How to Minister Cross-culturally

Remember the first time you went to a friend’s house as a kid? For many of us, we soon discovered that not all of the same rules apply. In your house the fork is always on the left side of the plate; at your friend’s house, it’s on the right. The dog is allowed on the sofa at home, but your friend’s dog stays in the yard. You’ve always worn your shoes in the house at home, but your friend’s mom makes you take them off at the door.

Visiting another culture is a lot like that. We often discover that something we’ve always considered as “the way it’s done” can be radically different somewhere else. You’ll want to find out about specific do’s and don’ts for the culture you’re visiting, but in the meantime, here are some guiding principles.

Different Isn’t Wrong – It’s Just Different

Don’t get us wrong – there are definitely Biblical imperatives that we won’t budge on. But be willing to see the difference between what’s right and wrong and what’s simply a matter of preference or culture. And remember, you’re a guest in this country, so be respectful. Avoid making comparisons and pointing out how much “better” things are at home.

Ask yourself, “What can I learn from the differences I’m observing?”

Relationship vs Time

If you’re reading this, chances are you come from a culture that places a high value on time and efficiency. It’s also possible that the culture you’ll be visiting has a more relaxed sense of time. Don’t let this frustrate you, especially if you’re the task-oriented type. In many cases, what seems like a lack of organization is really a cultural priority where people trump projects.

Slow down. Ask some questions. Get to know people’s stories. You’ll be glad you did.

Ask yourself, “Am I focusing on efficiency at the cost of effective relationship and ministry?”

Value vs Pity

You may see things on this mission trip that shock you. You may minister to victims of abuse, neglect, or natural disaster. You may be appalled by the lack of moral standards in the red light district. You may visit a family whose house has a dirt floor, or who has no home at all.

It’s easy to feel like onlookers. Instead, let’s be participants who enter into the lives of those we serve. After all, we minister to the poor as those who are impoverished without Christ. We minister to the immoral as those who are depraved without Christ. We minister to the distressed as those who are hopeless without Christ.

Ask yourself, “Am I valuing this person as someone who was created in the image of God? Or am I merely looking down on their circumstances with pity?”

Who Are You Representing?

In Philippians 2, we read about Jesus taking on the form of a human – and not just any human, a servant! – to come to earth. This was the greatest cross-cultural divide that has ever been crossed: God became a man. Weʼre called to be like Christ. One way we can do that is to become as much like our host culture as possible. It both honors the good things God has put in that culture and removes hindrances from our message.

Of course, when Jesus exchanged heaven for earth, it was a considerable downgrade. Going to another country is not stepping down, itʼs just stepping somewhere different. Keep in mind that the Gospel isnʼt American or western. We are citizens first and foremost of Godʼs kingdom, and as such, we are ambassadors being sent on his mission. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Ask yourself, “Am I willing to lay down my cultural identity to better represent Jesus?”