When in Rome (or Anywhere Else in the World)
Going on a mission trip out-of-country? Consider 5 practical tips.
Navigating a foreign culture can be both confusing and rewarding. Before you go on your next overseas adventure, find out what some Campus Crusade for Christ staff members have learned from their mistakes while asking themselves a few tough questions.
Question 1: Does that Mean What I Think it Means?
Steve Anthony, immersed in the richly Orthodox culture of Greece, often visited college campuses to initiate conversations about Jesus. Time after time, though, he received a seemingly undesirable label.
"They would say, 'You're a heretic,'" Steve remembers of those early days in ministry. "For me, that's a pretty emotionally-loaded word."
His attitude changed when he learned that any teaching outside of Orthodoxy derived the label of heresy.
"There's Orthodox, and then there's non-Orthodox. But instead of using 'non-Orthodox' they use the word 'heretic,'" he says. "They weren't insulting or challenging me. They were just defining me."
Soon, new avenues for discussion opened up, better equipping him to communicate the gospel message.
"You can't assume everyone is using the same definitions and terms," Steve says. Suspending judgment and asking genuine questions helps you better understand your new surroundings and experiences.
Question 2: What is it Like in Their Shoes?
Mark Palmer, a former staff member, made a humble move after learning why his Kyrgyzstani Bible study participants kept leaving early.
They were too polite to explain their concern about missing the evening's last bus, the only affordable way for them to travel. But this led Mark to discover other things that could easily be taken for granted by an outsider.
For 30 days, he lived on a budget comparable to that of a typical Kyrgyzstani citizen.
"I hardly could eat meat because it was too expensive," Mark says. "I had long waits at the bus stops. And on birthdays, instead of being able to buy people gifts, I had to make them or recycle gifts. I didn't have money to burn."
Those lessons guided his team as they made decisions about ministry. Making adjustments to events, like ending evening meetings earlier, helped them avoid creating unnecessary stress for the students due to limited finances.
Placing yourself in others' shoes and talking to others about your observations opens your eyes to what life is like for other people.
Question 3: You Mean, My Way isn't the Only Way?
"It wasn't because I thought they were upset," Howard says. "It was because I had gotten my feelings hurt by some American staff members."
His simple inquiry led to a significant discovery. Each day when Howard entered his office, his Kenyan colleagues felt that he did not stop to greet others appropriately. Waving or saying "hello" didn't communicate the same respect as the Kenyan greeting of shaking each person's hand.
"I just assumed the way I did things was ok and that they would adjust to me," Howard says. He learned that as a visitor, he couldn't cling to his "rights," expecting courtesies and adaptations he unknowingly felt he deserved.
Holding a "guest" mentality -- adjusting humbly to the values of the new culture, not vice versa -- cultivates honoring relationships, especially among fellow leaders.
Question 4: Doesn't Everyone Value Efficiency?
Denis LaClare, an experienced trainer of multicultural mission work, noticed the reddening face of the nearby waiter. Accompanying a group of American conference attendees in Spain, Denis identified the unfolding conflict.
"One of the Americans began to organize all of the tables so we could sit in large groups together," Denis says. "We were very loud. I could see the waiter getting angry. He was no longer in control of seating his guests."
Recognizing that the American expectation for efficiency had steamrolled the waiter's role in taking care of his guests himself, a more relational value, Denis apologized and asked for his help.
"It's not that it was impossible to rearrange tables," Denis says. "It was just an ostentatious display of us taking control, wanting it to be done the way we wanted it to be done."
Examining and comparing our American values especially regarding time, efficiency, money and possessions help us embrace the other culture's values, which can prevent misunderstandings and even conflict.
Question 5: Do I Really Have to Eat That?
Experiencing different cultures isn't limited to foreign travel. Staff members with Here's Life Inner City in Chicago send their volunteering college students to ethnic communities throughout the city for opportunities to learn.
One year, a group visited a Korean neighborhood. At lunchtime, they chose a small, family-owned restaurant. Asking for recommendations, the waitress brought nearly 10 dishes of various meats, vegetables and delicacies.
Two students, however, were less than enthused about trying something out of their comfort zone. Loud responses of "gross" and "yuck" to the slippery texture of one particular plate drew unwanted attention from neighboring tables and a disheartened expression on the waitress' face.
Although not intending to be offensive, this behavior insulted the restaurant workers who had offered the group their best. The food might not have resembled things that the students were accustomed to, but it was hurtful to deem it bad or unacceptable.
Trying new things and tempering our responses shows respect for things of value as well as for the people offering them.
Taking Our Own Advice
Campus Crusade has historically pursued cross-cultural sensitivity, taking practical steps like translating materials into other languages and raising up local leaders, in order to expand ministry globally. Each aspect of ministry can potentially affect a person's understanding of the gospel message.
"We've even done things like considering the color of the Four Spiritual Laws booklet," Denis points out. "In some places, mustard yellow-colored booklets communicate that you are passing out pornography. That had to be changed."
Even the most well-intentioned person will make mistakes when stepping into a new culture. But the possibilities are worth the risks as you trust God to go before you, paving a way for His love to be communicated in both word and deed.
Editor's Note: Find out about upcoming mission trips available to you.