Three Things to Remember When Crossing Cultures

it's not you, it's me

Editor’s Note: We’d like to introduce you to Ellen Adkins, a recent graduate of Kennesaw State University with a degree in Cultural Anthropology, who served as our intern during the Spring 2015 semester, and is currently attending Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY for her graduate work. She has served in Ireland and the UK, including field site demographic research for the IMB. Ellen attended the “Help! We’re Going On A Short-Term Trip!” seminar in January 2014, when it became obvious she and CULTURELink shared a common passion: enhancing cross-cultural effectiveness through discipleship. Over the next few months, we will be sharing several of the articles she wrote for us during her internship.

Three Things to Remember When Crossing Cultures

Crossing cultures is full of highs and lows. Everyone handles the challenges of crossing cultures differently. The emotions people experience are what we call “culture shock.” There are different phases of culture shock. Some shut down entirely; many romanticize the new culture, while others desperately cling to what they know as “normal.” One of the biggest temptations people experience when serving in a cross-cultural setting is the temptation to think that your own culture is the measure of what is “normal” or “right” and that anything that deviates from it is “wrong.”

It’s easy to embrace this mindset. When you cross cultures, you are stretched far outside your comfort zone. Customs and social norms may be radically different than what you are used to. Churches in your host culture will most likely be different than church in a western, American context. These are all difficult things to wrestle with as you enter into a cross-cultural setting. Using your own culture as the standard of “normal” can reinforce cultural barriers and damage your relationship with locals.

As you embark on a short-term mission trip, here are three things to remember in order to help identify your role in the new culture.

1. You are the foreigner.
If ever there’s a time to apply the cliché, “It’s not you, it’s me,” it’s when you cross cultures. The moment you step off of the airplane, you are the foreigner. It is not they who eat, talk, drive, or live differently. You are different. You are a guest in their culture, and that should not be taken lightly. As a guest, be conscious of how you speak. Show appreciation. In general, just behave!

2. Approach as a learner.
As a student, study and learn from your host culture. Ask questions! If there are customs or traditions that seem peculiar to you, ask a national or missionary about it. You may realize that the reason you find a certain behavior or practice off-putting is simply because you do not know the reasoning behind it.

3. Serve with humility.
When Jesus sent out His followers, He said, “As my Father is sending me, so I am sending you.” Jesus is our example for cross-cultural engagement. He spent time with prostitutes and lepers, washed the feet of His disciples, and died on a cross in between two thieves. Look at how Paul addresses the church in Philippians 2. As you go into the world, may you take on the mindset of Christ and be willing to crucify yourself. Learn to see people of different nations, tribes, and tongues the same way that Christ sees them.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” – Philippians 2:3–11

For more on this topic, see the article entitled “Building Bridges” from Session 3 in your Team Member Manual.

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