An enthusiastic pastor was thrilled to give a ten-minute message at a home for the elderly on Easter during his short-term mission trip. In an English-speaking country, he could deliver the message directly rather than through an interpreter.
However, while the pastor warmed up with jokes, he only saw blank stares looking back at him, and no one seemed to listen to the message. Afterward, the host pastor explained that in his country, it is rude to make jokes, even lighthearted ones, at the expense of others.
Cultural blunders are inevitable in cross-cultural ministry. Still, the number of slip-ups can be reduced by learning more about the host culture before you go --- whether to your next-door neighbors of a different ethnicity or people halfway around the world.
Greater awareness prepares your heart to receive the culture as it is rather than judging the differences. A deeper respect for the people and their worldview narrows ethnic gaps and makes more room for the gospel to be heard.
Here are some ways to practice getting out of your comfort zone and learn about the ethnic group you’ll be approaching.
Visit a church with a different worship style.
Visit a church with a different worship style from your own. Or, if you frequent the traditional service in your church, then try the contemporary service for a Sunday.
Visit a nearby mosque or temple.
Let them know you are a Christian who would like to learn more about others’ beliefs. You can visit and even tour places like these as a respectful learner without having to participate in or affirm their worship. As you learn more about the etiquette and customs for women in different places of worship, use this knowledge to shape your prayers for those lost in false religions.
Dine at an ethnic restaurant.
A simple web search for ethnic restaurants in your area should render various options. If there isn’t a cuisine that matches the nationality you’ll be among, pick another unfamiliar one. If Mexican food is familiar to you and it’s your only option, make a special effort to speak with someone working there who is of another culture and learn something new. When dining, speak to the owner or manager about the food and country of origin.
Listen to the language.
Google Translate and similar websites make it easy to hear other languages. Type in some common phrases and listen to the translation. Listen to some songs in the language and get a feel for the music. Look up some simple greetings and try to learn a couple. Just a few words can go a long way in forming friendships. In most cases, any attempt by an outsider to learn the local language is welcomed and praised.
Learn how to work with an interpreter.
Speakers are responsible for helping an interpreter understand the message-at-hand accurately. Avoid idioms, use simple English, and speak slowly. Give any written materials to the interpreter ahead of time so they will have time to think through words or phrases that don’t really translate. Your host missionary can also provide more suggestions for a positive experience with an interpreter.
Research the country’s history.
Understanding a country’s history offers incredible insight into a culture. Look for a concise guidebook at your local library or conduct a simple web search to get at least an overview of what the country’s people have endured. Pick up a historical fiction novel or nonfiction story set in the country.
Reprinted from the January 2021 issue of Missions Mosaic, Woman’s Missionary Union, Birmingham, Alabama. Used by permission. To receive this issue, or subscribe to Missions Mosaic, call 1-800-968-7301.