Acculturation of Missionaries – How Religious Orientations Affect Cultural Adjustment?

Acculturation of Missionaries – How Religious Orientations Affect Cultural Adjustment?

Although it is evident that religiously motivated missions are part of a long historical tradition in various ‘world religions’ (e.g. Smith, 1991) in the course of which experiences of ‘cultural exchange’ (Burke, 1997) and of intercultural communication, cooperation and competence (cf. Deardorff, 2009; Matsumoto, 2010; Straub, Weidemann, & Weidemann, 2007) due to clashes of different, partially incompatible cultural life forms play a crucial role, there is almost no empirically grounded cultural psychological research on this topic. In addition, personal experiences of cultural difference, alienation and otherness made by missionaries in cross-cultural practice, the interwoven transformations of their personal identity and relevant learning processes which enlarge their performative potential have barely been systematically analyzed as yet. So far, processes of acculturation and intercultural learning due to intercultural encounters have only been examined in specific groups of people such as immigrants, exchange students, managers, and other professionals (cf. Sam & Berry, 2006; Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2001; for a critic see Weidemann, 2004). Guided by an interest in empirical psychological acculturation research, this paper presentation aimed at compensating these deficits while making an attempt to answer the question how religious orientations of (Christian) missionaries can affect their cultural adjustment and, generally, how can processes of intercultural learning before, during and after missionary assignments be structured. In the context of Christian mission, there is still a lack of (scientific) knowledge about typical difficulties in the process of acculturation in host cultures or foreign working environments, about effective reintegration strategies of experienced missionaries at home, and about related critical stress and success factors. Previous studies have particularly focused on the cross-cultural experiences of missionaries, their kids, and families in the acculturation and reintegration process, but only partly dealt with the fact that religious orientations have a significant effect on cultural adjustment in foreign cultures (e.g. Navara & James, 2005). Therefore, we have in future research, first, to draw attention to the convictions of missionaries as well as to the ‘re-entry culture shock’ that is considerably influenced by factors such as family status, health status and spiritual adaptability. Second, in most of the studies in this field the methodical approach is relatively homogenous: e.g. validation and testing of hypotheses based on generalized psychological theories, systems of preferences and correlations. Too little attention is given to the agents’ self-transformation and subjective perspectives in cultural exchange. Cultural psychological and cross-cultural studies are rare that can lead to a better understanding and description of the cultural meanings of religious and ideological action and ways of articulation of individual experiences and expectations, orientations and convictions in the context of mission. Accordingly, findings from recently accomplished research on religious self-thematizations of German Protestant missionaries can highlight its significance.


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Deardorff, D. K. (Ed.). (2009). The Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Matsumoto, D. R. (Ed.). (2010). APA Handbook of Intercultural Communication. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Moore, L., van Jones, B. & Austin, C. N. (1987). Predictors of Reverse Culture Shock Among North American Church of Christ Missionaries. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 15(4), 336-341.

Navara, G. S., & James, S. (2005). Acculturative stress of missionaries. Does religious orientation affect religious coping and adjustment? International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 29(1), 39-58.

Sam, D. L. & Berry, J. W. (Eds.). (2006). The Cambridge handbook of acculturation psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Smith, H. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: HarperOne.

Straub, J., Weidemann, A. & Weidemann, D. (Eds.). (2007). Handbuch Interkulturelle Kommunikation und Kompetenz [Handbook of Intercultural Communication and Competence]. Stuttgart, Weimar: Metzler.

Ward, C. A., Bochner, S. & Furnham, A. (2001). The Psychology of Culture Shock. Hove: Routledge.

Weidemann, D. (2004). Interkulturelles Lernen: Erfahrungen mit dem chinesischen ‘Gesicht’. Deutsche in Taiwan [Intercultural Learning: Experiences with the Chinese Concept of ‘Face’. Germans in Taiwan]. Bielefeld: transcript.

Invited Talk:  ‘Acculturation of Missionaries: How Religious Orientations Affect Cultural Adjustment and Processes of Intercultural Learning?’, Interdisciplinary Conference ‘Migration as a Sign of the Times: Perspectives from Social Sciences and Theology’ (April 12-14, 2012), Salzburg: University of Salzburg – Zentrum Theologie Interkulturell & Studium der Religionen.

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Dr. Maik Arnold is Professor for Non-Profit-Management and Vice-President for Research, Innovation and Transfer at University of Applied Science Dresden.