While the world of missions can be one rife with challenges and complexities, understanding the disparities between monochronic and polychronic concepts of time can be integral to success when undertaking evangelical endeavors. Marked by the belief that time is an expendable commodity that must be used wisely, the monochronic view of time encompasses the notion that it can be lost, spent, wasted, or used efficiently. Perhaps most importantly, the monochronic understanding of time includes the idea that it is available in limited amounts. The polychronic view of time, however, is predicated on the principle that rigid adherence to schedules is not valuable because they reduce people to blocks of time, which confers business rather than intimacy. Thus, a polychronic understanding of time differs from the monochronic philosophy in that the former adheres to more fluid principles in which the passing of each moment does not unfold against a mental backdrop marked by concern over it being appropriated efficiently and precisely. In their important book Introducing World Missions, Moreau, Corwin, and McGee cover this topic quickly and cogently. Because the 21st century world of mission work is unfolding against a background of globalism and multiculturalism, it is important that evangelicals and the Christian world at large understand how disparate views of time can contribute to-or impede-their efforts to share the gospel with others.
To provide readers with a context in which to understand the difference between monochronic and polychronic concepts of time, the Introducing World Missions authors share the story of Ben, a young missionary in Africa whose work led him to understand the disparities between the two. As a result of the experiences Ben had had in college, his frame of reference prior to his missionary work led him to believe that not keeping close track of time was rude. This idea was buttressed by his time spent in a culture where the world was run according to schedules and appointments. In operating within a world where appointments were important, Ben understood that arriving before the scheduled time of meeting was the socially appropriate thing to do. When he went to Africa, however, this paradigm was challenged by the concepts of time that guided the actions and attitudes of his friend, Jabulani. Having been immersed in a culture where arriving exactly on time would have been an indicator that a scheduled meeting was “all business” (271), Jabulani believed it would be better to arrive a little late when Ben invited him to dinner. Yet-in operating according to his own principles of time-Ben prepared their meal to be consumed roughly thirty minutes after he expected Jabulani to arrive. But Jabulani arrived about an hour after their official scheduled time to meet, an act he did not view as problematic given his belief that their relationship was one predicated on friendship, not business. Ben, in not understanding that Jabulani was operating according to polychronic principles of time, grew upset and berated him for being late. This left Jabulani confused and finally concluding that their relationship was predicated on business, not friendship.
When one considers the story delineated by the writers of Introducing World Missions regarding Ben and Jabulani, its import and signification becomes plain. People who operate according to different principles of time can have healthy and meaningful relationships if they understand their disparate world views. In the case of Ben and Jabulani, their sense of confusion and eventual alienation from one another was rooted in misunderstanding each other’s concept of time and the significance of operating according to popular philosophical paradigms of their culture. Had they understood these disparate paradigms, their relationship might not have fallen apart.
In my own life, I know that understanding the reality of monochronic and polychronic time is important, especially in relationships where I want to share the gospel of Christ. At this moment, I have a friend who operates according to very fluid principles of time, meaning that arriving twenty to thirty minutes after a scheduled meeting is not considered rude or disrespectful. In knowing this, I understand that our relationship will not necessarily fall apart if the train I catch to meet her runs late and I end up arriving half an hour after our scheduled date. This understanding is important on many levels, especially since I have been attempting to share the gospel with her. Knowing about her personal proclivities and concepts of time is integral to ensuring that I do not do anything offensive which would complicate or negate my opportunity to talk about Christ with her.
As mentioned earlier, understanding the disparities between polychronic and monochronic concepts of time is integral to the evangelical world because missionaries are quite likely to come in contact with individuals who do not share their preexisting beliefs about the reality of time. For this reason, it is important for missionaries and all individuals interested in witnessing effectively to the lost to understand how mutually exclusive concepts of time can complicate such endeavors.