Time Is on My Mind

Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers published a little book called Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships in 1986 that is now in its second edition.  It is a worthy introduction to both the concrete application of an incarnational missionary approach and the use of anthropological paradigms in mission work.  I’ve adapted some of it this year for the internship.  The book features a simple questionnaire, the responses to which allow one to plot several of the respondent’s basic cultural orientations.  This exercise, in the first place, allows the missionary to know his- or herself better.  But I’ve also set the inters to the task of translating the questionnaire (in language class) and surveying random Peruvians.  This gives us the opportunity to compare our orientations as Americans with our Peruvian neighbors’.

There are all kinds of reasons that this exercise is of limited value empirically.  We have not ensured that the translations communicate as well in Spanish as they do in English.  We have not attempted to understand the cultural biases that might be affecting the survey methodology itself.  And we certainly have not surveyed a statistically significant sample size.  But the results have stimulated profitable discussion nonetheless.  I will share an observation gleaned from one of our conversations.  

Each cultural value surveyed is coupled with a corollary value and plotted on an X–Y axis.  In other words, for each value there is another value in tension with it, but Lingenfelter and Mayers do not construe this tension as polar.  For example, there is time orientation and event orientation.  The graph on which they are plotted looks like this:

Thus, one can be high or low on either orientation, in many different combinations.  The book provides the following summary explanation of these two values: 

So how do Americans usually test?  You might easily guess: higher on time than on event.  Between myself and the interns, the average scores were about 4 on event and 5 on time.  These scores, I suspect, reflect the interns’ stage of life (incidentally, this is and example of why statistical validity matters).  The authors hypothesize that the average American is at about 2 on event and 6 on time.  The point is, Americans generally value time (“time is money”) markedly more than event.  

We also have expectations for Peruvian results.  We expect Latin Americans typically to be less time conscious than North Americans.  For example, Lingenfelter and Mayers characterize the difference in terms of tolerance for lateness: 

While we have definitely struggled with this difference, my study of Peruvian culture has often been a process of overcoming generalizations about Latin America when they do not apply to Peru.  One point of confusion for an American trying to interpret the behavior of Peruvians is actually not their concept of lateness but their inconsistency regarding time orientation.  (Note: I am not referring here to variance in individual personality, for which Lingenfelter and Mayers allow in a given culture.)  I think it would be easier (for me) to adapt and experience church life accordingly if the apparent Peruvian time orientation were uniform.  

There are major facets of Peruvian life that are clearly time conscious, such as work and school.  Even here there are notable differences from American modes of operation, but generally speaking, employees in the business sector are expected to be at work on time and are penalized if they are not.  Formal businesses open and close when they are supposed to and movies show on time.  Children are expected to be at school on time (I’ve been reprimanded for dropping off the kids late because of traffic).

Yet, there are other aspects of life that are radically event oriented.  I was just invited to a party scheduled for 7:00 pm, with the caveat that people won’t show up until 8:00 or 8:30.  Compare that with the Latin American concept of lateness above.  For parties, excused lateness is an hour to an hour and a half.  Family gatherings, which are frequent, function similarly.

So how did Peruvians score on our questionnaire?  Admittedly not how I expected—but just how I might have expected had I thought more about the above dynamics.  


I have to reiterate that we can’t possibly take these survey results as statistically valid—there may be some factors skewing the respondents’ answers (such as their understanding of the Likert scale), and we are not working with a representative sample.  But after considering the results, there is something at least intuitively right about them.  Peruvians feel compelled to affirm strongly both time and event.  There appears to be a pressure within the culture to hold these two values in significant tension.  

I speculate that, were we to conduct the same exercise in rural Peru, we would find event to outweigh time greatly.  The stereotypical portrayal of Latin American countries like Peru, I believe, reflects traditional cultures.  In a city like Arequipa, where globalized modern paradigms such as those of business and education demand conformity far more than they adapt to local culture, there is a powerful compulsion to value time in the same way those paradigms’ countries of origin do.  This comes as part of a very aggressive narrative about the meaning of progress, development, accomplishment, capacity, and power as a country.  The narrative’s implicit claim from grade school on is that success in the global marketplace is contingent upon valuing time, for example, in the same way one’s competitors do.  This is a prerequisite to success in education (Peru adopted the American education model) and in business.  I believe this is a possible explanation for why Peruvians, who traditionally value event, would respond to our survey in a way that equally values time.

Though we might critique this phenomenon extensively, that is not the aim of the present article.  Whether good, bad, or both, the contextual reality is what concerns me—how do we locate our experience as church within this value system?  As missionaries, what tendencies do we affirm or reject, what values do we incarnate, and how do we interpret our Peruvian neighbors’ interaction with us and each other? 

Because our value system is truly time oriented, our tendency has been to ask, “If they can be punctual to work and school, why not to church meetings?”  We interpret Peruvians’ behavior quite literally in terms of value: they must think church is less important than work or school, if they cannot accord it the same effort.  After all, it is evident they can come on time if the want to.  You can see how our values function to shape our reasoning.  But this is not the only reasonable interpretation.  

In fact, some of our explicit intentions as a team should lead us to a very different conclusion.  We are working to establish a non-institutional ecclesiology.  If it is institutions such as work and school that demand punctuality, Peruvians showing up late to our meetings should be a kind of affirmation that we are succeeding.  Moreover, their treatment of church in terms of event orientation suggests that they view it more as a family gathering, which should be positive for us, since our fundamental paradigm for church is family.  Similarly, we might compare this event orientation with their disposition toward parties.  Scholar Justo González has postulated that culturally attuned Hispanic worship is essentially experienced as fiesta (party) (Justo L. González in Justo L. González, ed., ¡Alabadle!: Hispanic Christian Worship [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 9-28).  If Peruvian Christians are experiencing assembly as family, fiesta, or both, we should be thankful to God; and we should also expect them to show up late!  

These conclusions might have been obvious to others, but it was in fact the process of talking through the survey results that, after four years in the field and a significant amount of previous study, finally helped me to see the reality of our cross-cultural struggle differently.  My deeply instilled values still dominate.  I am not one of those missionaries who finds acculturation easy.  Appreciating the differences cognitively is one thing; really seeing the world differently is another.  But I do feel less frustration when I manage to grasp little insights such as these.  I’m grateful to the interns for participating in the survey process.