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Cultivating the culture: Checkpoint Autumn 2021

CMS missionaries Wim and Maaike Prins have been serving in Cambodia since 2004, where Wim is involved in translation work for the Fount of Wisdom Publishing House. Here Wim reflects on the importance of long-term ministry in building trust in relationships.

Some years ago, in Siem Reap, Maaike and I met a missionary couple who, upon arrival in Cambodia, started a life-coaching ministry among the Khmer. They wanted to counsel Cambodian Christians about marriage problems, financial debts, and so on.

Ministry: Just do it?

While we admired their youthful zeal, what they attempted to do could not be done. Their interpreters would roll their eyes due to the one-size-fits-all-cultures approach to coaching, so they lost much of their message in translation. In some ministries there are no shortcuts.

The value of language

When we signed up to serve cross-culturally for at least 10 years in 2003, CMS required that we learn Khmer, the Cambodian language. I didn’t consider this severe punishment. To learn a fifth language at age 41, and due to the Khmer script and Eastern worldview, meant things went slowly.

We still remember practising our first sentences at the local fruit stalls. We would proudly speak a few words. Then we would be overwhelmed by a barrage of slang from the mouths of toothless sellers. But as we learnt more, we were able to have conversations and build trust. Cambodians opened their hearts because they could speak to us in their mother tongue.

Learning the language shows Cambodians that we’re here to stay. Not only this but being immersed in their culture helps us to understand what makes them ‘tick’. Talking the talk is one thing. Cultivating the culture is another. It’s so much more than reading about the meaning of Khmer festivals and proverbs. It also involves sitting on the floor cross-legged for so many hours that you then can’t walk, or eating creepy-crawlies as a snack. But it’s so worth it!

Relishing relationships

If not for learning the language and culture, how could we get beyond the friendly smiles, in order to build genuine friendships with Cambodians? Our brothers and sisters in the Lord in Phnom Penh, Ratanakiri Province, and Siem Reap have shaped us into the people we are today. As I work alongside and build friendships with the staff at Fount of Wisdom Publishing House, I get to share their laughter and tears, their formal meetings and informal confessions.

Talking the talk is one thing. Cultivating the culture is another.

Translating with care

As the only foreigner in a team of four, I’m thankful for my long-term involvement in Cambodian ministry. Translating books here is not just a matter of translating multisyllabic words, but of conveying Western thoughts and biblical concepts in an Eastern setting, in a country recovering from genocide, where few people are avid readers or abstract thinkers. It has been a great privilege, and challenge, to introduce a valuable reference work (such as the New Bible Dictionary) to Cambodians—enriching Christian leaders who will in turn enrich the Cambodian church!

So, ‘Just do it’? Well, yes and no. With every new year I think: what I did last year, I would do slightly differently now. And as for those who come short-term, certainly there is a place for them. But when the short-termers leave, it is the long-term missionaries (and the local believers) who need to worry about whether new converts will become a part of God’s church.


To go means being ready to be gone, and arrive somewhere else, for a long time. Are you ready? Contact your local CMS branch to explore the next steps to going long-term.