E. Thomas and Elizabeth S. Brewster
(Elizabeth Brewster and the late E. Thomas Brewster have been a husband-wife team specializing in helping missionaries develop effective techniques for learning any language and adapting to the broader culture of which the language is a part. Tom held a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona and Betty Sue holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. Their work has taken them to more than 80 countries and they have helped train over 2,000 missionaries. Their book Language Acquisition Made Practical (LAMP) has been widely acclaimed for its innovative approach and pedagogical creativity. Thomas Brewster died in 1985.)
Adapted from, Bonding and the Missionary Task, Brewster & Brewster. Lingua House. Used by permission.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
We have a new little boy who was born into our homejust a few months ago. In preparing for his childbirth we were introduced to the concept of bonding.
The psychological and physiological make up of a newborn immediately after birth uniquely prepares the baby to bond with his or her parents.’ If parents and infant are together at that time, a close bond can result which can withstand subsequent separations. Certainly the excitement and adrenaline levels of both the child and the parents are at a peak. The senses of the infant are being stimulated by a multitude of new sensations. The birth is essentially an entrance into a new culture with new sights, new sounds, new smells, new positions, new environment and new ways of being held. Yet, at that particular time, he or she is equipped with an extraordinary ability to respond to these unusual circumstances and new stimuli.
Pediatricians have observed that a non-drugged newborn is often more alert during the first day than at any time in the following week or two. These alert hours facilitate the formation of the early bonding. When a baby is groggy from medications given to the mother in labor, however, neither the baby nor mother can take advantage of this God-given period. Or when the baby is whisked away to the isolation of a nursery, this time of acute awareness may be lost as well.
The Missionary Analogy
There are important parallels between the infant’s arrival into his or her first culture and an adult’s entrance into a new, foreign culture. In this situation the adult’s senses, too, are bombarded by a multitude of new sensations, sights, sounds and smells. And often he or she is uniquely able to respond to these experiences at every turn—and to even enjoy them. There have been months, even years, of planning and preparation. Excitement, anticipation and adrenaline are at a peak. The just-arrived missionary is in an unusual state of readiness, both physiologically and psychologically, to bond in the new environment. The new missionary is prepared, perhaps more than ever again, to bond—to become a “belonger” with the people to whom he or she is called to share the good news.
Establishing a Sense of Belonging
The timing can be critical because bonding best occurs when the participants are uniquely ready for the experience. If the newly arrived missionary is whisked away to the familiar comforts of a missionary contingency, a crucial window of readiness is lost. If a missionary is to establish a sense of belonging to the people among whom the missionary is called to serve, the way he or she spends the first few weeks can be of critical importance. It’s not uncommon for a baby who is kept in the nursery to become bonded with hospital personnel instead of with his or her parents. New missionaries, as well, can fulfill their need for belonging by bonding with the expatriate community.
If a sense of belonging is established with the other foreigners, a new missionary is then more likely to carry out ministry by the “foray” method. The missionary may live in isolation from local people, perhaps in a “missionary compound,” but venture out into the local community a few times each week, returning always to the security of the expatriate community. If the missionary does not feel at home in the local cultural context, he or she may not pursue significant relationships in that community as a way of life. This lack of bonding may be reflected in exasperated statements like, “Oh these people! Why do they always do things this way?” or “When will these people ever learn?”
Implications of Bonding for the Missionary Task
A missionary is one who goes into the world to give people an opportunity to belong to God’s family. The missionary goes because he or she is a belonger in this most meaningful of relationships. His or her life should proclaim: “I belong to Jesus who has given me a new kind of life. By my becoming a belonger here with you, God is inviting you through me to belong to Him.”
The missionary’s task thus parallels the model established by Jesus who left heaven, where He belonged, and became a belonger with humankind in order to draw people into a belonging relationship with God.
Becoming a Belonger
The missionary who is immediately immersed in the local community has many advantages. If the newcomer lives with a local family, he or she can learn how the insiders organize their lives, how they get their food and do their shopping, and how they get around with public transportation. Much can be learned during the first months about the insiders’ attitudes and their feelings about the ways foreigners live. As the newcomer experiences an alternative lifestyle, he or she can evaluate the value of adopting it. On the other hand, the missionary whose first priority is to get settled will only be able to settle in a familiar way. Since nothing else has been experienced, no other options are possible. And once a missionary is comfortably settled in the old life-style, that person is virtually locked into a pattern that is foreign to the local people.
In our first culture, it comes naturally to go about things in a way that works. We know which way to look for traffic as we step off the curb, how to get a bus to stop for us, how to pay a fair price for goods or services, how to get the information we need or where to go for help. But in a new culture, the way to do things seems unpredictable. This results in a disorientation that can lead to culture shock. A new missionary who first establishes a sense of belonging with other missionary expatriates has his or her entry into the new life cushioned by these foreigners. In the past, it was generally thought that this cushioning was important for the adjustment of the newcomer. Often a newcomer’s arrival was planned to coincide with a field council pow-wow. We would like to suggest, however, that this “cushion” can be an unfortunate disservice.
Like the first day of an infant’s life, the first two or three weeks of a newcomer’s stay is of crucial importance. The initial blush of life in the new environment is when developing a sense of belonging is most possible. During this time, a person may be especially able to cope with the unpredictable situations encountered in the new culture, and cushioning is the last thing needed.
The individual who hopes to enter another culture in a gradual way faces greater obstacles and, in fact, may never enjoy the experience of belonging to the people. Better to plunge right in and experience life from the insiders’ perspective. Live with the people, go shopping with them, use public transportation with them, worship with them as it may be appropriate.
From the very first day, it is important to develop many relationships with local people. The newcomer should early on communicate his or her needs and the desire to be a learner. People help other people who are clearly in need. When potentially stressful situations come up, the new missionary can, as a learner, secure help, receive answers or be given insight from these insiders. In the same situation, the one who is being cushioned receives outsiders’ answers to insiders’ situations and that person’s foreignness and alienation can thereby be perpetuated.
A couple who has chosen to be isolated from Western people during their first
months in a Muslim context wrote us about the victories they have experienced:
We knew before we left that we would have different types of adjustments. I knew the hardest time for me would be at first and he felt that his hard times would occur after he had been here a while. So it has been. I really had a hard time leaving our family. But after I started getting out with the people here, my homesickness faded. The local community has so warmly received us. At Christmas, 125 of these friends came to our Christmas celebration. And during that season, the closeness of our interpersonal relationships amazed us.
I’m not exactly sure why my husband just recently went through a depression. Christmas for us was different than it has been. Plus he was laid up for a week with the flu. During that time, he yearned for familiar things. And he says he was tired of always trying to be sensitive as to how he is coming across. And yet the Lord has blessed our work here, and two Muslim converts that he is discipling are what is helping him get over this. We really have been alone in
many ways. We supported each other but at times the burdens seemed so big and we didn’t have anyone else to talk to or look to for advice. But I suppose that is why we have such good national friends.
Bonding is the factor that makes it possible for the newcomer to belong to “such good national friends.” Of course there will be stressful situations, but the bonded newcomer, experiencing the wonder of close relationships, is able to derive support from the network of the local friendships he or she has developed. This in turn facilitates the acquisition of the insiders’ ways and gives a sense of feeling at home. The one who feels at home may feel discouraged or even melancholy for a time and some cultural stress is to be expected, but it may not be necessary to experience severe and prolonged culture shock.
Learning the Language
Living with a family not only facilitates bonding, but it also significantly enhances language learning. Newcomers learn language best when immersed in relationships with local people. It’s similar to the way they learned their mother tongue:
listening, imitating and actively experimenting with language. Classroom instruction can be helpful, but it cannot replace genuine face-to-face conversations in relationship with local people.
Only a minimum of the target language is needed to initiate bonding relationships. “The best thing that happened to me was on the first day when you challenged us to take the little we knew how to say and go talk with fifty people,” a missionary wrote us. “I didn’t talk with fifty, I only talked with forty-four. But I did talk with forty-four.” The “text” she was able to say that first day was limited to a greeting and an expression of her desire to learn the language; then she could tell people that she didn’t know how to say any more but she would see them again. She closed with a thank you and a leave-taking. The ice was broken on her very first day and, from then on, she was able to begin to feel at home in her new community. From that point, she continued as she had started: she learned a little, but used it a lot.
Language acquisition is essentially a social activity, not an academic one. Gaining proficiency in the language is challenging, but normal for a person who is deeply engaged in relationships in a new society. Language study will often be a burden and frustration for these who maintain their primary relationships with ex-
patriates. It is therefore important to facilitate an opportunity for new missionaries to become bonded with (and hence belongers in) their new community. New missionaries should be challenged with the bonding objective and prepared to respond to the opportunity to become a belonger.
Newcomers need to be encouraged to totally immerse themselves in the life of the new community from day one. If a newcomer is going to successfully establish himself as a belonger, live with a local family and learn from relationships on the streets, a prior decision and commitment to do so is essential. Without such a prior commitment it doesn’t usually happen.
We have found that a prior preparation of perspective and expectations is helpful, along with training in how to develop language learning skills. When we counsel people, we recommend that they accept four conditions for their first few weeks:
1) Be willing to live with a local family,
2) Limit personal belongings to 20 kilos,
3) Use only local public transportation, and
4) Expect to carry out language learning in the context of relationships that the learner is responsible to develop and maintain.
A willingness to accept these conditions tells a lot about an individual’s attitude and flexibility.
With a prepared mentality, a newcomer is freed to respond creatively to the bonding and learning opportunities that surround him. The new missionary—whether single, married, or even with children—usually can successfully live with a local family immediately upon arrival. In some situations, team members, mission agency personnel or local contacts can find a family. But newcomers have often found their own families by learning to say, “I want to learn your language. I hope to find a family to live with for about three months, and I will pay my expenses. Do you know of a possible family?” It would be unusual to say this to fifty people without getting at least some positive response, at least a mediator to help with the search.
Those who are bonding and carrying out their language learning in the context of relationships in the new community also have the opportunity to pursue the development of their new ministry from the earliest days of language learning. A few years ago the authors supervised the initial language learning time for a team of eleven newcomers in Bolivia.
Over 30 people came to know Christ as a result of the involvement ministry that these new language learners were able to develop during those (first) three months. Many of these were either members of families with whom we were living, or were on a route of regular listeners. In both cases, as a result of the personal r relationships that they had developed, they were able to follow up and disciple the new believers. Little wonder that this was a fulfilling experience for these new language learners.”2
The Better Risk of Bonding
There are few times in life with as much stress and danger as birth. And it would be wrong to imply that immediate and total immersion in a new culture is without risk. It is likely, however, that even the stress and risk components are essential to the formation of the unique environment that makes bonding possible. And there is another side to the ri4 question. If a new missionary doesn’t take the initial risk and seek to become comfortable as soon as possible with the new society he or she may be opting for a longer-term risk. The problem of missionary casualties suggests that there is a heavy price to be paid by those who fail to become belongers—a great many of them do not return for a second term of service. It is not easy to live with a family, make friends with strangers and learn a new language, but neither is it easy to continue as a stranger, living without close friendships with insiders or an understanding of their cultural cues.
Is bonding possible after the first critical months are past? Is it possible for an established missionary to experience a belated bonding? The answer is yes. It is a normal human process to establish belonging relationships. An established missionary who sees the potential of a belonging relationship with the local people can implement this commitment by adopting a learner role and moving in with a local family for a few weeks or months.
The concept of bonding implies a bi-cultural individual with a healthy self-image. Bonding and “going native” are not the same thing. Going native implies the rejection of one’s first culture. This reaction is seldom seen in missionaries and may not be possible for normal, emotionally stable adults. Nor is being bi-cultural the same as having a “split personality.” A person with a split personality has a broken and fragmented self. A bi-cultural person is developing a new outlet for his or her God-given personality. The person with this new creative outlet can be free to behave at times with child-like disregard for upholding an image. This person is freed to make mistakes and try, try again. For the Christian missionary, the process of becoming bi-cultural begins with the recognition that God in His sovereignty does not make mistakes in creating us within our first culture; yet in His sovereignty He taps some of us on the shoulder and calls us to belong to people of a different culture so that we can be good news to them.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
1. Maternal-Infant Bonding, Marshall H. Klaus & John H. Kennell, CV Mosby Co., St. Louis, 1 976.
2. Brewster & Brewster, “I have never been so fulfilled,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly April 1978, p. 103.
1. Why is it important especially for a new missionary to bond with his/her hosts? Is a belated bonding possible and why?
2. If, as the Brewsters say, language learning is “essentially a social activity, not an academic one,” is language learning any easier for a missionary who is attempting to immerse themselves in the life of a new community?
3. Why do the Brewsters recommend limiting personal belongings and living with a local family?