C T Studd and the Cambridge Seven demonstrate their cross-cultural adaptability

C T Studd and the Cambridge Seven demonstrate their cross-cultural adaptability

A long time ago, before global telecoms were invented and when post took months to get to the other side of the world, intrepid mission workers went abroad not knowing if they would ever see family and friends again.  While some stayed in the coastal cities where they could get newspapers from ‘home’ (albeit a few months old) and mix with people from their own country, others went to new fields in the interior, far from their home culture.  They learned the local language, adapted to the customs, and often dressed in indigenous clothing to help them integrate.  Many of them adapted so well that they became more like the locals than their own people.

Some would look back on that as a golden age.  But technology came.  Once people could fly to their fields relatively cheaply, they could maintain better contact with their ‘home’ and family.  They could start going back more frequently than every five years.  People could come and visit them.  Phone calls became possible, and then faxes.  And mission agencies recognised that, while better communication could enhance the mission worker’s sense of wellbeing, they also realised that it could be a distraction from becoming embedded in the culture.  Some agencies discouraged frequent returns, or restricted visits from family, particularly during the first year.  They imposed limits on contact with the sending country to help people bed down in their new culture and learn the language well.

Gen Y - excessively connected?

Gen Y – excessively connected?

Now, with social media available even in the most remote villages, people are seldom out of contact with friends and family.  They can have regular face time with people on the other side of the planet, remotely attend birthday parties, and give people virtual tours of their homes.  They can upload videos and share blogs.  It is so much better for maintaining their support, the strength of their ongoing relationships.  But it raises another point – do people ever really leave?  Do they become embedded in the local culture any more?  Do they find their supportive relationships with their new local friends, fellow mission workers in the field, or with people in their home country?

So technology has solved the problem of isolation, but possibly at a price.  In a world where mission workers can come ‘home’ every Christmas, and host visitors on a regular basis, are they preserving a little island of their home culture and not becoming enculturated in their host country?  What does it do for their relationships with locals?

It has often been observed that Generation Y, having much more understanding of themselves as global citizens than previous generations did, are able to engage much more readily with other cultures, and may not even recognise the dichotomy between leaving and joining.  They can connect equally well in several cultures.  But it remains to be seen whether they will build up the wealth of socio-linguistic understanding that previous generations who spent decades in the same field.  Can we afford to wait while all that corporate knowledge leaves the field as baby boomers retire?

CT Studd, founder of WEC International, famously spent the last 18 years of his life in Congo, leaving his wife in London running the support network.  They only met again during her one brief visit to the Congo.  I wonder what he would have made of how technology has changed the world of mission.