Six Missionary Insights for Adult Formation

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By Anthony Gittins

Here are a handful of things that I have learned from my cross-cultural ministry, whether in West Africa and parts of the Pacific, or in Southern England and Uptown Chicago.

1. Learn to listen. This is a fundamental sign of respect. Jesus criticized those who have ears but do not hear. Ears are for listening, learning, and ministering. But if the ears are really to hear, the mouth must be closed.

2. Learn the meaning of dialogue. It is not serial monologue (you speak, expecting others to listen; then they speak while you prepare to intervene). In dialogue you cannot know what you will say next because the other person has not yet spoken. Dialogue requires a willingness not to attempt to control the outcome. Dialogue (hori­zontal mode) is incompatible with hierarchy (vertical mode), which is why it is so difficult for some.

3. Learn to think differently. Rudy Wiebe observed that you repent, not by feeling bad but by thinking differently, which is much more difficult. Our culture and education train us to think in certain ways and persuade us that our thinking and our thoughts are correct and even absolute. Cross-cultural experience should remind us that there are different ways of thinking and acting, and that without flexibility there will either be incomprehension or authoritarianism.

4. Learn to change. Cardinal Newman famously observed that "to live is to change; to be perfect is to change often." But a certain kind of religion—formalism or dogmatism—refuses to accept this. Tragically, there is much of this in Christianity. But it is not authen­tic religion.

5. Learn to translate. Every culture, like every language, has internal consistency (not absolute perfection). Since no two lan­guages are identical, cross-cultural communication requires transla­tion. Something is always lost, and always gained, in effective trans­lation. In our ministry we must attend not only to what we under­stand and want to preserve, but to how others understand what we want to convey. Not only must we give others the benefit of our wis­dom and truth, we must seek those things in their cultures. They are vehicles of divine truth and wisdom.

6. Learn to empathize. We share a common humanity even as we differ specifically. There are no generic human beings, only particu­lar persons. The key to interpersonal communication is empathy: the ability to identify with the feelings of others. We must not reduce their feelings to our own, and we cannot assume that we understand how they feel. But with dedication, practice, and true dialogue, we can come to ever-increasing (though always partial) empathy. Without commitment to this delicate task, we treat other persons as objects or as extensions of ourselves. This is antithetical to the Christian enterprise, which is to love one another as God has loved us: personally, uniquely, respectfully. TP


*This article is excerpted from the January 2003 issue of Today’s Parish.

Anthony Gittins

Anthony Gittins, CSSp is Professor of Mission and Culture at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.