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Building Bridges

A case for cross-cultural efforts by Anne Angel

At the last missions conference we attended, we participated in a round-table discussion where these questions were posed to us: “What is your experience crossing cultural barriers? What steps can we take to make our church a more welcoming place to people of various backgrounds?” 

This is such an important conversation to be having because no matter where you live, you will encounter people of various backgrounds. As I’ve watched the race debates happening in the US from afar, I often think to myself that people are often conflating racism (mistreatment based on active dislike, disrespect, or hate of a certain group) with cultural ignorance (perceived or unintended mistreatment based on a lack of understanding of the other person’s culture and background). 

Especially among Christians, where everyone believes that all humans are created in God’s image and equally worthy of love and deserving of dignity, offense is often given inadvertently because Christians of one group – be it class or race or language background – lack what I’ll call “cultural awareness.” 

Cultural awareness can be defined as a basic understanding that there are many habits, attitudes, and protocols that govern groups of people, that these together make a “culture,” and that these patterns differ substantially from group to group. 

Importantly, it means that we become aware that our own habits, attitudes, and protocols primarily come from our culture and not from superior virtue, education, or godliness. Developing this ability means practicing openness with people of other cultures and remembering that their actions or words may mean something different to them than they do to us and that their intentions should not be assumed. 

What kind of differences are you talking about?

Let me give you a recent example from my own life. I have lived in Mexico seven years, but sometimes things still hit me the wrong way. Here was a text conversation I had with our worship leader about the Sunday morning service. I am a member of the worship team. 

  • Me: “Have we decided that worship will be an hour now or are we still shooting for 45 minutes?” 
  • Him: “Why do you ask?”
  • Me: “Because the last three weeks, it’s been an hour or more.” 
  • Him: “I don’t think anyone has noticed or cares. As long as the Spirit is moving, we play. You have to understand Latin culture is different. Don’t worry about it.” 

But for some reason, I was worried about it. More than an hour?? I felt this strong need to be respectful of people’s time; I felt that we were imposing a demand on others that they had not signed up for and that people would stop coming to the service if they didn’t know what to expect. 

However, I had to take seriously this cultural difference. Time is one of those things that is treated differently across the world. Perhaps in the US, people in the service would have cared a lot that the services were lasting longer than previously. But I had to take my Mexican worship leader’s words seriously. He knows that that is not how our Mexican congregation feels. They don’t think like I do. They don’t check their watches. They come when they can (possibly quite late), and they expect to stay until it’s over, whenever that is.  

This experience gave me an opportunity to practice letting go. I had to release my way and humble myself before someone else’s way. I had to ask the Holy Spirit for help. We need Him so much when we are in cross-cultural situations because it is almost impossible to feel comfortable or in control.

Why should I put myself in cross-cultural situations then?

For starters, a person who has never been “the stranger” or “the outsider” does not fully understand what it feels like to be that person and therefore will be less effective in loving the strangers and outsiders they meet. On the flip side, when people have been involved at one time or another in situations where their own native culture is not dominant, they will be better equipped to reach out when they see others in that situation. 

One example from our missions conference conversation came from a man who has been a missionary to Ukraine and a pastor since 1994. He said in that entire time, his family has never been invited into the home of a Ukrainian family from their church. That has made him feel sometimes rejected, sad, or ostracized, and made him wonder what he was doing wrong. At the end of the day, however, he had to let go of those feelings because he came to understand the Ukrainians were not trying to be mean or unwelcoming. They simply have other ways of expressing welcome.

One growth point from this experience was that he became intentional about inviting people over to his house who seem out of place whenever he can. When we develop cultural awareness by becoming learners in other cultural contexts, we learn to see the world with different eyes.

But what if I embarrass myself?

As we receive short-term teams of Americans to our base in Mexico fairly often, we have the privilege of being the facilitators of cross-cultural experiences for people. It is usually easy to tell who has never left their own country before because there is a particular kind of naïveté about them. Usually, it is simply that they make a lot of assumptions — about food, water, infrastructure, toilets, programs, schedules, and many other things that they have simply never taken the time to think about before. 

Some people don’t want to come on a missions trip because they feel embarrassed at the idea that they would be “that guy.”  But it is nothing to be embarrassed about! We all started in the same place. It is natural to not understand what you have never learned before.

Consider language learning. If you’ve only ever spoken English and never tried to learn another language, you are probably quite unaware of how your language is structured and put together. You may assume it is put together “the right way” and that its rules are “what makes sense.” But when you start learning another language, you come to understand that in world languages, there are options for how to order the words in a sentence, how to make verbs express different times, how to make new words from base words, and so on. Your language awareness begins only when you begin to compare your language to another one. 

Same with culture! Until you have something to compare it to, yours is just “normal” and “common sense.” But you don’t even know that there are options yet. And unless you are willing to feel the discomfort of not understanding everything and humble enough to question your assumptions, how will you grow? If you never leave your own culture, how will you be able to “see” it and begin to identify its unique value and beauty as well as its unique flaws and failures? 

Why is this so important again?

If we do not develop cultural awareness, we run the risk of confusing our native culture with the definition of Christianity. If church is only church if it looks and sounds like our church, we have a problem. As the Jews in the first century were often confused and had to hotly debate what part of their tradition was necessary to being a disciple of Christ, so we all as we share the Gospel should be closely examining how the culture of the Kingdom is different from our personal culture. Some things we can bring in. Others we must leave behind. Some things are neutral and it’s fine that they look and sound different in other places. Some things are vital to the faith and functioning of the church and should be shared globally.  Sometimes it’s not easy to figure out which is which! That’s okay. That’s why we learn from each other and continue leaning into the Holy Spirit to teach us all things. 

In essentials, unity.

In non-essentials, liberty.

In all things, charity.

As our churches continue their journey to be congregations that reflect God’s welcome for every tribe and tongue, I would challenge you to take an action step in one of the following ways. 

1) If you have never, or very rarely, spent time somewhere where your culture was not setting the rules, plan to do it this year. I recommend a short-term missions trip for everyone! Do not let feelings of inadequacy stop you from growing in this way. Going on a mission is a great way to 1) step out in faith for finances, 2) conquer fear, and 3) be a part of something bigger than yourself. I believe there is a missions experience that is right for anyone, and I know if you put it before the Lord, He will help you find it. If not internationally, there are thousands of opportunities to serve inside the United States and probably right in your own city. Reach out to someone you trust that has cross-cultural experience if you need ideas. 

2) If you have spent time in other cultures, continue to capitalize on that experience and be an intentional bridge for people that are currently feeling strange or on the outside. The more you practice conquering the fears that too often keep us from one another – (“What if I say something stupid? What if they get offended? What if they don’t want to talk to me? What if I’m invading their privacy?”) – the better you’ll get at it. 

3) If you are from another culture and have felt left out or even mistreated at a church where another culture is dominant, please don’t give up. God sees you, He loves you, and He wants you to feel welcome in His family. Most likely, the church family does, too, but perhaps they simply don’t know how to welcome you yet. Look for signs of welcome that may be outside your cultural paradigm. Assume people have good intentions. Although it may not be what you are used to, it still can be sincere.

And finally, for everyone… 

4) Enjoy and give thanks for the things about your culture that are great and the things that you have learned and value that make you who you are, that give you a sense of belonging and being at home, and that give you something unique to share (humbly!) with people of different backgrounds.

A big benefit of experiencing other cultures is that you become grateful for all you’ve been given that you didn’t even know was special. Don’t hate your city or your country if you’ve never even been anywhere else. It’s easy to focus on flaws and take for granted everything good. Resist that temptation!

When I come back to visit the United States, I can’t stop exclaiming at my thankfulness for the things that are lacking in Mexico: potable water, trust-based business transactions, public goods like libraries and parks, clean streets, and organization, efficiency, and excellence in many areas of life, to name just a few.

Developing cultural awareness will help you understand that although everyone in every place has individual and systemic problems and local and federal sins, God is bigger than all that. He sees individual and corporate treasures, too, in every place, language, and person, and He wants all of us to be finding them and redeeming them for His glory to the end of the age.

If you decide to join us on a trip to Mexico or any similar trip, come humble, come open, and come listening for what the Lord wants to show you through your global family. May you be brave, and may you be blessed as you go.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Matthew 9:37-38

Today, perhaps He is sending you!

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