Unfamiliar Soil: A window into cross-cultural work

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This is an essay about working cross-culturally, particularly church planting, and why it is not a short term project. [To note: Frankly, I dislike the term ”church planter” almost as much as I dislike the terms “missionary,” and “missional,” and I wish I didn’t have to use it at all. “Church planting” feels like a marketing catchphrase that has become a means of denoting those who are a few rungs higher on the spirituality ladder. But the topic of overused Christian catchphrases (“love on,” anyone?)  is another grievance for another time.]

First, a personal anecdote to help the conversation: I had lofty aspirations of container gardening when we first arrived in Yangon. I had an extensive arsenal of seed, and within a short time I had tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and a variety of herbs springing up in pots. But my success ended right about there. I have a lot to learn about container gardening in the tropics. The soil, the weather, and the amount of daylight all differ from what I am accustomed to in North America. In North America, gardening was effortless. In Yangon, I have only managed to harvest two cuttings of salad greens—everything else died in infancy, sadly. I have a lot to learn, and I imagine it will take me a few more seasons before I get the hang of it. Thankfully we aren’t dependent on my green thumb for subsistence!

Perhaps my failed container garden can serve as a metaphor for the learning curve one faces in working cross culturally. Hopefully this essay is a helpful read for those of you who are familiar with western church planting models, and can help you understand why such models can’t always be easily exported and replicated in other places. I would argue that in a developing world context, many of those who are working in roles that aren’t categorized as “pastoral” by North American standards (e.g. healthcare, farming, business development, education, translation) are essential to the work of church planting. Jim and I will be the first to admit that we know little about what it is like to plant a church in North America. But our experience overseas has shown us that the obstacles to church planting in a non-western, developing world context are wildly different from the challenges faced by westerners working in a western context.

So, if you are curious as to why we have been overseas this long and haven’t started a church (a valid question, to which I hope this post gives at least a partial answer), here are a few matters that might help you to understand the slowness of the work. Hopefully this essay provides a breadth of knowledge that extends beyond our specific context to help you get a better understanding of the challenges faced by cross cultural workers in other places.

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1.  Language


We’ll start with the obvious one. I have written more about the challenges and value of language learning here, and here. Language learning is a slow process—in my case, it often feels like a slog through wet cement. According to some, it can take a lifetime to learn the final 25% of a language. Language is nuanced, and it greatly affects the way we view our world, relationships, etc. We have had encounters with North Americans who have sought to do church planting in this region with the help of translators (instead of learning the local tongue), and we have seen firsthand that such efforts have caused much more harm than good.

2.  Economic and physical needs of the community


In Yangon, most people work 10-12 hours a day, six to seven days a week, and even with such long hours, many folks are living month-to-month. Employers are not generous with time off, and many people cannot make it to a church fellowship because of their work schedule. Transportation is congested (in our city it can take over an hour to travel a distance of eight or ten miles), time consuming, exhausting and costly, making it difficult for the average person to make it to church. (And we live in a relatively peaceful place—imagine the added complexity of church fellowship for those who live in war-torn areas.) The longer I live overseas, the more clearly I can see that even having the time to learn about Christianity is a luxury that most people throughout the world simply can’t afford, either for economic reasons, or because their health and/or living situation is so harsh and tenuous that all spare energy is directed toward simply surviving.

These sorts of economic and social issues should, I think, force reasonable folks to broaden their definition of what it means to do church planting in a developing world context. Unless you are going to trim I John 3:17 out of your Bible, than it can be argued that those who work to foster a healthy Christian community in compassionate and holistic ways (medical professionals, entrepreneurs, teachers, translators, etc.) are vital to the work of church planting, and could also be considered church planters.

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 3.  Cultural differences and patron-client relationships


Cross-cultural church planting ought to take a while. (If it doesn’t, it is either because of something miraculous, or else senders/supporters should be asking some tough questions.) One of the main reasons cross-cultural church planting is complicated in our region is because of client-patron relationships. For the purposes of this discussion, a client-patron relationship is defined as being a setting where clients (in this case, locals) provide the patron (the high status member of the relationship, the westerner, in our case) with prestige and status. In exchange, the patron offers his clients resources, protection and connections. Textbooks could be written on the subject, especially for the benefit of westerners, for whom the client-patron relationship can be baffling. (This is not to say that western culture does not utilize client-patron relationships, but it is more prevalent in other cultures.)

Westerners typically come into the developing world culture with extremely high status and a lot of resources, two things that the average person in the neighborhood does not possess. (Whether or not you feel like you have high status or lots of resources doesn’t matter. People still will see you as being wealthy and powerful. They will ask if you could hire them on at one of your multiple companies in America, or they will speculate that you must sleep on a golden mattress.) What may look like a partnership from the westerner’s perspective is often seen by a local as a patron-client relationship, wherein the local person (i.e. the client) serves to meet all the needs and demands of his patron (the westerner). In a patron-client relationship, the client will seek to find out what will make the patron happy, and they will try to do that for the patron. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this dynamic could have negative effects in a spiritual context.

Here is an example: Imagine a Bible study led by a westerner, attended by locals. One day the Bible study leader decides to speak privately with a local who has been coming to the Bible study for many months. The leader asks his local friend if he has thought about what his next step of faith should be, and asks his friend if he has considered baptism. In the context of a patron-client relationship, the local person will nearly always choose to follow the leader’s suggestion, because to reject the leader’s suggestion of baptism could, from the local person’s point of view, destroy the relationship. (This is not to say that every cross-cultural relationship runs in this pattern, but it is quite common here.) Westerners are wont to see this interchange as a lack of integrity on the local person’s part, but from the patron-client perspective, the choice to get baptized is a show of loyalty and friendship to the patron.

In some churches we have visited, people will ask, “how many disciples do you have?” and local leaders will refer to other church members as “my disciples.” This is a term that people are comfortable throwing around, and in some churches here, there would be nothing wrong with us taking on “disciples” also. But we hope to foster the growth of something that won’t die when we are gone; we don’t want to start a church with our name on it. As cultural outsiders, we are rendered especially slow when it comes to determining motives for the behavior of those around us, which should make us very cautious about forging partnerships, and remiss about taking positions of spiritual authority in settings where people might see us as patrons. *

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 4.  Tribalism and the existing church


Myanmar has 135 officially recognized people groups. According to linguistic research thus far, there are upwards of 200 languages spoken within Myanmar. (That is a lot of diversity for a region that is the same size as the state of Texas!) There are a number of Christian people groups within Myanmar, but the divisions between groups and the region’s violent history has made it difficult for the gospel to cross ethnic borders, hence the reason why the biggest people groups (the ones historically known to oppress the smaller groups) still are termed as being unreached with the gospel.

There is a people group in Rakhine state that converted to Christianity over the past 25 years. For many years they have been a minority, oppressed by the Rakhine people. When they were approached by Lisu Christian missionaries, they were willing to accept the gospel (some speculate that they were receptive because the discrimination against them made it difficult for them to subscribe to and succeed in following Buddhist practices). But they told the missionaries, “we will accept your message, as long as you don’t share it with the Rakhine people.” The Lisu missionaries consented, and this particular people group still lives among the Rakhine today, most of them keeping their Christianity to themselves.

Stories like this one are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to explaining the complicated history of the church in Myanmar. While there are churches that are not defined by ethnicity and tribalism (and we have the pleasure of being part of one such church fellowship in our city), for many in Myanmar, religion—be it Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim—is merely a matter of ethnicity and social standing. While the western view of religion is that a person can choose what they wish to believe, the commonly held Myanmar view is that a person is born into a religion; to change one’s religion is as absurd as trying to change one’s skin color.

We believe it is vital for us to be working and fellowshipping with local Christians as we seek to share the gospel. One of the big weaknesses of the pioneering mindset in cross-cultural church planting is a tendency to see the existing church as too messed up to partner with. We reject this idea. We believe God would have us live out the gospel message by working in harmony with those who follow him. We believe we could do much damage by isolating ourselves from local Christians in an effort to re-invent the wheel. We have a lot to learn from local Christians who have spent many years faithfully working the soil in this place.

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 5.  Political and community stability


In Yangon, it is still technically illegal for groups of more than five people to meet. This rule is no longer strictly enforced, as many church fellowships of more than five people meet all over the city, with no fear of punishment. We have the benefit of working in a setting where the nation is heading in the direction of greater political stability. However, it is not at all unusual for us to hear of people in remote areas being driven out by their family and community because of their choice to follow Christ.

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 6.  Availability of Christian resources


Second to the Bible, the majority of the books in the Myanmar Bible Society office are authored by none other than Joel Osteen. (The funds raised by the prosperity gospel seem have enabled Osteen and others like him to translate their poisonous message into many other languages, unfortunately.) One of our Myanmar Christian friends, a woman who majored in Burmese Language Studies at Yangon University, tells us that when she wants to understand what she is reading, she turns to her English Bible because the Burmese one is difficult for her to understand. There are children’s story Bibles available, but they are written in a formal style (imagine something like Old English). Even in church services, the language used to talk about faith is very different from the language used in everyday conversation. In a country where literacy is not high, the lack of accessible, informal resources is a great barrier to sharing Christ with the average person. Our experience has been that people from non-Christian backgrounds who express interest in the Gospel are typically individuals who are highly educated, and this is no coincidence.



Cross cultural church planting is not something that ought to be done in one growing season. It is long-term work based upon a lot of work done by series of people who have been working the land for many generations. It involves clearing, tilling, developing good fertilizer (this takes time, any gardener will tell you), watering, learning how to keep an entirely new plant alive in an unfamiliar climate.

This work simply doesn’t happen the same way it does in North America. Cross-cultural church planting is like planting an entirely new species of plant in a climate where the church planter has never before gardened. In contrast, nearly all North American church planting is gardening done on familiar soil, and, in many scenarios, with the help of transplanting by individuals who commit to join the fledgling church.

In North America, particularly in the United States, we have the unique experience of being a part of a culture that rose from being a colony to being a world power in about the span of three centuries. This rapid succession to the top of the international food chain might explain why we westerners tend to expect that great things can and ought to be done in a short amount of time. (Jesus is coming back in our lifetime, after all, right?) I think some of the gap in understanding between the North American church, and those it sends to plant churches elsewhere comes from a tendency to haste. Not that we ought to be dawdling about our work, not to diminish the urgency of reaching people who have had no opportunity to hear of Christ; but we ought to be concerned with doing well, with using good fertilizer, and nurturing and planting in such a way that our work might outlive us. John Marsden sums up this paradox quite well: “Live as though you’ll die tomorrow, but farm as though you’ll live forever.”

The work of cross-cultural church planting is a long-term investment. We are so grateful for all of you who invest in something you cannot even see, a work that may not come to fruition in our lifetimes.


* If you are interested in further reading on cross cultural differences and Christianity, we recommend these books:

Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes (Richards/O’Brien)

Cross Cultural Conflict (Duane Elmer)

Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Paul G. Hiebert)

2 thoughts on “Unfamiliar Soil: A window into cross-cultural work”

  1. Wow, wise words (and you do have a talent in writing). I’ve been writing my bachelor thesis about cultural differences and there are so many differences over the world, that a lot of people never think of, until they are confronted with it. In Germany people tend to think, that we are very similar to Americans, but the truth is, that there are so many differences under the surface and it takes a lot of time to discover them.

    Keep on your good work and be patient in language learning. Took me six years to get the hang of English in school and I’m still nowhere near native. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Sylvia! Yeah, I think it is way too easy to make assumptions about cultural similarities when the cultures look familiar on the surface. It is the stuff way deep down that pops up and surprises us.

      Thanks for your encouragement–it means a good deal coming from you! As I remember, your English was pretty amazing when I met you two years ago!

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