Why missionaries quit 4 – culture shock

Patrick Nabweramissionary attrition among Kenyan missionaries:

Nabwera familyThe inability to adjust to a new community or society is an issue for many missionaries and easily leads to attrition. One missionary who left a mission field because of culture shock was heard to comment, “hawa watu ni wachafu, wananuka” (these people are dirty, they stink). The same missionary found it difficult to eat with the people out of a pot that was used not only for washing and cooking, but also was dirty. In the missionary’s culture, it is not right to eat from a pot. This missionary felt disoriented when the cultural map and guideline he learned as a child (you cannot eat from a pot, leave alone a dirty one) no longer worked. Hiebert calls this culture shock (Hiebert 1985, 66). The issue is not one of dirt or poverty, but of disorientation experienced when the new culture varies from what the missionary is used to.

According to Kraft, culture shock becomes a problem when people from different societies and different worldviews come in contact with each other. The local people behave on the basis of different assumptions from those of the missionary. They do not see why the missionary is having a problem in the first place (2004, 57). In this case, the missionary should not expect the local people to understand why he cannot do things (like eating from the pot) in the way they do. Lowered expectations can reduce the stress of culture shock. Because missionaries seek to live right in the context of the community of their calling (the incarnational approach, as seen in chapter two), they are forced to enter deeply into the new culture. According to Hiebert, this creates room for culture shock to strike. One cause of culture shock in such a community is the inability to communicate (1985, 66). A missionary confessed frustration at the difficulty of learning the language of the people. This missionary had not been able to learn the language, even after being in the same field for eight years, and he sadly left that field without learning that language.


  • Hiebert, Paul G. 1985. Anthropological insights for missionaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  • Kraft, Charles H. 2004. Anthropology for Christian witness. New York: Orbis (Orig. Pub. 1996).

© Patrick Nabwera 2008

[More on culture shock tomorrow]

3 thoughts on “Why missionaries quit 4 – culture shock

  1. […] 19 Jun 2008 · No Comments As noted by the last post of Patrick Nabwera’s thesis (Why missionaries quit 4), culture shock is one of the biggest challenges for someone working cross-culturally. Patrick said […]

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