“Not right. Not wrong. Just different.”
It was the mantra of our pre-field trainer, who was doing her best to prepare a bunch of new missionaries for life overseas.
Pre-field training was great, but it was a little like trying to learn to swim while standing on dry ground. The principals were clear and well communicated, but I didn’t understand their value until I hit the water of cross-cultural living.
In the book, The Culture Map, author Erin Meyer, a USAmerican living in France, explains how people from different cultures communicate, lead, and trust each other differently. I laughed and sympathized with her many stories about adaptation in France, and I greatly respect the work that she is doing in helping people grow in their understanding of cultural differences. I know that her book has become required reading for many new missionaries.
Meyer recognizes her own cultural bent, and yet avoids placing cultures in competitions with or judgement of one another. Her book echoed my pre-field trainer’s mantra: “Not right. Not wrong. Just different.”
The challenge with both reading books like Meyer’s and going through pre-field training is that we don’t know what cultural challenges are going to smack us in the face until we feel the impulse to judge and disparage; and, unless we are doing the self-awareness work we need to do, we can miss out on opportunities to recognize and even release our own cultural biases. Because at the root of us all is the sin of ethnocentrism.
I recently had a short-term team visiting from our home church. Garret, an emerging leader who has a wonderful combination of curiosity and compassion, spent the first few days just observing everything around him. One morning, while walking to the church for our morning devotionals, he innocently asked me, “Why are the French obsessed with Nutella?” I didn’t answer his question, because it wasn’t a fair one. He has fallen into the trap of ethnocentrism.
In the book Global Humility, Andy McCullough (who is English) writes, “The English, for example, find Italians too emotional, Germans too serious but, by implication, themselves just right! Seeing yourselves as normal and others as extreme is an example of ethnocentrism—an in-built superiority of perspective.” By viewing the French’s relationship to Nutella as “obsessive,” Garret was revealing that he believed that USAmerica’s relationship to Nutella is “just right.”
Of course one’s views on Nutella are moot, for the most part. But when one first moves abroad, one can face these types of reactions within oneself a hundred times a day. And in those moments, the mantra became very helpful.
French men peeing on the sidewalks of Paris? This is so common (even in high tourist areas) that the French have installed sidewalk urinals right out in the open. They’re called uritrottoirs, which is a combination of the French words for “urinal” and “sidewalk.” Not right. Not wrong. Just different.
Oh but the list goes on:
Thirty-five hour work week and two hour lunches? Not right. Not wrong. Just different.
Greeting with kisses instead of a handshake? Not right. Not wrong. Just different.
Children starting school at age 3? Not right. Not wrong. Just different.
Socialism and socialized medicine? Not right. Not wrong. Just different.
Christian singles of the opposite sex who share an apartment to save money? Not right. Not wrong. Just different.
And while Meyer’s book is quite helpful on a human level, it can also serve us on a spiritual level. The reason we need to let the Holy Spirit reveal and free us from our ethnocentrism is because we need to be able to live out the Kingdom of God –a place of perfect unity and complex diversity. When we can let go of our cultural biases to fully embrace the “other” then we will be witnesses of the Father’s great love for all people in all cultures.
What my French brothers and sisters say that they want most from foreign missionaries is friendship and love. They welcome our work, recognizing their need for reinforcements as only 3% of the French people are evangelical Christians and less than 5% of the French are practicing Roman Catholics. But despite their small numbers, the French are engaged in evangelism and church planting. The French have strategies and objectives in place, but key stake holders are looking for missionaries who want to partner with them. Their sentiments echo those of V.S. Azariah who “asked for equal partnerships between missionaries and indigenous Christians” in a speech in 1945, saying “We ask for love. Give us FRIENDS.”
My project, Elan (elanmisison.org) is designed to help missionaries make adapt to the French culture AFTER they’ve arrived on the field. It is not meant to replace pre-field training, but to build upon it by connecting every missionary with a French mentor. Beyond building cultural intelligence, my hope is to build genuine love and friendship between missionaries and their French partners.
 This statement was made with the understanding that in every culture there are somethings that reflect God and somethings that go against God, but the majority of things are just neutral preferences—like languages, common colors, food preferences, styles of clothing, modes of transportations, etc. In other words, abortion would not be considered “right” in any culture.
 Erin Meyer, The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014).
 Andy McCullough, Global Humility: Attitudes for Mission (UK: Malcolm Down Publishing, 2018). Kindle loc 390.
 Dana Lee Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion Series (Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). 55.
 Robert. 55.