In order to take the gospel to the nations, we must learn to interact with others in a way that allows us to communicate truth clearly. We must understand our own culture, learn about the cultures we are entering, and articulate the gospel in an understandable way for people of those cultures.
The following are eight essential guidelines for crossing cultures.
Know Your Own Culture
Before we can understand others, we need to take a look at ourselves in order to understand why we do the things we do. We must figure out what is important to us, who taught us to act the way we do, what influences our thoughts and beliefs, and even what “unwritten rules” we follow when interacting with the people around us. We must understand why those rules exist and how we should explain to others outside our culture why we do—or don’t do—these things. Knowing about ourselves helps us understand how to learn about others.
Celebrate the Beauty of God’s Creation
The integral details of culture create a beautiful display of God’s handiwork through people created for his glory. Crossing cultures gives us an opportunity to know and understand how people from very different cultures—yet all created in the image of God—interact with the created world around them. Celebrating culture is about much more than understanding food, flags, and festivals. Culture is expressed in a myriad of ways through beliefs, art, relationships, worldview, language, communication styles, work, and so on.
Observe and Imitate Behaviors
The first step to entering a new culture is to be an observer and imitator. Watch for patterns of how the people act toward each other. Learn how they greet each other. Do they hug, shake hands, bow, or kiss on the cheek? Watch how children interact with their elders, how men and women interact with one another, the body language they use in formal and informal settings, and any rules of engagement regarding eating, giving things to people, throwing away trash, dressing appropriately, etc.
Even seemingly small details like which shoes to wear in a specific season or daily activity or what temperature warrants a winter coat and scarf can be important. As we learn the norms of the new culture, we can practice those behaviors. Even though much of what we observe may not make sense to us, crossing cultures requires us to step out of our norm and into someone else’s in order to show respect and take the posture of a learner.
Learn the Things You Shouldn’t Do
Every culture has a list of things that are simply not okay. Some of them are easily recognized and understood. For example, the reason people in many other cultures don’t eat with their left hand is because the left hand is considered dirty. This makes sense as soon as we understand their reasoning, and our behaviors can be adjusted accordingly.
Other customs, however, are not so obvious but are still equally important. Should we talk to someone of the opposite gender? Should we wear shorts or short sleeves in public? Should we show the bottom of our feet? Should we smile at someone we don’t know? All of these questions are examples of subtle behaviors that point to deeply rooted cultural intricacies. Knowing what not to do will save a lot of stress and help ensure that we are showing respect to our host culture.
Ask Good Questions
It’s always better to ask than to assume. As we observe and begin to integrate new cultural practices into our own behavior, asking questions of trusted friends will help us to figure out why things are the way they are. Ask about the driving influence that causes people to act in a certain way and what happens if these cultural rules are broken. Find out if these behaviors are rooted in spiritual or religious beliefs, or if they are simply practical life skills.
Respectfully asking questions leads to recognition and celebration of differences. They also help us avoid misconceptions and stereotypes and can lead to understanding deep cultural values. However, we must be patient and gentle in our asking, realizing that many people will struggle to articulate the underlying cultural influences of their own behaviors.
Seek to Learn and Grow
Crossing cultures can help us learn valuable lessons in principles such as honor, respect, relationships, love, discipline, work ethic, and more. We have an opportunity for personal and corporate growth as we learn from each other.
As we cross cultures for the purpose of bringing the life-giving message of the gospel to the nations, we must do so with humility. Having the mindset of a learner and gaining trust is critical so we can focus on building relationships and pointing them to the truth of the gospel.
Proclaim the Gospel Clearly
The gospel transcends culture and context. The truth of Scripture and the message that Jesus came to live among us, died for our sins, and rose again so that we can have life is a message that does not change. However, we have added many cultural trappings to our understanding and practice of the gospel. Learn to share the gospel in a way that focuses only on Scripture and not a culturally biased understanding of the gospel.
Contextualize the Gospel Message
We can communicate the gospel in a way that makes sense in a specific context the more we recognize our own cultural practices, grow an awareness of the culture we are entering, and learn how to articulate the foundational message of the gospel. Contextualizing the gospel means that we help people look through the lenses of their own worldview to understand the truth. We want our communication to create bridges, not barriers to understanding, so the message of the gospel stays central and clear.
Stefani Varner serves on the church initiatives team at IMB. She previously served as a missionary in South Asia.