Bright flashing signs showcasing the hotels and casinos, pictures of beautiful show girls, and sounds of slot machines. This was my first encounter of America when my family emigrated from Korea to Las Vegas, NV. Talk about culture shock. I was a shy 11-year-old unaccustomed to such flashy and exotic city life with no preparation for such huge change in culture and language. Needless to say, the first few months in America felt unbearable as I had no choice but to immerse myself fully into learning English and acclimating to the American culture.
According to Sherwood Lingenfelter, provost and senior vice president at Fuller Theological Seminary and a former missionary to the Pacific Islands, culture is the “sum of the distinctive characteristics of a people’s way of life.” As such, culture is shaped by its context within society, community, and family; culture is defined by people as a way of ordering their lives, and successful navigation of culture requires understanding the contextual cues unique to each culture.
As children, we are enculturated into our community and society through nurture from our parents and family as well as from the peer pressure of our friends at school and at play. The older we get, the more enculturated we become into our own way of life and the harder it is for us to become enculturated into a different way of life. Culture shock occurs when our way of life is confronted by a different one.
As a person who has survived such culture shock and has become assimilated to the point of claiming this “new culture” as my own, I am encouraged by reading through the Scriptures and being reminded of the fact that the Bible is a collection of stories of God’s people encountering new cultures and learning to survive culture shock.
The story of Abraham is about God calling a man to leave his homeland to go to a new land in order to live among people whose culture and religion were drastically different from his own. The story of Moses is about God calling the people of Israel to leave behind Egypt to go to a promised land and to be faithful to the God who has liberated them in the midst of competing culture and religion. The call of the disciples in the New Testament is about Jesus calling his followers to leave behind their family and careers to become traveling missionaries.
Most importantly, the story of Jesus is about overcoming the greatest culture shock of all, exemplified in the incarnational model described in Philippians 2:6-8, where we are told that “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
Jesus overcame the culture shock of crossing the boundary of deity to live among humanity—to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, and to eat with sinners. He exemplified what it means to love humanity by dying on the cross and overcoming slavery to sin and death through his resurrection. He demonstrated what it means for us to offer ministry of presence through his promise to be with us always.
Crossing Cultures Abroad
It is this model of incarnational living that our missionaries seek to embody in their ministries and their lives. Before they are deployed by the General Board of Global Ministries, new missionaries participate in a three-week training with special emphasis on cultivating intercultural relationships and team building, enhancing intercultural communication, and managing intercultural conflicts. These components are offered in interactive and experiential learning styles that include storytelling, case studies, and immersion activities. The goal of the training is to help new missionaries overcome the fear of crossing cultural boundaries in order to be prepared to enter a new culture with curiosity and willingness to learn and to embrace differences.
Although this period of preparation is helpful, we have discovered that no amount of cognitive learning is enough to prepare one for intercultural ministry. Rather, the best way to engage in intercultural mission is simply to go and live among the people—the model that Jesus embodied. Therefore, most of our missionaries are deployed to their places of assignment in order to learn the language and culture as soon as possible. We have found that this helps accelerate the acculturation process and better prepares our missionaries for their mission work.
Crossing Cultures at Home
For centuries, it was the unique role of missionaries to engage in intercultural ministry as they traveled across the sea to serve internationally. Yet with globalization, ease of international travel, and continuing stream of immigration, the world is becoming smaller in that the people of all nations and cultures are becoming our neighbors. The command to “go and make disciples of all nations” no longer requires us to travel to the ends of the earth. With the population in the U.S. rapidly becoming diverse, there are ample opportunities for us to experience and interact with other cultures right here in our own backyard.
Of course, when we are living through these changes, watching our long-time neighbors move away to be replaced by people who look different, speak different languages, and exhibit unfamiliar practices, it can cause us to cling to the familiar. I remember one elderly woman in my congregation telling me why she moved away from her home of thirty years in Bell, California. She told me that she knew it was time to move when she could not find baking soda at her neighborhood grocery store. She attributed this to the fact that too many Hispanics had moved into the community. So, she responded by moving to a town that maintained a sense of familiarity for her.
Although I, too, prefer the familiar over the unfamiliar, I believe the response that God desires from us is to become more courageous and curious in the midst of such change. What would it look like for us to develop curiosity about people and culture that are different from us? What would it look like for us to quench that curiosity by engaging different people so as to hear their stories? What would it look like for us to bear some discomfort trying different food, learning a few phrases of a different language, and sitting at a table with people who look different from us?
I believe when we can engender courage to cross boundaries of culture in this way, we will experience a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, for as the Apostle Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).