The Akha and the West: Relevantly Traversing the Cultural Divide

Many of you have read or heard some of our ministry philosophy "catch-phrases" here on our journal or as we have communicated with you in person. The study of the Akha culture, and the inevitable parallel study of my own American culture has led to a number of cross-cultural keywords that have become very important in my worldview. The biggest keyword that has emerged is Relevance, and I want to unpack it a little for you today. Please bear with me until the end because my heart is to communicate these ideas clearly. I want to start by sharing an excerpt from an insightful article entitled "Why we don't go or send much anymore" by Dr. Patrick Johnstone of WEC International (link goes to a repost of the article on John Lambert's blog):

Why we don't go or send much anymore... The Cultural Price

We are the “instant” generation.  We look for quick solutions.  Yet the Lord Jesus had to earn the right for 3 years of ministry through 30 years of manhood.  Without missionaries becoming one with the people to whom they minister, how will they ever earn the right to communicate the gospel?

Earning the right takes time – 7 to 10 years by my estimation.  Some missionaries never last that long.  Sacrificing our way of doing, being and living is hard.  When I was a missionary in Africa, some Africans would say, “That missionary loves us, but those others don’t.”

(emphasis mine)

My immediate reaction:

The Akha People: an ancient culture in a digital age.

There is no question that we in the west are part of an "instant generation", and as digital-age missionaries to a pre-modern culture, we are constantly changing states, speeds and worldviews as we attempt to communicate to our unique world(s).

In working with the Akha we say the following statement all the time and, although it is admittedly an oversimplification, it is largely true: Relationships in Asia, and specifically with the Akha, have no relevance until they have history. Dr. Johnstone uses different terms, but the same idea lies within his article when he says a missionary has no "right to communicate the gospel" [relevance] until he has "one"-ness [history] with the people.

This doesn't mean that we don't correctly handle the Word of Truth as we build history. But too often we feel like we have all the answers, our pride gets in the way and we think everything has to get fixed now. Working in Asia we must realize that until we have history the words we speak have no weight - even if they are true.

Experiences with the Akha

In our Akha village, we have showed the love of Christ by spending a majority of our time sittingdrinking tea, discussing the weather and the cropslearning the Akha language within the context of community, and caring for physical needs without cost or discrimination as we experience the minutia of life within a community in order to build relevance. It is slow. It is unglamorous. But it is necessary to affect a community towards healthy long-term growth.

Slowly Gaining RelevanceOur ministry has only recently, after nearly six years of building history, earned enough relational relevance to be a resource of accountability, exhortation and truth in love in a way that will be productively and actively received by some of the people around us.

Unfortunately, this process of patience means that there have been many times where we have seen dysfunctional behavior that is unable to receive input from any source which is not equally as dysfunctional. So, in these times, we have had to stand silently, brokenhearted, so that we might maintain the relationships and history we are building, which, in turn, will give us the relevance to minister restoration to that dysfunction in the future.

The beauty of this worldview is the closeness of the community and the willingness to function in unity. The downfall is that dysfunctional behavior is also universally shared. Relevant voices of influence must show their commitment to unity within the community over a significant period of time without sharing in the same dysfunctions in order to effectively communicate functional life.

Experiences with the West

It is still true in the west that community and companionship are the key factors in administering life-impacting change, but the decision to include or exclude someone or something from our community is made nearly instantaneously. (The exception in this case is the influence of the core family-unit, but in my observation many people in America are even distancing themselves from those nuclear-family relationships that were once such powerful influences in the lives of an individual.)

The Instant CommunityThese "instantaneous decisions" have led to the onset of the online community phenomenons of blogging, forums, and social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. We in the western world are much more comfortable extending our attention and trust to someone or something with whom we have no history. We might respond to attraction, position, interests, goals, occupation, production, association, or marketing in our decisions to join or include others in a community.

Online communities make the world smaller, and that small world allows us to communicate globally without moving geographically. Personally, I have a list of missionaries from around the world that I connect with for advice, prayer, exhortation and empathy - but I have only met a few of them face-to-face.

The blessing of this openness to immediate inclusion is that we are free to give and receive the ministry of the gospel in the brief moments of community when our lives glance off of one another in the thousands if not millions of connections we make. We can quickly form meaningful relationships that have immediate positive impact on our lives, and receive Godly encouragement from near stangers. The downfall of this worldview is that we become judgmental, quickly dismissing as irrelevant things that don't capture our immediate attentions and passions and quickly accepting as valuable things that are at their core damaging but packaged to manipulate our passions.

Defining the Difference

Perhaps the simplest distinction between the Western world I know and the Eastern (Akha) world I have come to learn can be summed up in the following statement:

In the West, you earn the right to share life experiences with an individual by communicating your relevance to that individual immediately and effectively. In the East you earn the right to be relevant to an individual by sharing life experiences in a shared community over an extended period of time.

As for me and my house...

Being RelevantWe must exist in both worlds. The world we come from and the world we have been sent to. It is important for Lori and I to continue to engage in our Western culture, even as we minister in the East. So we strive to be transparent, available, and vulnerable in our efforts to communicate via these "instant" platforms: Our blog: The Vernon Journal; Twitter (Paul); Facebook (Paul | Lori); Tumblr (Paul | Lori | Abi).

Through these mediums, we try to frequently communicate our otherwise slow ministry to those of you who cover, support and partner with us while we geographically remain in the midst of that ministry. We know that there are thousands of causes, ministries and opportunities out there to partner with, and we want you to know that we value your partnership and desire to share with you how your partnership is furthuring the gospel in us, among the Akha, and throughout the world.

How do you connect with your communities? And how can we best communicate our lives and experiences to you and your communities as we minister to the Akha?

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