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Working Through Cultural Differences

"Love will always find a way to build a bridge of love and concern with your ethnic neighbors, even though cultural mistakes are made." (1)

These encouraging words from Dr. James Duren come from his experience in over 30 years of cross-cultural ministry. Dr. Duren recommends that before we begin our work, we consider the following advice, orginally written for candidates preparing for foreign service:

"If we are going to deal with people as people in a culture that is vastly different from our own, we have to come to fundamental realization that people are different from society to society, and to do this we are going to have to make the major move to change.

If we are going to be persons among people, our privacy, our established patterns of what is convenient and comfortable are going to have to be drastically modified. Our sense of belonging to ourselves will have to be filed away and we will have to develop a sense of belonging to others, which charaterizes so many societies in the world.

This sort of experience involved a tremendous emotional drain. It is an extremely difficult attitude to take and postion to follow. It means 'becoming all things to all men so that by all means we might win some' in the deepest sense, and it means a type of cultural suicide which Paul characterizes as being 'crucified with Christ.'"

    William Smalley
    The World is Too Much With Us (2)

Dr. Duren explains why this fundamental attitude must be ours, even though we are ministering in our own land. We must intentionally keep an open mind, to try new things, in order to avoid our own unconscious tendency to prefer things familiar to us.

"Even the most kindly intentioned among us takes it for granted that as our relationship with other ethnic people develops, it will do so on our terms. That is, we naturally expect these other folk will become like us, not that we shall become like them.

How easy it is to fall into this kind of thinking! 'They will learn English, the rules of baseball, how to drive a car and where McDonald's hamburger place is. As they adjust more and more to these things, we shall get on quite famously. Of course, they will want to make these adjustments, for it is obvious that these ways of ours are the best ways!'"(l)

In order to reach any lost soul with the gospel of Christ, we must love them, and that includes respecting their cultural heritage, learning and listening.

"Millions of people today are being turned away from the gospel, not by Christ, or by the repentance that He calls for. They are turning away because well-meaning, zealots for Christian traditions have demanded adherence to so-called 'Christian' cultural traditions.

"Superficial matters such as diet, dress, music, family names or any number of other peripheral matters are not what the gospel is about. No people should reject Christ because of a false impression that He is calling them to commit cultural suicide by abandoning and divorcing themselves from their own people.

"God calls all people to heartfelt repentance, but repentance is not to salute Western lifestyle or churhly traditions.

"Today, we must do all that we can to welcome people to Christ through that door of faith, helping them follow Christ without carrying a 'greater burden' of traditions which are not the essentials of obeying Christ in faith."

    - Steven C. Hawthorne (3)

Learning about their culture will help place your relationship on a firmer foundation. Every culture has shared behaviors which help people know what to expect and how to interpret their neighbor's actions. Here's just one example:

"In Yap (a small island in the South Pacific), an invitation to chew betel nut is a cue to initiate conversation. This cue is equivalent to offering a cup of coffee in the United States. Here guests terminate the conversation by suggesting they must leave, whereas in Yap the host terminates the conversation by saying that it is all right for the guests to leave. A failure to grasp the meaning of such cues results in misunderstandings, confusion, and oftentimes interpersonal conflict." (4)

Scientists have studied human culture and identified many of the values and message systems that are part of every culture. For example, cultures vary in their attitude toward time, toward property, how they share resources, how family and community are defined, in division of labor between the sexes, in how they teach their children, how they play, and in many other ways.

One common area of tension is different perceptions of time. A pastor who developed a ministry to a particular people group said, "I had to learn that when they said, 'We'll come to see you Tuesday,' it could mean any Tuesday."

An American had a friend from Haiti who explained that in his culture, if a meeting was announced for 3:00, people might begin arriving around 4:00, and the meeting itself would probably not begin until 5:00 or later. The American couldn't understand this and asked him why they did it this way. The Haitian man explained, "In our culture, the most important people come late. It is a mark of status if people are willing to wait for you."

In many cultures, relationships are more important than time. People don't mind waiting. We might not think this way, but knowing that our friends do can help us avoid frustration at our differences.

Cultures often differ in how they handle conflict. Westerners tend to be quite direct and value honest discussion of differences. However in many non-Western cultures people will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. Mediators are often the key to resolving conflicts in a manner which "saves face" for all involved.

"Very little of what manifests itself as conflict between individuals is truly personal conflict. Rather, conflict between persons often arises out of environmental, institutional, or theological tensions, ...clashing world views and images which often function as unexamined assumptions.

For example, if one's dominant image is militaristic, (Christians as soldiers and the church as 'army') and another's is pastoral (Christians as sheep, with the church as sheep-fold), conflict will result. There will be those who can relate to 'Onward Christian Soldiers' and those who better relate to 'His Sheep Am I.' "
    -Transforming the City

Ethnic Harvest has a list of books on culture and customs you can read to find out more about cross-culture differences. Here are two we recommend:

Another helpful resource is the online booklet Overcoming Culture Shock in the United States, which was written to help exchange students fit in at American universities. As you read it, put yourself in the place of your new foreign-born neighbors. So many things to learn! So many familiar places and people left behind.

If you are ready to be challenged with a powerful missionary vision, read The Word of God in the Mother Tongue, The Life of Faith in the Mother Culture. This article and the study questions at the end are sure to create some lively discussion at your next Missions meeting.

Another challenging article is What Color Is Jesus? How Can We Present Jesus to a New Culture without Bringing Our Own?, by David Learner, reprinted here with permission from Mission Frontiers, the magazine of the U.S. Center for World Mission, 1997-07-01.

If your church is planning cross-cultural ministries, either within the U.S. or around the world, it is important to get training (either from books or from the sending agency) on how to encounter and work effectively in another culture. Here's one quote from a Christian planning a short term mission trip, which illustrates how important this preparation can be:

"I'm so glad I didn't go out before I had this training. It made all the difference in the world to know how to go as a 'learner' instead of a 'know-it-all-American.' Before the training, I would not even have known that I was a 'know-it-all-American,' but I was. I would recommend that every mission trip have similar training before they go."

(1) James Duren and Rod Wilson, The Stranger Who Is Among You, William Carey Library, 1983.

(2) William Smalley, The World is Too Much With Us, Reading in Missionary Anthropology II, p. 702.

(3) Steven C. Hawthorne, Acts of Obedience, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 1999, William Carey Library, p. 123.

(4) Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally. Copyright 1986, Baker Books.

(1) Excerpted with permission from "The Stranger Who is Among You"
James Duren and Rod Wilson, William Carey Library, 1983.

How to Start

Opportunities for Cross-Cultural Ministry

Overcoming Our Fears

Working Through Cultural Differences

Celebrating Diversity


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