I’ve been travelling over the last three weeks and last night I found myself in Provo with a group of friends when the discussion turned to mission preparation in the context of this wave of new young things who are about to be unleashed, bright eyed, and bushy tailed onto the world.
The thing about being in Utah is that you find out stuff if you hold your ear to the ground long enough. Someone is always ready to spill the beans on a piece of juicy speculation – it’s delicious! It turns out (according to bush telegraph) that there is a trending rate of early missionary returns; young people who find the ‘work’ difficult and want to come home, and parents who say, ‘Sure sweetie – whatever makes you happy!’
“Lack of resilience and resourcefulness”, came an explanation.
“Too much privilege and entitlement”, came another.
“Too many young people – especially in Utah, are raised in a world where their entire social life revolves around their big families. This does little to prepare young people to understand and relate to those whose lives are lived outside of this rarified little box!”
Whatever the case may be, there are seem to be issues, and I intend, for the sake of US missionaries who have been, or will be called to New Zealand, to give you instruction – special insider tips you won’t get in the Missionary Training Centre! I feel very confident that these well researched pointers will help you along your way, so that you won’t be wringing your hands in confusion as you serve way Down Under.
- New Zealand is diverse (except the North Shore where you might recognise a church that feels a bit more like Utah – it happens where you locate Church offices and import Americans to run the show – cultural mimicry, and all that). In preparation, take a class on cultural competence and know that in New Zealand you are NOT the norm, and everyone else an oddity.
- Get a sense of humour – particularly about yourself. New Zealanders will punish you for taking yourself too seriously.
- New Zealanders may blame you personally for the War on Iraq and the Invasion of Afghanistan. If you have no intelligent response, or you sound like your opinion came from Fox News or out of Grandpa Joe’s very Republican face, you will be dismissed out of hand for being complicit.
- Get used to being called a Yank. There are two kinds of Yanks. The British version of a Yank – which refers to all Americans, and the American version that refers to Northerners. Your kind of Yank is the first.
- Almost without exception, New Zealanders preferred Obama to Romney – even in the church. You will score points with members and non-members alike if you can understand why.
- New Zealanders don’t live in McMansions of the kind one finds along the Wasatch Front. This doesn’t mean New Zealanders are poor. On the contrary, that modest bungalow that doesn’t sport a ‘rest-room’ for every bedroom in the house and a basement the size of a football field – probably cost more than your McMansion in Orem – even with the exchange rate. New Zealand is an expensive place to live – period!
- If you hear nothing else, study rugby. Begin with rugby union. Being able to talk about the game, the competition, the teams and the players, will soften your relationship with members, who will, as a result of your rugby knowledge, introduce you to their friends and neighbours. They will proudly show you off as an American who ‘gets it’. I can’t stress this lesson enough – and I don’t care if you are male or female. Study rugby.
- Eat the food you have been served and be gracious and grateful for it! Food doesn’t come in bucket-sized portions for the price of small change. Its expensive – so eat that meal that has been prepared for you by that large humble Mormon family in their three bedroom bungalow – because it represents more than food, it also represents sacrifice.
- Offer/insist on clearing the table and doing the dishes. It’s likely that mum or dad rushed home from work to cook you a meal from scratch in time for your 7pm appointment. They will be tired and your offer to help will be an expression of gratitude for their effort.
- Take some on-line Maori language lessons before you arrive. It is unlikely that the MTC will have caught up with the fact that New Zealand is a bicultural nation, so some competence in the language will be useful.
- Learn our history, you will be saved a lot of angst if you understand the socio-cultural context of our country. You won’t get away with trying to preach the church without understanding what conversion to a Yank church will cost a New Zealander – socially and culturally.
- Māori and Polynesians aren’t ‘inherently’ spiritual, and their sometimes humble circumstances aren’t because they are ‘wonderful, faithful’ saints. It’s because, at the dark heart of New Zealand there has been an historical core of racism. So don’t romanticize the life of brown people who live simply – inequality is a political problem, not a lifestyle choice.
- Know the difference between Mormon culture and Christian theology because they aren’t the same – not by a long shot!
- Your most important evangelizing relationships will be with the members of your assigned ward. You want them to trust you enough to send their friends your way. But that won’t happen until you are respected. This might be your first mission, but you are not their first missionary and there are many who are a bit jaded by how truly bad some missionaries have been. You DON’T want the members’ indifference – you DO want access to their friends and its up to you to build authentic relationships with adults who will trust you enough to unleash you on their loved ones.
- New Zealand is a largely secular and morally liberal nation. This doesn’t mean we are going to hell in a hand-basket. Few people will bat an eye-lid at gay marriage, many will swear like troopers, wine drinking is an important cultural institution, and pre-marital cohabitation is the norm. Don’t freak out! In a tight spot I’d rather be with a group of cursing, wine swilling, gay loving, cohabiting New Zealanders than any other people in the world – because, in my decades of experience, New Zealand has a habit of producing the real deal. Earthy, raw, straight shooting, irreverent, hilarious, and caring folk.
- The British fascination with bathroom humour and bodily functions made its way to New Zealand – so now you know!
- You have an accent.
- Hell and damn aren’t swear words. Fanny refers to lady parts, a biscuit is a cookie, a lolly is candy, pie is usually of the meat variety and pink jello salad is not a main dish side.
Good luck my young friends. Maybe we’ll bump into each other. If we do meet, I have a wee cultural competence exam for you (based on the above) and my promise is, if you can pass it – I’ll line my friends up for you to teach!