What My Semester Abroad Taught Me about Ministering Cross-Culturally at Home

After I graduated college, the Lord led me to go overseas on mission for a semester. I learned so much during that experience, but one thing I did not necessarily expect was how my semester abroad would affect the way I relate to the international community here at home. Here are some things my time abroad helped me understand better about cross-cultural ministry at home.

The Importance of Welcome

When my teammate and I arrived in our host country, we were welcomed at the airport by other members of our team who took us to dinner, made sure we had everything we needed, took us safely to our new home, and showed us around our new city. The team helped us quickly adjust to the culture and navigate the language. They introduced us to locals and gave us opportunities to make new friends. Soon, we were confident enough to go out on our own, knowing we had a support base we could turn to whenever we needed practical help or prayer.

Like me and my teammate during that semester abroad, many internationals come to the United States not knowing anyone. Unfortunately, many will never be invited into an American home. Many cultures highly value hospitality, so internationals often feel like they are unwelcome in our lives. The author of Hebrews exhorts believers in this way: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2 ESV). We, too, must not neglect the opportunity to welcome our international neighbors into our homes and lives.

“We must not neglect the opportunity to welcome our international neighbors into our homes and lives.”

The Reality of Culture Shock

Before I went overseas, I felt like I was relatively prepared for the new culture. I already had some exposure to the language and culture through previous experiences. But there were aspects of culture shock that I wasn’t prepared for.

After months of experiencing cultural quirks, some quickly went from amusing to annoying or even infuriating. I missed the freedom of living in my own culture where I functioned automatically.

When internationals come to the United States, they experience many of the same feelings. They likely feel harsh culture shock, isolated, and disconnected from their family and friends back home. Internationals may feel frustrated or even shocked by many aspects of American culture.

We shouldn’t be offended or dismiss these feelings. Internationals need us to understand that it is not easy to move across the world and leave behind many loved ones. We can help them understand our culture. We can be patient with them as they learn how to live in a culture very different from their own.

As the body of Christ, we can embrace and welcome them. The nation of Israel was commanded by God, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:33–34 NIV). We also, as the people of God, must love the foreigner as we love ourselves.

“As the people of God, we must love the foreigner as we love ourselves.”

The Difficulties of the Language Barrier

I entered a context in which very few people spoke English well. I loved taking classes and learning the local language, but my teammate and I quickly realized that if we were going to share the gospel, we needed to learn fast. Once, instead of telling our taxi driver we were followers of Jesus, we accidentally told him, “We cook Jesus!”

Many internationals come to the United States not knowing much English. They feel just like I did—trying desperately to communicate but mixing up their words. For many people, the fear of messing up can keep them from trying to communicate at all, hindering them from making American friends.

In turn, we are often tempted to judge them prematurely and think they aren’t trying hard enough or that they should “just learn the language already.” Language learning is a long process, and we don’t know how hard internationals are working to learn. As followers of Jesus, we are to “look not only to [our] own interests but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4 ESV). This requires us to understand the language barrier and exhibit patience and grace for those who haven’t mastered English.

The Importance of Sharing Culture—Both Ways

While my teammate and I were on the field, it would’ve been easy for us to continue to live like Americans. We had to make an effort to adapt to the culture around us to fit in among the people we wanted to serve. We wanted to become “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22 ESV) so there would be fewer hindrances to gospel communication. We learned about traditional food and local dance. We had local friends show us around town, even letting one take us shopping for traditional clothes.

But we also shared our culture with them—how we celebrate holidays, how we do school, our food, and more. We learned from each other and were made richer in the process.

When internationals come to the US, everything can feel overwhelming and they may not understand the culture. We can help them learn about our culture, but we also must remember that they bring a valuable cultural heritage with them as well. We shouldn’t have attitudes of superiority but of mutual learning. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3 ESV). In this way, we emulate Christ, dignify others, and even learn something new in the process.

My semester serving abroad showed me a bit of what it’s like to move to a new cultural context. Although my experience was different in many ways than that of internationals moving to America, there are commonalities that help me now empathize with what internationals experience here. Out of love for God and love for others, we must see internationals as people for whom Christ died and with whom we have the opportunity to welcome and share truth.

Rebecca Hankins is currently pursuing a master of arts in intercultural studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She works remotely for the International Mission Board and also enjoys creative endeavors such as growing a photography business on the side. She is a member of The Summit Church and plans to continue serving in cross-cultural ministry after completing her graduate studies.