest will go a long way toward healing them.


Whereas “hanging around” as described earlier tends to be passive, visiting is active participation. In most non–western cultures, visiting – making an effort to join a group in conversation or going to someone’s house just to interact socially – acts both as a means of imparting information important to the community and also as a means of solidifying relationships. In almost every corner of the world, people gather at the end of the day to visit. In most cultures telling stories that recapitulate the day or an event of the day is central to this visiting.

Learning to participate in visiting and story–telling not only challenges and improves your language facility, but it also sharpens your cultural acuity. By learning what issues are appropriate for story–telling and learning the appropriate ways of telling them, you can gain in knowledge as well as acceptance. Note the word “appropriate”; because it will gain you nothing if you dominate or use inappropriate methods.

Seek Avenues to Serve

Jesus’ entire life was a demonstration of service to others. He taught in both word and example that helping others is one of the chief defining characteristics of a Christian (cf. Mt. 25: 31 ff), a principle we need to heed. There is no culture in which individuals don’t eventually respond to help when there is a genuine need. Service can even turn a social blunder into acceptance. On one occasion I (Jim) made a trip to help a snakebite victim downriver, carrying him up the bank to my house for treatment. People commented that only a close relative would/should ever do that. But very quickly word got around that I was acting like a “human”, not a savage, and acceptance opened quickly.

Missions are discovering worldwide that the traditional approach of being available to only preach or teach will no longer cut it. Governments, especially, want to know what physical benefits the mission is providing the country. The wise missionary discovers the greatest needs of a community and helps the community address those. Going in with pre–determined answers and solutions before ever evaluating the true needs of a people fosters the idea that missionaries are paternalistic. How often we solve problems the people don’t identify with, only to discover that in our absence the “solutions” fall apart.

Be Willing to Risk

Seeking avenues for service means that at some point we will find ourselves in uncomfortable situations either physically, economically or emotionally. My (Jim) wife Kathie and I own a guest ranch in Colorado with another couple, and the paramount principle under which we operate is that true service costs you something. We hammer into our staff that if it isn’t costing you something you are probably just doing what is convenient or expected. True service means going out of your way to identify and anticipate others’ needs before they have to ask for help. It means refining your ability to step outside yourself. To put others before yourself. That means putting yourself at risk . It is the essence of what Christ did for us, and yet it is the antithesis, not only of most of American culture, but most likely of human nature itself. That’s why his Incarnation and Sacrifice speak so powerfully to us.

The person motivated by a service of love is not likely even aware of the risks he or she is taking, but most of us walking this earth don’t seem to function on that plane. Instead, we want to calculate the consequences for ourselves of service to others. We are concerned that if we entrust someone with a great responsibility they may let us down, and it will cost us. Recently, just as I was leaving Ecuador, someone donated money for me to purchase a chainsaw for a minority language group there. Circumstances were such that I had to ask a national Christian couple whom I scarcely knew to make the purchase and pass on the chainsaw. As I handed over the equivalent of a month’s wages in cash to the couple, I wavered at the thought of my actions. The country was suffering economically, and corruption seemed rampant. Would they really use the money as intended? Was I giving them an unfair temptation? I kept mentally repeating my mantra that you only create trustworthiness in someone by putting trust in them, and that all trust demands risk. As I considered the risk Christ had taken on my behalf, the risk that I would respond to His sacrifice, I decided I should do it for a several reasons – the village need, the confidence I was showing the couple, my own need to demonstrate to myself that my mantra was true. In this instance, the outcome was positive. Weeks later I received an email that they had experienced difficulty locating the exact saw I specified, but they finally found one and sent it on. However, risking sometimes does mean losing. Lending money, we may not get it back; giving aid, we may not be thanked; sharing, we may not see reciprocity coming our way.

Missionaries are often disappointed when they invest months or even years in training local people, only to have them leave the mission and take a job in business, applying the skills the missionary had given them the opportunity to learn. The same thing happens with businesses in the US as well. The question we should ask is, “Isn’t that what we are here for?” Aren’t we here to invest ourselves in others? Do we feel we should only invest in people if we can own them? Why shouldn’t we rejoice that they took what we taught them and found another venue for applying it? Who were we really doing it for in the first place? We might respond that we were doing it for God, and look what became of it. Do we really think it all took God as a surprise?

The question has been asked: “What happens if we train them and they leave?” but a better one might be, “What happens if we don’t and they stay?”

And yet another level. Kathie and I (Jim) were visiting a village we had not visited for a dozen years. As we stood on our host’s porch one evening, swarms of school children gathered to stare. Finally, one teenage girl spoke.

“Wedae, Kathie, is that truly you?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
“My mother says I am alive today because of you.”
Kathie struggled trying to remember ever saving someone. “Why do you say that?”
“When I was born, my mother had no milk. They said I was going to die. You nursed me for days until my own mother could feed me. Today I’m alive because of you.”

Today I still weep when I think of that brief conversation. I remember back years earlier how the mother had been stressed by illness and some extreme emotional pressures just prior to the delivery. The people had come to us with the pronouncement that the newborn had no chance of survival. However, Kathie did the unthinkable by American values – She nursed another woman’s child. I don’t recall that she ever considered any risks – risks for our own nursing child, scandal if our supporters ever heard about it, ridicule from the missionary community. She just did what seemed right. And today it is remembered by a tribe.


Sharing is singled out of the category of serving because it speaks so loudly to people in so many cultures. Most kinship systems have evolved as a means of fostering systems of sharing. In fact, sharing is often the ultimate value within a society because survival depends upon it. Whether living in industrial society or in isolated hamlets, we all need the help of others. Middle class Americans tend to believe they are autonomous and independent, but lower class members know all too well how difficult it is to survive in the complex city without the cooperation of numerous family members.

Food, of course, is the most basic of needs, and to share it is the ultimate symbol of acceptance and caring. Jesus chose the sharing of the bread and the wine for reasons that speak to the deepest elemental act of social interaction. Years ago I made the decision that when traveling with a group, whether on a trail, in a canoe or in a bus, if I carried a snack along I always shared it, no matter how meager the snack or how large the group. That practice has opened up communication and relationships like no other. I remember watching another anthropologist do the opposite on the trail once; he gained the reputation of “selfish” and “uncaring”. Interestingly, in his analysis of the culture, he noted that the people never shared, but rather hoarded. That is because they didn’t – at least not with him. My observation of that culture, on the other hand, was that they shared openly and generously among themselves, and even with me as an outsider.

Several illustrations comes to mind. Once, while camping near a very small coastal village that had a reputation for distrusting outsiders, I (Jim) decided to try spinfishing. As I waded into the surf and cast my lure, two small boys watched nearby, fascinated by this strange method of fishing. In a short time I beached two large ones, and the boys screwed up the courage to come look. They appeared puzzled when I offered one to each of them. Reluctantly, they grabbed them and ran to the village. A few hours later when we drove into the village to see if we could buy some gasoline, to our surprise a man came out of his tiny shop and asked me to come inside. There he gave me a haircut and refused to accept payment. As I left there a cafe owner came and invited us to come sit at a table which she had set with a meal of rice and shrimp for all of our family, again for no charge.

Loaning money or our possessions establishes a relationship. For many years my (Karl) wife and I lived near a large National High School where we worshiped regularly. In addition, we got to know a number of the students who belonged to a club representing the area of PNG where we once worked. We would often invite students to our home and gradually many of them began to borrow money from us – never much, but always some. They would pay back one loan and make another the next day. We soon realized that they wanted to have regular interaction with us and this was an easy and natural way.

The high school kids would also come to the center at Ukarumpa to shop or see other friends. Our house was near the perimeter, near the bridge that the students crossed to enter the center. Joice always had a cold drink and a snack for any student who would stop by. Once when I was with some other men we somehow ended up in a ditch. A truck came along and the man in it helped us. I wanted to repay him. “No” he said, “I know you – your wife gave me a drink at your place.” What was it Jesus said about a cup of cold water?

We also decided that when we purchased a car it would be an older model and one that we would not worry about when it got scratched or dented (or eventually stolen). We taught Papua New Guinea friends to drive and they often borrowed the car and it was much appreciated. However, possessions are something missionaries always have to learn to share and not consider their own.

Practice the 3 R’s

Which brings me to the Rule of Reciprocal Relationships, the 3 R’s. That is, people respond to us as we treat them and vice versa. In the case given above where children are not to be openly called “beautiful”, the missionary couple who have a child of their own is in an ideal situation to learn. According to the Rule of Reciprocal Relationship, by observing how the local people react to their child, the missionary couple can assume that they could react similarly to a village child.

On the other hand, in the case where the anthropologist refused to share, he created a reaction in kind. Unfortunately, he didn’t recognize that the lack of sharing was his own creation, not a pattern in the culture. In fact, sharing is one of the principal values within many cultures.

The Rule of Reciprocal Relationships also gives insights into values. When my wife Kathie and I (Jim) returned to visit a village we had not seen for over a decade, one of the older women, Ada, remarked to Kathie, “Wedae, you have gotten old and fat!” As an American woman in her 50’s, Kathie could have been offended, but she recognized several things: First of all, the Waorani are honest and totally blunt; Secondly, being skinny is a bad thing, and finally, being older is a good thing. Ada was projecting the 3 R’s onto Kathie. She was assuming that because she herself would be happy to receive such a complement, Kathie would also be flattered to be judged as old and fat. (I must add, lest Kathie use her American woman’s prerogative at this point, that Kathie really didn’t appear old and really wasn’t overweight – by American standards.)

The Rule of Reciprocal Relations extends into our expectations of others as well. We tend to interpret others’ behavior in terms of our own motivations. If we are suspicious and exploitive of others, we expect they are being the same with us. Or, conversely, if we are trustworthy, we expect others to be trustworthy.


One of the touchiest topics with missionaries is their manner of living. Bring it up and you are in hot water fast. Far too often missionaries own possessions and live at a level far beyond what the locals are capable of. The justifications for this are numerous, usually falling under some class of “efficiency” to get their work done. Or, “I am presenting a model to show them what they could be capable of.” The refrain is often, “the people aren’t fools; they expect me to live better than they.” Of course. Because that is what they have always seen of missionaries. Or as a friend (who is very culturally aware) jokingly said, “if it is necessary for us to take in a generator, then, uh, they won’t be surprised at what else we do.”

Unfortunately, the message communicated by this feeds the ubiquitous problem of rice Christianity, or identifying the Christian message with materialism. But even at a deeper level, when we present ourselves above those we are trying to reach we can do some serious damage by creating a sense of relative deprivation in them. Then we lament that they are selling their souls to chase after material goods they don’t really need. In the process we also undermine their sense of value, which is not exactly what Christ was trying to do for us.

Once when asked to visit a mission base that was experiencing severe hostility from locals, as I (Jim) drove through a nearby town I saw scrawled on a wall “xxxxx, where the missionaries live like kings.” When I mentioned it to several couples at a meal that evening, they were indignant. “They have no idea how well we could be living at home and what we are giving up to be here. We aren’t living high.” The missionaries were incapable of seeing themselves through the eyes of the locals.

There are some demanding lessons to be learned from Christ when He became the Incarnate God, taking on the form of a man and living under the same physical restrictions as any of the poor. Further lessons are found in His instructions when He sent out His disciples to preach.

Respect Without Condemning

Most people seem to be able to sense it when someone doesn’t respect them. It has taken on serious implications among American minorities where to “diss” or show disrespect toward someone may result in violence. If you don’t respect people, don’t expect them to share insights with you concerning their own culture, much less personal insights about who they are, what they hope for, or what they fear. But a lack of respect goes beyond that to an issue alluded to several times already – your appearing judgmental about their culture may alienate them from your message forever. Before judging another’s culture, we need to try to first understand the context of a person’s behavior. And, above all, we need to recognize that we have some serious blind spots (read “sin”) in our own culture, Christian or not.

One example of how this applies is found throughout Amazonia where fermented manioc drink seems to be the staple. In many groups this drink becomes the source of drunkenness which leads to all kinds of social problems. However, in the process of discouraging drinking it we are interfering with one of the principle forms of social interaction and solidarity within a tribe. One anthropologist has called manioc beer the oil that lubricates the social relationships of Amazonia. To fail to recognize that and to insist that people, particularly those who are not yet Christians, should avoid it is to subject them to social isolation. This is not to suggest that the issue should never be confronted, but that by understanding how it functions in the culture, we will be more conscious and respectful of working with them to find appropriate substitutes that will not fracture a person’s relationship with their family. As has been said before, “take it slow”, and now we add “with respect for the individual and what the activity might mean to them”.


I (Jim) was once asked to help determine why a missionary couple was making no progress in their work after several years’ presence. I visited them in their town of 5,000 or so inhabitants and spent some time in their home. As I inquired about their neighbors, they could tell me the name of only one who lived across the street but knew nothing about him or his family. Those who lived on either side and behind them were totally unknown. They did not know the name of shopkeepers in their neighborhood. It came to light that they participated in no town activities on a personal level and had no friends in the town except for a couple of other missionaries who were not of the same nationality. They were unable to answer even the most basic questions about the local culture. They were social isolates. Even inside their home they had constructed a desk with a partition between them and their language helpers; as they sat on one side of the partition with their language books standing up neatly before them they could not even establish visual contact with their helpers. It turned out that their language helpers had been assigned to them by the national church and not on the basis of any personal friendship or relationships.

Obviously, this is the extreme. But it makes the tragic point that unless we stretch beyond our comfort zones and are willing to put ourselves in vulnerable positions, we will never truly learn about the culture or the people we think we are there to serve. In fact, we will likely alienate them. Why would anyone ever want to turn to a God whose followers are so cold and impersonal?

On the other hand, in the same country I (Jim) visited a young couple making unprecedented strides in relationships. The paramount chief for that area was enthusiastic about having them there and wanted to help in whatever way possible. As I toured the community with them, we stopped to chat with almost every person within sight. The couple laughed with them, commiserated over their problems and gave every evidence of truly enjoying every individual, no matter their state. They had taken the trouble to learn what really mattered to the people and had helped them begin to solve some of the economic issues they faced. In this predominantly Muslim community, the couple were not only accepted but respected by leaders and commoners alike.

One final example I have debated sharing, because it is such a glaring violation of all of the principles above. But it is extremely instructive. I was asked to visit a family struggling in a severely drought–stricken area on the margins of the Sahel. I was briefed that the village was not just unfriendly, but appeared hostile at times, causing the mission to consider abandoning that tribe. The mission considered the village “de–culturated” although I could never understand what that meant.

On arrival in the evening, I found the family living in a lone house about a kilometer from the main village. They were fearful and discouraged. The next morning at my request the husband took me into the village to look around, but only after warning me that the people would be unfriendly. We left his vehicle at the edge of the village and wandered the narrow dirt streets. As he predicted, when we came near a house the people went inside and closed the doors. Only one person greeted us, and that hurriedly and perfunctorily as he disappeared inside.

The next day the missionaries had arranged to meet with a school teacher from another village, so I was left to myself, but with strict warnings not to venture into the village. I disobeyed. Walking into the village I found some children knocking fruit out of a tree and stopped to watch. In a few minutes one came over and offered me one of his prizes. Then I wandered into the village, following the same route we had followed the day prior. To my amazement, people came out of their houses, gestured to me and chatted, although I understood none of the language. A couple offered me a piece of bread. There was laughter, animated conversation and lots of social interaction in the village, none of which I had seen the day before.

When I returned to my host’s house, the family was loading up the truck to drive to a well to get water on the other side of the town. We drove through the edge of the village, and although people indicated they would like a ride to the well they were ignored with glazed expressions. The well was dug deep into the clay, and women were winding their way down the spiral path with pots on their heads to collect the precious water. My host told me the village had placed a ration of two basins of water for each woman per visit, and that stresse and conflict over water shortages were severe. Waiting times often stretched beyond 2 hours. He and his wife descended with large buckets for a number of trips until they had filled a 50 gal. drum in the back of the pickup. We left for home, again leaving folks to walk back to the village. When we arrived back at the house, they poured about 10 gallons of water into their children’s plastic swimming pool on the porch.

Heed the following general principle:

People who do not participate in a community are suspect. Those who ignore the community’s mores are resented. Those who try to control the community are resisted. And those who condemn the community are hated. Ultimately, such people are alienated from participation and see their influence ignored or negated.

Know Thyself

Much is made these days of learning local value systems and worldview. However, to do so one must first identify his or her own values and assumptions about the nature of reality. It seems that, in general, Christians are much farther along in this than the average person, because they usually have undergone a paradigm shift in worldview and now hold values that conflict with what they held before. That conflict has forced them in large part to become aware of their assumptions. However, the insight into self is never complete, nor necessarily totally correct.

Probably one of the more difficult times in gaining insight into ourselves is when the people we think we are there to help confront us with the truth of our own weaknesses and faults. They may do so openly in the heat of a moment, or we may be shocked into it without their knowing. For example, in over thirty years of working with the Waorani I (Jim) never once had them steal from me. Quite the contrary, when we unknowingly lost even the most insignificant of items, like a safety pin, if they found it they always returned it to us. They were so honest with us that I felt comfortable leaving my backpack in the open even when I visited villages away from ours, and I made it known to them how much we appreciated being able to trust them. Then one day some fish hooks I had put in my backpack weren’t there. The longer I searched for them, the more I began to fume that someone had pilfered them. A day later, as I was looking for something else in another pack, there they were, right where I had put them. Although I could take limited solace in the fact that I had not openly accused anyone, the insight into my own distrust of people who had treated me so fairly for so many years was shattering. I cannot describe the shame I felt at falling prey to the stereotype I have heard repeated innumerable times by missionaries and others that the Waorani can’t be trusted.

Sometimes it is best not to confront someone even if they steal from you. On one occasion I (Karl) noticed that some kerosene was regularly missing and I suspected that one of our helpers was helping himself. So I set up a sting operation and caught him. But the embarrassment I caused him before his peers was simply not worth the effort. I could afford the kerosene, he could not afford the embarrassment.

However, even mistakes like mine can be rectified if we are willing to eat humble pie. On another occasion a man deliberately”or so I thought”ran into me and bumped me, causing a slight accident. I heatedly admonished him (with great fluency) but shortly thereafter was full of remorse and told him that I was sorry. Tears came to the eyes of this confrontational man because a white man had admitted that he was wrong and expressed sorrow.

Because we are put in cultural situations unique for us we will often be confronted with thoughts, feelings or actions that we were unaware we held. As one friend confided, “I have found myself thinking and doing things that I did not think were me – getting mad at people, insulting them, being stingy, etc.”


So how do we move forward in this quest to know ourselves? The cross–cultural context is the ideal laboratory for it. As you observe something in another culture that arouses your emotions, particularly negative ones, you have just experienced a clash in values or worldview. Now take the time to analyze why you had those emotions and why that clash occurred.

Consider the following examples and determine how your values influence your reaction. Then see if you can determine what underlies their thinking to produce different behavior.

A friend says she will meet you for lunch at noon; by the time she arrives at 1:00 and gives no apology or excuse you are feeling slighted.

You observe workers chatting and taking several extended breaks during the work day, often passing around drinks. You see inefficiency and feel it is dishonest.

As a man returns from working in his field, mothers bring their infants to him and he strikes them with stinging nettles, bringing howls of tears to the infants and smiles to the parents. You are indignant at the pain inflicted on the children and at the seeming abuse by the parents.

Every time you see a couple walking together the woman is in line behind her husband, never beside him, and never holding his hand. You chafe at the idea that women have such an obvious lower status.

If in all, or even some, of these cases, you feel that they are wrong and that you are right, you are demonstrating ethnocentrism. Until you understand what brought about their behavior you can’t truly say they are wrong or right. It is important to note here that the above examples do not raise issues of Christian ethics or morality. There are definite principles of morality defined in the scriptures, but they are not necessarily violated here. Just because something disagrees with our understanding of how people should behave (as influenced by our cultural upbringing), that does not automatically mean it is wrong from a Christian perspective.

The difference here is between cultural relativism on the one hand and the absolutes as given by God on the other. In cultural relativism the mores of the society determine what is right and wrong, and every culture defines them differently. In the Christian life, the scriptures define right and wrong. However, to equate all the rights and wrongs as defined by, say, US Christianity, is simply ethnocentrism. Our western understanding of the scriptures is heavily tainted by our cultural background, and we must be cognizant of that before we decide what is right or wrong in another’s culture.

To know if the actors in the above examples are right or wrong, you need to know how their culture views it; if their culture views it as wrong, then it is. This is tricky for the Christian. When Paul said that he becomes a Roman for the sake of the Romans, and on another occasion that he would not eat meat if it were an offense, he is accepting the judgment of right and wrong as decided by that other culture, because the issues are not absolute principles defined by God. We are proposing that the Christian does as Paul says, and upholds the highest standard given by their culture, in addition to those standards defined by God. In other words, the Christian should be exemplary within their own culture.

The extension of this principle is that as missionaries we should also be held in high esteem by the culture we are trying to win, living at the very least by their standards when those standards do not violate the command of God, and adding on to those standards the standards given by our Example. The two sides of this can be seen in the following. On one hand, at one time in Latin America it was offensive for women to wear slacks, the sign of a prostitute. The wise missionary abided by the Latin rule, even though in the US at that time it was not an issue for Christians. They were abiding by the standards of the local culture.

On the other hand, in some cultures lying and manipulation are valued, or at least looked on with no disfavor (e.g., in some US business dealings), but as Christians we should take the commands of God seriously and maintain honesty, going beyond what the local culture requires. The list of culturally–acceptable, but reprehensible practices for the Christian is long. Consider sexual immorality, violence, gossip, infanticide, vengeance as examples of practices that may in some instances be culturally acceptable, but disapproved by God. Avoiding them or speaking against them may or may not bring us into conflict or ridicule, apparently contradicting being held in high esteem by a culture. The point is, we cannot ignore principles given in the scriptures. There will be times when we find that our desire to be held in high esteem by the predominant culture must be sacrificed for integrity to our beliefs. The Christian life is not without paradoxes and conflicts!

Taking these conflicts seriously will quell any temptation to naively assume that we need not investigate in depth both our interpretation of the scriptures and our understanding of the local culture. At times we will unintentionally err culturally, and at others we may consciously err as part of our Christian stance. But, whichever the case, as many a Christian has discovered, we dare not assume that when we err culturally God is going to insulate us from the consequences. We may pay dearly, but we expect that God will honor His mandates and eventually produce fruit from our following His commandments.

Of course, following the principle described here means understanding the command of God at its deepest level, not at some superficial level. For example, we are told in Ephesians that husbands should love their wives as they love themselves. How that love is to be manifest is culturally defined; Americans tend to believe that a husband who has his wife walk behind him could not possibly love her, but a rainforest Indian would not want to put his wife in the dangerous position of walking first on the narrow trail. It would be very easy to impute love or lack of love when observing either one as an outsider, and very easy to be very wrong in our judgment. Similarly, in the matter described earlier of parents nettling children, it would be very easy for the outsider to believe the parents don’t really love their children. But an examination of the practice in its total context reveals quite the opposite. Nettling is performed in a wide variety of circumstances on both children and adults to build tolerance for the innumerable stings, bites and pains experienced in rainforest life. It is also used to treat pain, illness and injury, to transition from childhood into adulthood, and to pass on power or special traits from one individual to another.

Another crucial element in ethnocentrism is that an ethnocentric individual assumes that identical behaviors in two different cultures have identical meanings. A very simple demonstration of the error in this is the kiss: in American culture it normally connotes a level of deep intimacy, whereas in many other cultures it is simply a greeting connoting friendship, but among some it is an act only a demon would perform to curse a person.


It is astounding how little missionaries have read about the people they are serving. There seems to exist a fear that reading what an anthropologist has said in books, articles, films or on the internet will somehow pollute them. Scarcely a culture on earth hasn’t been researched, filmed or written about by an anthropologist, journalist, historian or linguist. The first thing missionary candidates should do when they know what part of the world they will be going to is to dig for every scrap of information they can find on the culture. If the specific village or culture has not been described, certainly general works on larger geographic and culture areas will offer beginning insights. One does not have to accept every statement at face value, but allow the option that the writer may be correct. Even novels set in that part of the world offer insights and ideas for testing, often with less painful reading as well.

Nor is this advice limited to the new candidate. Often missionaries who have been on the field for decades receive a revelation about their village when they read a new study on their people or a neighboring one. Remember, because of who you are and what you stand for, some people, maybe an entire community, will withhold a crucial bit of information from you. But they may share that with someone whom they know will not disapprove, and it may be something pivotal for your understanding of what is going on in the culture.


When we prepared for missionary work decades ago, the missionaries who mentored us took seriously the importance of the cultures they worked with and the need to understand them well.

Several years of experiences with missions led us to believe that all missions had come to that realization. Then, as we began consulting for missions, our conclusions were shattered. We encountered case after case of missions and missionaries repeating the errors of colonialism and paternalism in their work. It demonstrated that if we assume that the lessons of the past are automatically learned by the present generation, we have not understood human nature very well. Cultural sensitivity and investigation are not genetically inherited. They are the result of focus and hard work.

We can think of no better or more succinct summary of these principles than the mandates given by Our Lord:

Treat all others as you would desire to be treated, not as inferiors. In the spirit of Christ recognize that they are not your servants, but that you are theirs.

Some Selected Reading

Healey, Alan, editor. 1975. Language learner’s field guide. Ukarumpa: Summer Institute of Linguistics. 500 p.

[Articles include the following subjects, dealing with fieldwork techniques:

  • Obtaining linguistic data, by Healey, Alan.
  • Plain card filing, by Healey, Alan.
  • Testing the recognition of utterance pairs, by Healey, Alan.
  • Using tape recorders, by Healey, Alan.
  • Collecting genealogies, by Henderson, James E.
  • Programmed review cards, by Henderson, James E.]

Language Learning Bookshelf at: http://www.ethnologue.com/LL_docs/show_contents.asp?bookshelf=Language%20Learning

[Contents of the site are as follows:

  • A Language and Culture Learning Program for Independent Learners: Preliminary Revised Version, Herbert C. Purnell
  • ACTFL proficiency guidelines, American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages
  • Bibliography (Language Learning), SIL International Language Learning Department
  • Common purposes or functions of language, Carol J. Orwig
  • Developing Your Language Proficiency, Carol J. Orwig
  • Essays on Field Language Learning, Carol J. Orwig (editor)
  • Guidelines for a language and culture learning program, Carol J. Orwig
  • Language Learner’s Field Guide, Alan Healey (editor)
  • Language Learning Principles, Carol J. Orwig
  • Language Learning Stories, International Language Learning Department (compiler)
  • Language Learning Strategies, Carol J. Orwig
  • Language Learning Troubleshooter, Carol J. Orwig]
  • Managing Your Language Learning Program, Carol J. Orwig.
  • On “humanism” in language teaching, Earl W. Stevick
  • Preparing for Language Learning, Carol J. Orwig
  • Success with Foreign Languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them, Stevick, Earl W.
  • Techniques and Activities for Self-directed Language Learners, Carol J. Orwig and Sandra G. Wimbish
  • The IPA tutor,
  • The language learning worksheets,
  • Themes for sociocultural exploration, Carol J. Orwig
  • Ways to Approach Language Learning, Carol J. Orwig
  • Your learning style and language learning, Clay Johnston and Carol J. Orwig

Heibert, Paul G. 1985. Anthropological insights for missionaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[An introductory text book that discusses the Gospel and human cultures, particularly cultural differences and the missionary, the message and the bicultural community.]

Heibert, Paul G. 1994. Anthropological reflections on missiological issues. Baker Book House.

[A collection of thoughts on global trends in missions, worldviews in the contextualization of the Gospel, spiritual warfare and church planting.

Maranz, David. 2001. African friends and money matters: observations from Africa. Dallas, TX: SIL International and International Museum of Cultures.

[Anecdotes and experiences by the author and Africans illustrate how differently Westerners view the attitudes and relationships when dealing with economic facts and figures. Although the setting is in countries in Africa, comments and illustrations about loans, debts, friendship, resources and business matters will apply almost anywhere that missionaries work. Available on-line at: http://www.ethnologue.com/show_product.asp?isbn=9781556711176]