I have been to over 20 different countries and most of them very third world. There are a few that I remember distinctly. Haiti for example, I remember my first trip there (I’ve been there 4 times since then) the plane door opens and a rush of hot humid air slaps you in the face and then you walk down the stars and across the tarmac to the most ridiculously disordered customs and baggage claim area you can imagine. After you find your bags in the mountain of bags just pilled up you make your way towards to front door where you see hundreds of people all clambering to carry your bag. You politely say, “no” but that does not work as they just force their hand on your bag or lay across your trolly and walk with you. You say over and over again, “no thank you! no thank you!” But it does not matter as you still have 2-5 people holding onto your bag or laying across your trolly. So you just continue to push through. Once you get to your vehicle each one of those individual now holds out their hand expecting to be paid for their efforts. You are tired, crazy hot and sweaty and beyond frustrated that your American personal space has been beyond violated. On top of that they now want you to pay them for something you explicitly said no to like 45 times. This is where first impressions matter. How you react in these situations will effect the success of your ministry for months and possibly years. Everything you do is scrutinized and they are studying you. However, just how you don’t understand them they don’t understand you. You are judging them through your American filter and they are judging you through their own filters. And more often then not those filters are completely opposite and everything is a misunderstanding. However, in their country you need to recognize that your filter is now wrong and their filter is now correct.
Along with this, westerners have a huge uphill battle to fight as we have left a devastating impact on most countries. Most non-american nationals view Americans as loud, rude, and self-centered people. And sadly they are mostly right. This is the stereotype that every American missionary faces when they land in another country. You are not innocent until proven guilty. You are guilty the second you step off the plane and everything you do determines greater guilt or a slow build into the positive side of becoming the counter to the stereotype.
Another area of struggle you will have is an inferiority complex. Naturally, we believe our way is always the best way and that comes across as prideful and arrogant… because it is. As missionaries we need to respect the fact that we know, in reality, next to nothing about what we are getting into. We think we do but as time goes buy you will quickly realize that you are like a 2nd grader seeking to do adult ministry. You need to learn first. You are not “all that and a bag of chips.” Also, when missionaries come over with this attitude of “your doing everything wrong and you should be so thankful that God sent me to set you straight” the people will automatically distance themselves from you. Sure they will be polite and tell you what you want to hear because they are a save face culture but the trust factor will not be there. Remember, they (for most parts of the word) are relationship oriented and not about the tasks.
With all this, and much more, in mind you as the missionary need to recognize that first impressions matter. Your not God’s gift to the ministry! Check your attitude and your heart well before the plane ever touches down. Make sure you clothe yourself in humility and understand that you have a LOT to learn from the people. If you take this time and develop the relationships and learn their way of thinking you will be able to penetrate their lives and impact them with the Gospel. You need to remember that the little things are what matters – the face you make when they serve you a plate of food that looks like road kill, the way you respond to that shopkeeper who tries to gouge you with high prices and the little comments you make like “in America we do it this way.” All these things are simply making tinny cuts in your potential ministry influence. Remember that you are a guest in their country and their home and you need to be a gracious and respectful guest that is clothed in humility and gratitude.
Here is the key! You cannot do this on your own. You need to flood everything in prayer and be fully dependent upon the Holy Spirit. You need His grace to lead you and to cover your glaring flaws. You will make mistakes and you will offend people and only the Holy Spirit can help mend those wounds. I remember one time I was lost in Kampala Uganda. I needed to find the bus stop. I knew I was close but just couldn’t find the right street. I see and elderly man sitting on the sidewalk so I walk up to him and very politely say, “excuse me sir. Can you help me find the bus stop.” In America this was the polite way to say this but not in Africa. He looked at me and said, “young man! Here in Uganda we greet first! You GO!” And that was the end of that conversation. I had offended him. To him I cared more about the task of finding the bus stop then I did about him. That was the farthest thing from my intention that I desired to communicate. I was in this country to bring the Gospel and to help him and his people. But that is not at all what I communicated. You will make mistakes like this. Learn and grow from them. First impressions matter.