Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Working in Asia, Collectivism, and the Church

In my day job, I run an engineering department for a global company, and as such I have had employees who work for me in five different countries; we support factories in America, Canada, Spain, Denmark, Poland, India, and China.

Working with this diverse group of people, we often run into cultural differences. The biggest differences, as you might expect, come when those of us from the “Western” world (i.e., America, Canada, and Europe) work with those in the “Eastern” world (i.e., India and China).

Easterners see the world dramatically differently from us, and at times it makes management difficult. For example, at the end of our process we have a final inspector whose job it is to keep any defects from leaving the building. This is a 100% reinspection of already-inspected items.

A strange trend in the data shows that there are exceptionally few findings in China during this final inspection, while in America there are an exceptionally high number. Yet warranty records tell us that the final quality is about the same, despite this vast difference in inspection findings.

During a trip to China, I started investigating to determine the cause of this vast difference in findings. What I discovered was surprising: the Chinese inspectors would find a defect, and tell the repair team to fix it…but then never record the data.

Why? Culture.

You see, in China the inspector did not wish to record the defect because it would make the worker who made the part, and the earlier inspector who missed the defect, look bad. He felt it would be bad teamwork to write up the defect. Therefore he still took care of the product, but did not record it. In America we are the exact opposite. The inspector feels that he has a moral responsibility to record everything he tells anyone to do—-“If I’m signing my name to the form, it’s gonna be right,” was the quote I heard from the American inspector.

This example very well illustrates a difference between Westerners and Easterners in terms of how we view the world. Western cultures have what sociologists describe as an individualistic worldview, whereas Eastern cultures have what sociologists call a collectivist worldview.

Why should you care? Because you see, the Bible was written by collectivists to collectivists. If you fail to recognize this, then you run a severe risk of misinterpreting the Scripture and missing a passage's intended point. And because the entire world at the time was a collectivist culture, this is an easy thing to miss! The Bible never explicitly points it out, because it is just the assumed worldview of everyone writing or reading. So we Westerners need to pay attention to this distinction when we try and interpret passages.

So let’s learn a bit about the difference between these cultures, and how that affects our reading of Scripture.

Individualism and Collectivism

The central unit of an individualistic society is, obviously, the individual. It is his rights which society must protect. It is he who should make the important decisions in his life. It is he who should take ownership for his choices. It is he who is responsible for his success or failure. The individual should be free to choose what he believes and with whom he spends time and how he lives his life.

By contrast, the central unit of a collectivist society is the community. It is the community which society must protect. The community makes decisions for people’s lives—-because key decisions are too important to be left up to immature and imperfect people. Thus councils of elders decide justice, parents arrange marriages, and important decisions are discussed with senior family members before they are made.

It starts young. We individualists teach our children that they can be anything they want to be: in other words, their individual decisions determine their futures. We (generally) avoid school uniforms so that they can express themselves as individuals. If our kids are playing a team sport, we keep track of individual statistics. Movies and music marketed to tweens tells them that conformity is the worst thing they can do, and instead they need to be bold and different and stand out from the crowd. Peer pressure is a major negative because it tries to convince you to give up your personal choice in order to “fit in.”

In collectivist societies, they do the opposite. They seek to be what their parents wish for them to be; it is assumed that the parents will know better and be wiser. They wear uniforms so that there are no noticeable differences. They play team sports like soccer which have little individualism involved. They actively seek out conformity, and being different is a thing to be afraid of and ashamed of. Peer pressure is seen as a positive influence because it keeps a person from making mistakes by being like everyone else. They (as we found in China) all go to the park at the same time, line up in a grid, and jump rope in time with the music for hours. To us it seems weird (and maybe even a bit creepy); to them, it is community spirit at its best.

I am not saying that one or the other of these is wrong, but just trying to highlight the differences between the cultural types.

My family lived in China for several weeks, and I have traveled there a few other times as well. My wife was shocked the first time she was in a Chinese toy store: a worker followed her around everywhere, as though afraid my wife would steal something. It freaked my wife out, and she left. What we later realized was that this is very typical. At a bookstore later, one person followed us everywhere. When we decided on a book, she took the book and handed to a second employee. This employee wrote out receipts, keeping one for himself and giving two copies to two other employees. Employee #3 went and gift-wrapped the book. Employee #4 took us over and checked us out at the counter. Four employees for a simple checkout of one customer! I have read books of people in other Asian countries with a similar experience.

To the American businessman, this seems horribly wasteful. It would be better to have one person be paid a higher wage and do all of these activities, thus eliminating the waste. But to the Chinese, it is better to have four individuals paid smaller salaries and keep them all employed. This is a result of their collectivist mindset: we Americans are horrified at the wastefulness and the inability of the individual to rise above the crowd; the Chinese are horrified at the thought of firing three people so that one can rise and be successful. (This is why every park I passed in China had half a dozen people sweeping, trimming flowers, etc. at all times.)

In the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Dr. Richards describes a missionary journey to Indonesia. The Indonesians literally do not have a word for privacy, because in their extreme collectivist culture this is not a desirable trait. Their closest word to the concept of privacy is “lonely.” They were shocked when Richards told them that American teenagers go on dates alone; the Indonesians said that would lead to pregnancy for sure! They felt dating was too important to be left to hormonal teenagers, and thus courtship always has chaperones involved. Indeed, the teens in Indonesia say that they prefer this. They do not see it as helicopter parenting, but rather as the parents protecting them from making bad life decisions.

I have a friend, Anthony, who is Vietnamese by ethnicity but raised in Arkansas since his birth. He is married to a young woman who is Filipino. Both Anthony and his wife’s parents are heavily involved in their lives-—much more so than he is comfortable with (after all, he has a very American view of the world). Being an individualist, he wants to make his own decisions about how to raise his daughter and live his life. But his parents (and his wife’s parents) expect to be able to stay whenever they want, tell them how to lay out their house and arrange furniture, and how to raise their children. Most of the stories he tells make his American colleagues shake their heads: “How do you put up with it? You’re an adult! Kick them out!” But to Anthony’s parents, they are merely showing their love to him in appropriate ways. They are simply from a collectivist culture. For a son to turn this down would be an extreme insult; and indeed, in China it is illegal for a child not to visit their elderly parents frequently.

This is but one example of how collectivist/individualist differences show up in political decisions. In China you are only allowed to have one child unless you pay a large fine, to prevent overcrowding. As a result, the Chinese are always shocked to find out that we have more than one child (such as in this picture, where we become a spectacle just walking down the street in Tianjin). They are mildly jealous of our freedom…but have no desire to oppose the decision of their government. They see it as being for the greater good.

Likewise, we are quite offended about human rights violations in China—-low pay, the one-child ban, censorship of the Internet, absolutely no freedom for gun ownership, and the like. But my experience with most Chinese is that they do not oppose these measures that so offend us…in fact, they find many of them natural. Of course everyone should take less money if that is necessary for the entire community to stay employed. Of course there should only be one child allowed for a family, if that is all the resources can support. Of course the Internet should be censored to protect us from dangerous things like pornography and war-mongering and dissention. Of course we should not have guns, because that is safer for the community.

My experience with China has opened my eyes to the fundamental difference in the way we view the world. We spend most of our energy deciding what is fair and good and desirable for me the individual, whereas they spend most of their energy deciding what is fair and good and desirable for the community to which I belong. (And then we--Democrats and Republicans alike--arrogantly assume that our way of viewing the world is superior and should be enforced on them until they are more "enlightened" like the West.)

It probably goes without saying that both of these worldviews have their virtues and their dangers. Cooperation among Eastern people is far superior to us, and sacrificial giving comes much easier; on the other hand, the individual can be unfairly trampled and mistreated, and never allowed to succeed. In the West, we individuals have our liberty and ownership of our own lives, but it comes at a risk of selfishness and allowing others to struggle while we thrive.

Collectivism in Christianity

The Bible was written by a series of Jews (and one Gentile, Luke), over roughly a 1,500 year period—-starting with Moses about 1400 BC and ending with John’s Apocalypse around 100 AD. All of the authors hailed from the Mediterranean cultures of the Ancient Near East, and all of these cultures were overwhelmingly collectivist.

Frankly speaking, if you get a native southeast Asian to read the Bible and describe the story back to you, they will probably have a better initial summary than a Westerner during our first reading. The things which are “assumed” in the writing are also assumed by collectivist societies today. (What a shame, then, that so few Bibles exist in these regions!)

The nature of society, then, has a huge impact on Christianity and we need to take it into account. (If Kyle from Japan is reading this, I’d be interested in your take in the comments, as Japan is an absolutely extremist collectivist society.)

For starters, notice the structure of church and religious life in Biblical stories, and how this differs from us. Community decisions are made by councils of elders like the Sanhedrin (Neh 2:16, Mark 14:55, Acts 4:15), whereas in America we can each make most of our own life decisions. People cared greatly about their family lineage and ancestry (there are dozens of genealogies and censuses recorded in Scripture, which they found exceptionally important), while few of us can even name one of our great-grandparents or know our family’s country of origin. Churches were run by a board of elders (Acts 11:30, 15:22) and this group would often rotate who was preaching, whereas today churches are run by individual superstar pastors with their own unique “vision and calling.” (Some even predict that 80% of Christians will be megachurch members by 2050.) In the Bible, people wished to worship as their forefathers had, so much so that Paul had to highlight for the readers that grace and faith dated back to Abraham (Rom 4:1-25); today, people rarely stay in the church that they were born into, instead going out to find the one that “feeds” them as an individual.

Even in terms of salvation, how we go about it differs greatly. In order to evangelize to Westerners, you need to convince them as individuals. The key for converting a Westerner is to convince the individual that the right decision for them is to follow Christ. But not so in the East: often missionaries report having trouble converting people because conversion would be seen as an insult to the Easterner's ancestors. They do not like the concept of leaving their family behind and going into a Heaven alone; they would often rather stay with their family! In collectivist societies, often it requires the conversion of the head of household in order for the entire household to be converted underneath him (Acts 10:2, 11:14, 16:30-34).

Their faith is no less real than yours or mine; but where you converted because you placed faith in your personal decision, they converted because they place faith in the decision of a respected elder. (Of course, in some ways this happens for those raised in Christian homes, as well, doesn’t it? My sons believe in Christ largely because they respect me and I believe. As they age, this faith will be tested and will have to be transformed in them as individual faith. But it is fair to say that my commitment to Christ is why my “whole household” believes, to use the terminology of Acts).

So you see then that collectivism can greatly influence our reading of Scripture.

A Few Examples – Food for Thought

I want to leave you with a few examples, so that you can begin to think as you read passages of Scripture, “How would a collectivist interpret this passage?”

Example 1: Luke 14:26

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

We may struggle with this sometimes in the West, but nowhere near like those in collectivist societies struggle with it. Though Westerners are a bit uncomfortable with the use of the word “hate” here, in general the point is one that we take for granted: being a disciple of Jesus means making an individual choice that others may not make. So you may have to choose Jesus over father and mother and wife and children in order to be His disciple. You cannot put them above Him and still follow Him.

We all basically “get” that. It makes sense to us, because frequently in life we make choices with which others disagree. If our parents don’t approve of our marriage partner, tough—-we are going to get married anyway, and it’s their problem if they don’t like it. If that means that we never speak again, so be it. In this instance, to use Jesus’ terms, we are choosing to “hate” our father and mother and instead choose to be bound to our wife.

So we don’t struggle with this like Jesus’ listeners would have. This makes us mildly uncomfortable; but for them, it shatters their worldview. In this passage (v.25-33), Jesus tells His followers plainly that they must be willing to renounce their community ties in order to follow Him. He must be their top priority.

To those in a collectivist society, this strikes at the heart of their very worldview, that the community comes above the individual. It just feels morally wrong to ask what Jesus is asking. For those of us who, like me, come from individualist societies, it does not have the same sting. Imagine that you were following Jesus and He turned and said to you: “Here’s the thing. If you want to keep following Me, you have to be My slave. You can’t make your own choices any more. You don’t own your body any more. You can’t love your country any more. You are to serve Me and Me alone, forever.”

That would turn a lot of people off in the Western world, but it’s got a similar feel to how the collectivists would have read Luke 14:26. So when you read this passage, don’t waste time worrying about whether “hate” is too strong a word…that misses the point entirely. Instead, try to feel how they would have felt, being told to turn traitor on their basic worldview.

Example 2: The Church Is One Body/Family

Most Christians are familiar with how often the Bible talks about the Church being one universal community. We are told that we are all family regardless of ethnic background (Gal 3:28, 1 Cor 12:13); that we all share in the same Lord (Eph 4:3-6, 1 Cor 1:10-13, 1 Cor 10:17); that we are all unified by Christ as though we were a single community (John 17:20-21); that we form a new community by our decision (Acts 2:42-47); that we are not abandoning our current people but are joining the people to who we properly belong (1 Pet 2:9-10); and that our faith is in fact linked to and descended from the faith of Jewish ancestry (Heb 11).

A great deal of energy is put into the New Testament to prove that joining Christ was in fact joining a fellowship and a people, rather than abandoning a community. This was a very hard learning for them, and remains hard for any from collectivist societies. They feel as though they are insulting their parents, ancestors, neighbors, and friends by leaving.

In American church, meanwhile, we fall into a different mode of failure. We become so concerned with finding our perfect individual theology that we divide and subdivide and subdivide the church ever more. We follow individual megachurch pastors who are charismatic or offer a good worship service. We don’t plant roots too deep at any church, instead focusing only on what’s good for me or (maybe) my family. As such we are not willing to sacrifice for the common good, either.

So in collectivist societies, they are harder to convert to Christianity…but once converted, are willing to give up far more than we are to make the Christian community thrive (cf Acts 2:42-47). Meanwhile we are willing to be converted more easily, but we stay at arm’s length when it comes to truly engaging with a church community or even the Church universal. We prefer to hold tight to our own theology, our own money, our own time, our own gifts. These things are ours, not the Church’s.


When you read the Bible, try and keep in mind that their society was different from ours. Yes God inspired the Bible for all people, but it is still written in the voice of the apostles from a collectivist society, and the New Testament letters address issues held by collectivitst churches. So we need to remember that when we read the passages, lest we accidentally misinterpret something.


  1. I read Misreading Scripture too, and really enjoyed it. I live in Japan, of course, and many of the observations rang true. There are a few exceptions, like time - compared to Indonesians and even Americans, Japanese are very fastidious about time. So not all Asian cultures are the same in this respect. Japan has its own idiosyncrasies - full-service gas stations where the attendants fill up your car for you, wipe the windows, and take your trash (I love this!), elevator ladies (which I have never personally experienced), and similar things.

    A good example of the cultural difference comes in how we view trash. In the US, people expect to have garbage cans everywhere. But in Japan, there are few public garbage cans, which tends to baffle foreigners. That's because people are expected to take care of their own junk and throw it out at home, rather than have the public serve their convenience. This illustrates how Japanese want to avoid being a bother to others, I think.

    That being said, Japan is very much in a transitional phase. Many younger people are much more individualistic than previous generations, influenced by Western entertainment (and western-influenced Japanese entertainment) that promote an individualist mindset. At its worst, this results in the many shut-ins or young people who live with their parents, with no clear trajectory in life - they've become, essentially, unable to mesh with a culture that is still deeply collectivist. And the scars inflicted by the strict (I'd say oppressive, even) school and especially work system are causing deep problems in Japanese society.

  2. The more I think about it, the more it seems that a heavily individualistic society is completely unsustainable. Collectivism is unpleasant for the individual, but ultimately gives some measure of stability to the widest number of people - that's why it's been the dominant system throughout history! Individualism strikes at the very heart of social stability - the family.

    Pick-up artists pursue radical self-interest by staying single, indulging themselves, and contributing nothing to the world. Some working women forsake marriage and family in order to maintain a similarly independent lifestyle. Both of these are glorified by the media - and ultimately, lead to declining birthrates as your society's original population dwindles, either to fizzle out or be replaced by immigrants.

    The church has been very slow to grow in Japan for a number of reasons (among many being that Japanese are shy and don't want to rock the boat by evangelizing, though I can hardly claim to be any better), but I think a big reason is, as you hinted on, community. I'm convinced that if the church is going to thrive here, it needs to make clear that when you become a Christian, you don't just cut your ties with everyone, live in isolation, and oh yeah, meet a few Christians once a week or something. It needs to be clear that the church is a new family, like you wrote - something that offers more than a person potential risks losing if they convert. The most successful church I've ever seen in Japan, the only one where people quickly converted, was one with a truly incredible sense of community. That's what we need.

    However, for young Japanese, a lot of the cultural obstacles that stopped the church's growth here in the past are falling away. Most young people don't particularly care about their ancestors, it's just a ritual for them. Most in their teens and twenties are already increasingly distanced from their families, much like Americans. It's hard to convince them that spiritual things matter; most just don't even care to think about it. But I think there's a lot of potential. Like most things in Japan, this is very slow to change - and I think there's a missing ingredient, some wide-scale disaster or world-altering event necessary to really get the ball rolling here.

    I've tried convincing my friends and family over and over again that cultural differences matter in how we understand the Bible, but I might as well try to push a boulder up a vertical wall. On the plus side, all this learning gave me a ton of ideas for my big fat fantasy series I'm writing, in which honor and shame, and an essentially eastern-minded person being forced into a jarring individualist world, is a big part.

    1. OK, two things. Number one, you just blew my mind with these two comments, particularly the first two paragraphs of the second post. Really impressive; I had not given thought to the sustainable of individualist cultures but I think you may be on to something here. Really interesting.

      Second, you already have one person who will buy a copy of your book--I was actually just reading "Warrior's Apprentice", a sort of fantasy/sci-fi book which has a (very small) subplot of how an honor-based society jars when meeting individualist/contract-driven societies, and I was wishing that this would be explored as a full book idea.

      So I am all about buying a fantasy book that explores that type of situation! :)

  3. Great, glad I could contribute! I'll put up more info on my book when it's close to completion (I'm working on revisions and rewrites right now.)