When Short-Term Workers Don’t Contextualize

When Short-Term Workers Don’t Contextualize October 31, 2013

Short-term volunteers are a major part of mission strategy.

Long-term missionaries have mixed feelings about the benefit and best use of a volunteer team. However, there is broad agreement about one point: short-term volunteers need more pre-field preparation. Although this topic deserves multiple blog posts, for now, I want to focus on one area in particular—contextualization.The_Reception_of_the_Rev._J._Williams,_at_Tanna,_in_the_South_Seas,_the_Day_Before_He_Was_Massacred,_1841_(B-088-015)I am frequently saddened to find long-term workers relatively unconcerned or unfamiliar with the whole notion of contextualization. Therefore, it is not surprising that many short-term volunteers have never thought seriously about contextualization. Frankly, I’d venture to say most have never even heard the word.

This is one reason I wrote a contextualization guide for short-term workers.

So What’s the Problem?

The most obvious problem with overlooking contextualization is that nationals simply don’t understand what they are hearing. Already, most short-term volunteers can’t speak the local language. Even if they do understand the words of the message, nationals can easily miss its significance.

I want to share two more extreme stories to illustrate a few common problems volunteers have with respect to contextualization.

“Christ is Lord”

I found the following story in a book that I find both helpful and witty. I’d actually recommend it for anyone wanting a realistic perspective on life in another culture.

Since being in the States, we have heard a few funny stories of people getting Chinese tattooed on their bodies incorrectly. My favorite so far is the poor young girl who thought she was getting “Christ is Lord” tattooed on the nape of her neck. In order to get the most authentic tattoo possible, she went into Chinatown and found a Chinese tattoo artist. She had wonderfully romantic notions of bringing entire lost tribes to salvation through her little tattoo, overlooking the fact that whisking your long blonde locks up off your neck and exposing your tattoo is rather inappropriate in a conservative part of the country where the women don’t even wear pants. She got strange looks every time she had people read her tattoo and after several weeks of receiving perplexing reactions she decided to ask around. At the end of her perilous pursuit she discovered the unfortunate news that the word “Chrysler” had been permanently inked on the back of her neck, not “Christ is Lord.” While the tattoo artist’s Chinese characters were authentic and lovely, his English was not. So when he heard “Christ is Lord”, his ears told him “Chrysler.”

I’ll highlight just few points.

  • First of all, the woman simply assumes that these out-of-the-way villagers would have some idea what the name “Christ” means.

So many short-term volunteers are quite shocked to find out that many Chinese people have never heard of Jesus’ name. If they have, they know nothing else except that it has something to do with religion. This woman did not even know how to speak Chinese. Throwing out the phrase “Christ is Lord” can hardly be considered evangelism when the listener doesn’t grasp its significance.

  • Second, what is she thinking to expose the back of her neck to very conservative villagers? For better or worse, other cultures are far less open about things like gender, skin exposure, and choice of attire.

Marriage Counseling

A group of American couples came to offer marriage counseling to a group of Chinese believers. During their week, they chose to split husbands and wives into two groups. In the women’s group, the wives began talking about marital intimacy. The conversation turned to the question, “What do you do if you are not in the mood?”

One of the American wives then gave a lengthy answer. Unfortunately, her main suggestion was to “take a bath” and soak her muscles so she could relax a bit and be physically intimate with her husband.

*Here’s the problem–– very, very few Chinese homes have baths. They may have showers. In fact, many people still use bath (shower) houses. This story is a few years old. At the time, bath houses were far more normal.

These are just two stories that illustrate a few very common problems and misunderstandings about cross-cultural ministry.

If short-term workers are going to learn contextualization, then long-termers need to intentionally plan for it. Long-termers should not assume anything. If you have short-term groups coming in, consider how to train them just as you think about training nationals.


Photo Credit: CC 2.0/wikipedia

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