In cross-cultural contexts, missionaries must overcome a variety of obstacles before developing healthy, fruitful ministry. We will spend several weeks sharing a series of articles about these barriers and how to overcome them.
For me, it’s strange to think of culture as a barrier. I love studying culture and talking about cultural differences. I enjoy experiencing other cultures. I have a special fascination with Japanese culture. Culture is all about essential values, beliefs, traditions, and daily life rituals—it’s intriguing!
Believe it or not, your very own culture has all these elements, too. The way you think about life and your place in the community are all influenced by your culture. Your customs, your rituals, your routines—these are all part of your culture! Even your church has its own culture. Think about the special language you often speak at church that makes no sense to outsiders (“love offering” or “asking Jesus into your heart”, for example).
We often mistakenly lump cultures into big categories: Asian, African, American, European, etc. But we need to avoid this practice. Our own habits and behaviors, just like every other person we meet, are influenced by unique cultural lenses. These lenses are often specific to even our neighborhood or town; they’re not so broad that an entire continent shares the same lens.
Remember, too, culture is far more subtle than the language barrier. The words you use are just one element of culture, while you may be blind to the ways that you cross or or ignore the boundaries that define acceptable behavior in a given culture.
In Japan, for example, it is considered perfectly normal to sniff loudly when you have a runny nose. However, it is appalling when someone blows their nose in public. If you break this rule, can you overcome the stigma that you are a rude and disgusting person? Definitely—if you endure and show yourself generally to be a clean and polite person. But if no one tells you that you are acting in an offensive way, how will you know that you are doing anything wrong? You will almost always be the last to know when you are offending everyone around you.
How does that affect your ability to speak the gospel? In one way, being considered strange does not hinder your ability to speak to other people. On the other hand, being seen as an oblivious outsider means that everything you say is colored by that perception. The message you bring is the weirdo’s message.
If you never figure out your bad behavior, the only hope you have is longevity. After people know you for years and years, they may understand that you mean well, despite your cultural missteps.
Even so, when you fail to adhere to specific cultural concepts of acceptable behavior, there can be deep consequences. This next example shows the dangers of misinterpreting cultural cues.
If you invite someone over to your home for dinner, for example, there are things that you would tell your kids what to do and what not to do. In my house, we always had to clean up well and be on our best behavior. We also had to give our guests their first preference. Maybe you have different rules than ours, but I suspect they are similar.
In some cultures, hospitality means doing whatever the guest wants. This kind of thinking has huge ramifications for your gospel sharing. If you knock on a person’s door, they are obligated to let you in and do anything you ask. If you present the gospel of Jesus as an offer they must accept or reject, it’s a no-brainer for them. They will accept.
I recently watched a video from a missionary that said, “We are having a lot of success in people’s homes.” In the culture where this missionary worked, the people must do what the guest wants—even if they don’t want to do it. What does that mean for evangelism? Was the conversion genuine? Who wants to question the authenticity of someone’s conversion?
The reality is that there are hundreds of ways that a person’s culture impacts the way that they hear the message of the gospel. We cannot afford to put people in positions where they must either accept or reject the gospel. We want people to be able to hear the message of Jesus and respond truthfully in repentance and faith like the people in Acts 2 (pricked to the heart by the message).
Another dimension of this discussion is the impact that culture shock plays in the life of the cross-cultural worker. Why do they drive that way? Why do they always say, “No,” the first time you offer something? Why is it weird that I accept a compliment the first time someone gives one? Why won’t the waiter talk to me when I am in the company of a person from my host country? Why can’t I find my favorite foods here—I mean, who doesn’t like BBQ? Why is it ok to bump into people here? All of these and many many more impact the lives of missionaries. It can literally make a person go crazy if they never come to grips with the new set of cultural rules that govern life in their new place.
Overcoming the Cultural Barrier
The answer to the cultural barrier, like the answer to the language barrier, is years of study and dedication. Spending time learning about the culture will be invaluable.
In missions, you must think about the ramifications of your actions. Your behavior will influence the establishment of traditions and rituals in new believers. It is a huge burden. This next section, though, can help guide your thinking as you approach cultural situations like these.
- We can tell people that it is ok to be both a Christian and a part of their home culture—that being a Christian doesn’t mean becoming like exactly like you, the missionary. If you visit or live in an area where people have a distinctive cultural dress, loving Jesus doesn’t mean switching to polo shirts and khaki pants. It doesn’t mean that hamburgers, pizza, and hotdogs become regular fare at a block party. It doesn’t mean they must refuse to participate in cultural celebrations (though it may mean participating in a different way). New believers should not feel like they are abandoning their family or their cultural roots. We want new believers to go back to their families with the hope of the gospel like the Philippian Jailer did (Acts 16).
- We may put a stumbling block in front of people when we fail to explain that becoming a Christian doesn’t mean becoming an American. At the same time, we might accidentally entice people to belief with the idea that they are becoming more American by accepting the message.
- We can also empower and train leaders from the very beginning to lead the church. This entails the doctrinal and Scriptural training that is foundational to the church more than specific leadership skills. Every culture has different ways of expressing power-distance between people. In America, we have very little power-distance. You normally feel very comfortable inviting the pastor of the church over for dinner and sending him a funny text or email. In other cultures, the pastors will be treated very reverently with less direct familiar dialogue. Not knowing these rules will lead to confusion when the people treat you or the other leaders differently than you expect. Training and equipping new believers for the work of the ministry removes this barrier. You can observe the ways that leadership and the gospel work themselves out in the new church rather than trying to micromanage it.
- We can be honest about our own cultural bias and open a dialogue about the differences that exist between our culture and the culture of the people we are serving. While it seems like a small thing, this may be the best way to find out what you are doing “wrong.” It may also be a way for you to find out the little things that make the people tick. This is also a good time to mention how prayer helps overcome cultural barriers. You can lead in prayer both privately and publicly that the Lord will help you see culture well (both your own and theirs).
With time and effort, overcoming cultural barriers is possible—and it’s absolutely essential in the pursuit of healthy, fruitful missions.
Further Recommended Reading:
Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier
Culture Map by Erin Meyer