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The new ugly Americans

Thirty years ago, when I was just learning to travel, I came face-to-face with a certain type of of fellow traveler that the locals viewed with barely disguised disdain. In the same way that there is a caricature of the Japanese tourist traveling in groups, cameras hanging from their necks, so…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Thirty years ago, when I was just learning to travel, I came face-to-face with a certain type of of fellow traveler that the locals viewed with barely disguised disdain.

In the same way that there is a caricature of the Japanese tourist traveling in groups, cameras hanging from their necks, so I learned, there was the caricature of the ugly American. Foreigners saw so many loud, obnoxious Americans, that we were easy to stereotype. Wearing their checkered polyester suits, they pushed their way to the front of every line. Oblivious to local customs, they made poor ambassadors for the American way of life.

Times have changed, but there is a new ugly American on the scene. Yesterday Melinda Nelson, an American missionary shared the following comment on this blog:


"It is amazing how many American women balk at the idea of not being able to wear sleeveless shirts or shorter shorts in some of the hot weather cultures. They like to excuse themselves with 'Well, they know I am American, so it's okay.'

Why create a distraction and stumbling block to the others? Are you there to free the people from their clothing legalism or is Jesus to be the focus? By seeking Him first, He can attend to clothing issues in His order of priority."

To our chagrin, World Racers can sometimes be this way. Too many of them don't seem to understand that in many cultures, their tattoos or scruffy attire communicate a worldliness. We ask them to pack light, but unpacking a sense of entitlement is a lot of work.

The problem is that, if we're to be effective, we must go as guests. Yes, our hosts may be legalistic. They may have their own issues. But that doesn't give us the right to be poor guests. We are only able to serve in the local culture because we are partnering with them. Without them, there would be no local relationships and no follow up. So we must learn what it means to be a good guest.

Just a few questions would help them be better guests and more effective missionaries. Questions like, "Is there anything about my appearance that might make it hard for me to be accepted in this country?" Or, "What do I need to do to fit into the local culture?"

Today Taylor McKellar gives us a better example to follow. A former racer who wants to plant the kingdom, he is flying to Hydrabad, India and heading north. He's in India for the next six months to serve a 29 year-old Indian church planter named Sunitha. She has planted over 200 churches. Her method is to go into a village preach the gospel, heal the sick, and cast out devils. After she's done, she leaves a church behind.

Andrew Shearman gave Taylor his instructions before leaving, "Pack light. Only give your opinion if you're asked for it. Become like an Indian. Serve well under her authority. Maintain an attitude of humility and thankfulness."

Paul said, "To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." (1 Cor. 9:22)

And a little earlier* he says, "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak." That's our standard.

Karen and I are going to coach a new World Race squad that launches in September. We'll tell them about how we tried to live it out as missionaries in Indonesia where Karen cooked on bunson burners and didn't have a fridge. We'll give them Andrew's advice about serving well with thankfulness and humility.

Jesus said "the first shall be last." He said, "be the servant of all." It's tough medicine, but it's the antidote to the stereotype of the new ugly American.

* 1 Cor. 8:9

Comments (18)

  • Jesus put on clothes of a different culture in order to minister accordingly. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14a)

    http://wp.me/pAK6C-6w
    …yield, meaning “to relinquish one’s possession of position of advantage or point of superiority.”

    –Jill

  • Amen!!

    As a World Race alumnus twice over, I am encouraged to read Andrew’s advice.

    The World Race is a great expression of faith, but too many racers sacrifice the pursuit of a Maturity in Christ for the freedom he offers.

    We are called to both.

    Love you Seth!

  • James Eugene Barbush

    WOW1 Excellent, WAKE UP advice from Andrew SHEARman. He knows how to SHEAR the sheep. Baaa, Baaa.

  • so true. sometimes i look in the rearview and realize that i’ve allowed my liberty to devolve into license…in this culture.

    “Pack light. Only give your opinion if you’re asked for it. Become like an Indian. Serve well under her authority. Maintain an attitude of humility and thankfulness.”

    thanks so much for this intelligent & gentle reminder, seth

  • Great reminder. I think that we can get caught up in our own comfort that we forget that we are not there to serve ourselves. We are not explorers looking to claim land and people by sticking our christian flag where we have been, but to be a part of the culture and love them where they are at!
    Thank you for the reminder Seth!

  • “Pack light. Only give your opinion if you’re asked for it. Become like an Indian. Serve well under her authority. Maintain an attitude of humility and thankfulness.”

    Beautiful, applies to all, not only those spreading the Word in India.

  • Excellent!

    You said, “Just a few questions would help them be better guests and more effective missionaries. Questions like, ‘Is there anything about my appearance that might make it hard for me to be accepted in this country?’ Or, ‘What do I need to do to fit into the local culture?’ These are great.

    Another question to add to the two above could be … “Will this build or break trust with those I am trying to reach?”

    As Paul said, “In your freedom, serve one another.”

  • Great insite on this subject! I remember when my husband & I WENT TO SO. AMERICA TO ADOPT our son. I had just read an article about that & we kept our demeanour low key & respecful of the Colombian culture as we stayed with their family for 3 wks during the adoption process. There were many situations that if we acted as ugly Americans, would’ve caused much delay to the process. As a result, we enjoyed a very stressful process that left this adoption route opened to future couples.

  • I’m an American, and I’ve been living in India 14 years, this is a great blog post. The only critique I would have is that it is even somewhat ‘ugly american’ to call the culture legalistic as an outsider to it. Even assuming you have the wisdom/judgement to determine what is legalism and what isn’t in a culture that is not your own, is presumptuous.

    If world racers even go into cultures with this presumption, “I’m gonna submit to these cultural norms in order to be more effective…..even though clearly they are wrong”….wow! That’s kinda ugly too.

    Make sense? Other wise, great word!

  • Aaron,
    Yes it’s true that it often matters more to the Christians there, but I don’t see why that has to be a stumbling block. The bottom line is that we are all on a journey and whether one is ‘saved or unsaved’, we are there to share God’s love. Respecting the Christian culture there does not mean you have to endorse it, but again, it goes back to where we want our priorities to be focused on. I can be there to free people of clothing legalism or I can keep my gaze on Jesus as we all learn to love and know Him better and trust Him that He will expose and address clothing legalism in His timing and with the attention He thinks it needs based on where it is in His priority scale.

    Also, as a missionary of more than 25 years, I can tell you that my experience does not back up your comment that, “I’ve noticed that this type of American has been accepted and lovingly embraced by everyone else but the “Christian” abroad.” Not even close, but granted, there are indeed numerous non-believers who aren’t going to give a hoot about if you’re dressed modestly or immodestly and thus will embrace you regardless.

    In Haiti where tattoos generally are associated with thugs, we found our Christian brothers and sisters accepting (but either questioning or curious) of the Americans sporting them. Numerous non-Christians though made some immediate negative assumptions about those with them. Many of those with the tattoos didn’t even know they were being judged however as they didn’t take the time to ask and didn’t want to be clued into that. (My pastors each had tattoos so understand that I am not taking an anti-tattoo stance, but I respect the fact they wanted to know if it would be a stumbling block so they could take appropriate action in wearing attire that didn’t expose it.)

  • WOW. Very good insight.

    Even here @ home there needs to be this understanding. The church where I am a member leans more traditional w/ many young families moving in and joining. Many of the younger ones dress on Sunday like they do the rest of the week. No problem except that when they are up front it becomes a distraction to 1/3 of the fellowship.

    Their heart/passion for the Lord gets missed b/c their jeans have a stupid hole, or they are wearing shorts/flip flops.

    Part of it is education, but mostly it boils down to maturity. “I can grow shaggy hair, wear ripped jeans and sport my ink b/c God looks at the heart not my appearance, so you need to get over it!”

    I have seen so many diminish their possible impact b/c they were unwilling to make minor changes in the way they dress. Really what is the goal? Personal expression or kingdom building?

    I too went through this and finally decided that I couldn’t fight every battle. This wasn’t one worth fighting. Sometimes when you go along to get along, you have more energy to fight to really important battles.

    Wes

  • Adaptation is the key for any missionary. We learn from experience and being sensitive, then we adapt. We have to evolve (yes, I said evolve) beyond our own freedoms and liberties to see where people are. We go to countries where many individuals have not experienced the freedoms and liberties we have. I believe that people who can embrace and use their freedoms should be mature enough to know about “stewarding” said freedoms.

    Great post, Seth. Definitely making me think today.

  • I am reading a great little book called the Grace and Truth Paradox. Those are the two words that best characterize Jesus, but only when used together equally.

    Grace without truth becomes entitlement and loose living. On the other hand, truth without grace becomes legalism and bondage. Individually, both will lead us away from Jesus because He is the fulfillment of both. When we seek the two together, we find Jesus in all of His glory.

  • haha…. so true! Something that often times I struggled to voice out while on my WR while travelling with many Americans. Definitely something to address to all WRacers before they launch out.

  • Very interesting blog. I’ve wrestled with this thought more than a few times. What I’ve noticed though, is it seems that the people who have the greatest struggle with the new ugly “American” tend to be those already churched or Christian brothers abroad, not the “lost” abroad. So while I understand the intent, I’ve noticed that this type of American has been accepted and lovingly embraced by everyone else but the “Christian” abroad. This is where I struggle with it and what is wise to do. Should you cater go the unsaved and become one of them or to the piety that you see with the brethren to become one of them?

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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