A worker’s attitude toward the host culture sends powerful messages. Fruitful workers behave in culturally appropriate ways in major cultural domains such as clothing and food, especially in regards to hospitality. The key is sensitivity to the local setting, not necessarily whole-hearted adoption of local practice. This fruitful practice concerns cultural issues such as how workers dress, what foods they eat, and how they handle hospitality in their homes. People coming from relaxed Western cultures may feel these are inconsequential to ministry, but our research found that these areas of cultural adaptation have a major impact on fruitfulness. One participant in our the study went so far as to say that the shift to more culturally appropriate dress was “a key in [a SE Asian country] to the Muslim revival going on there. There was a real change in thinking among missionaries … that opened the country” (GTFP, Small group 18, 2007).
A number of workers described what “behaving in culturally appropriate ways” looked like in their particular setting. Below is an excerpt from a non-Western missionary that addresses cultural adaptation in a comprehensive way:
I found that to be culturally appropriate was a key for to beginning to share with the people and the people beginning to trust in me. Because I respect them and I want to be like them, they feel important … They feel [their way is] the best way, their dress, their way to move and cook and to be woman, to be woman of God … They taught me and that make me more, how you say, be like them … I have three children and whatever they do with their children, I do too. We ate the same food, we lived like them. … Because they think I am a religious woman and they can trust me (GTFP, Interview 18, 2007)
This worker points out that cultural adaptation is not just a matter of changing the clothes we wear or the foods we eat—it is about attitude. When we respect people and the boundaries of their social norms, it pays rich dividends that they return in the form of trust. In fact, one study participant even went so far as to say that “hospitality is one of the greatest strengths and [offers] and a very effective way to minister” (GTFP, Small group 14, 2007).
The comments from another worker help us understand how some fruitful workers decide what is “culturally appropriate” in a given context:
I think our main concern was to take Jesus into the community and see how it goes. Make it as relevant as possible, as culturally, as much as we can keep the culture … [we are] very much at home with the people’s culture and the way they look, the way they dress … some of us are religious teachers so we dress like them. We don’t go with the blue jeans and t-shirts to preach. In some areas, all of us go with the long flowing clothes, because that’s what they expect (GTFP, Interview 90, 2007).
Notice the end of that quote, “Because that is what they expect.” This is one way for workers to discern what is, or is not, culturally appropriate—by carefully considering the expectations of the community around them.
However, our research also made clear that one does not need to “go native” to be fruitful. Many balanced their own personal positions on cultural domains such as clothing, food, and hospitality with comments of this nature, one woman said, “[The] key is to be sensitive … not necessarily whole hearted adoption,” and “‘Culturally appropriate’ doesn’t necessarily mean dressing the same. If dress draws attention and raises questions, it may well not be appropriate” (GTFP, Small group 10, 2007). Without becoming legalistic or odd, fruitful workers meet local expectations in the areas of clothing, food, and hospitality.
All the Fruitful Practices related to Society:
A worker’s attitude toward the host culture sends powerful messages. Fruitful workers behave in culturally appropriate ways in major cultural domains such as clothing and food, and especially in regards to hospitality. The key is sensitivity to the local setting, not necessarily whole-hearted adoption of local practice.
Good deeds often help workers gain a good reputation in the host community. Fruitful workers make clear that their good deeds are an expression of the gospel; otherwise, local people may assume that the worker is simply a good person or is trying to earn religious merit.
Gender roles, and the taboos associated with them, are potent issues in the Muslim world. While maintaining a biblical perspective on these issues, fruitful workers strive to understand gender roles in their local context and demonstrate respect for these social norms.
Fruitful workers invite others to join them through committed intercession for themselves and the people they are engaging. They recognize that this can be as important as inviting people to join the team that lives in the host culture.
Workers who are able to freely and clearly communicate in their host language(s) are much more likely to be fruitful. Fruitful workers carefully consider questions concerning language choice, such as whether to use heart or trade language, sacred or secular language. By learning language, they also gain a deeper understanding of culture, making language proficiency fruitful across a number of different dimensions.
Fruitful ministry is shaped by many different streams of information, including ethnography, linguistics, and history. Workers who conduct research or actively reflect on the research of others are more fruitful than those who base their ministries on preconceived ideas or the patterns of ministry in their sending countries.
By sensitively and carefully relating to local authorities, including non-Christian religious figures, workers gain respect and good standing in their host community. Those who are intentional about choosing their relationships with local leaders are more likely to be fruitful.