3 Deadly mistakes in missions (and life)

December 1, 2011

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“Poor people are lazy.”
“You must eat snakes and play with lions(if you live in Africa).”
“Americans are fat.”

People are famous for making assumptions and stereotypes. Often they are extremely painful.

We recently had a time on our missions campus of sharing different perspectives from various cultures. We laughed, we cried, and we felt each other’s pain.

I’m reminded of three things that I know to be true. It is also these three things that I need to be challenged to regularly apply in my life in missions.

1. Avoid Assumption
I know plenty of lazy rich people and even a few thin Americans!

No one enjoyes being boxed in by assumptions. When they happen in a cross cultural setting, it is easy to become isolated and critical. Victory comes when we don’t see each other by our nationality, skin color, or economic status; but rather as people.

I don’t do things because I am American, I do it because I am Chris. Similarly, to assume all Africans are the same would be foolish.

Anytime we jump to conclusions, we run the risk of bringing division. Every story has two sides and every situation has different perspectives.

2. Avoid Generalization or Stereotypes
One of the main ways we attempt to explain differences on our campus is by saying something is “Western” or “African”. The question begs, who is that talking about?

Europeans would not consider themselves the same as Americans, although both are labeled, “Western”. And which of the 50 plus countries in Africa are we speaking of, not to mention countless cultures and tribes? Some Egyptians identify themselves with the Middle East, others are proudly African, while still others divide within the same towns as to who they are like.

There is often a lot of pain in stereotyping. It is something I have tasted myself. I am very aware of the image that Americans have abroad. I see my loud, obnoxious countrymen a mile away. Yet, there is always a pride and honor in where you come from.

I have the freedom to say I don’t want to be like the American stereotype, but if someone else says it; it brings pain.

3. Speak the positive more than the negative.
It is easy to point out problems or fault. But, how much do we express the things that we love about a place or a people? When I share about Africa, do I speak of the problems and issues only? Or do I speak about the treasure of the continent and its people?

Even on the small things it matters. I am a coffee lover and I enjoy whole-bean, fresh roasted coffee. The typical coffee in many parts of Africa is the kind you stir in hot water and it dissolves. The way I express this difference is important. When I arrived, my type of coffee was “real” coffee. Until a friend asked me why I said that. He told me he had been drinking “real” instant coffee all his life. It seems small, but the subtle statement is that “my way is better than yours.”

Of course we need to give each other grace in these things. Everyone prefers “their” way. We all want the familiar over the unfamiliar. Yet, if we can grow in hearing statements the way others would, things will go better.

The common denominator: People


(Photo from Stock.xchng.com)

When you work cross-culturally, you have to overcome many barriers. But even within your home nation, these truths need to be applied.

People are people everywhere. If we apply these truths to our workplace, marriage, or church; things will go better!

When is the last time we made an assumption as to a co-workers motives?
How often do we make stereotypes about ethnicities or people of different social circles?
How much time do we spend criticizing our church compared to speaking out life?

Listen to your conversations today and see how many of these things you walk in. Having new eyes and hearing with new ears is the first step to change.


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Chris

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A missionary teacher for 24 years currently living in South Africa. I am a recovering superhero, daily in need of the grace of God