Four years ago today my family arrived at our new home in the Philippines. Everything seemed strange, opaque; a new, inscrutable reality in which everything took endlessly longer to navigate. And yet by sheer fiat of our decision to become missionaries, this place that we by no means understood, was now home.
All of that seems very distant now. We have behind us now yet another cultural transition and one even stranger than the first—returning to the US, seeing familiar things all over again, and realizing how much we had changed. Today, I catch myself saying that we will go home, then remembering that it’s returning to a different country than the one on my passport. In the process we learned things about ourselves that will forever shape how I think about life and ministry. Here are three observations we learned from transitioning to another culture and back again. I’ll also share a word of advice from each that applies to everyone, everywhere.
Culture is more powerful than you think.
Nothing makes you aware of your culture like leaving it. That’s because the power of culture is precisely the fact that it is so silent, even unconscious. People inhabit culture the way fish inhabit water—neither of us pay any attention because we know nothing different. But all kinds of attitudes and deeply emotional responses are defined by culture. Should a leader offer himself on the same level as his followers or maintain distance? Does a pastor have the right to tell someone who they should marry? Is your money a personal, private thing or something that belongs to the rest of your family? Do you have a responsibility to financially support your siblings as adults? Does an inheritance get divided within the family or all go to one child? All of these (and lots more) are defined by culture. You have automatic answers to these questions because your culture has told you what to think.
Advice: Don’t be oblivious to the loudest voice that has ever shaped you—your culture. And don’t assume that you can avoid being shaped that way—in fact, the most vulnerable position to be in is to assume that you’re above all of this. The only position of true safety is to be deeply immersed and fully subject to the biblical text. Don’t let the culture define your viewpoints; let God do it.
There’s only one way through the adjustment process.
One Google search can find an endless list of language programs offering to help you learn any language in 3 months without the work, using a novel new method that’s as fun as a computer game. Here’s a depressing news bulletin—those are lies. Anything as immense and complex as a language will clearly require a ton of time.
The same is true, of course, with culture shock and cultural adjustment. Basically, you’re learning about a different way to do life and the only way that can happen is by doing it. It takes most people two years to get through these stages because you need that long to experience all the various things that come up in regular life and see how people solve those problems.
But most important of all, building relationships takes real, sacrificial effort. Humans are creatures of trust, and there isn’t a way of knowing what someone is really like apart from watching them for a long time. And while it’s certainly a stereotype, values like efficiency, convenience and saving time are massively important to Americans. But missions and ministry is always about people. And people always require time.
Advice: What’s true in other cultures is actually more true than we realize, even in our own. We might dismiss the need to evangelize because “I haven’t had any good opportunities.” But that’s because we have to create them. I know an American pastor that poured into a relationship for 15 years before his neighbor opened up about spiritual things. Prepare a way for the gospel by building relationships. Build relationships by showing that you care. And demonstrate that you care by giving your time.
Language is powerful. Really, really powerful.
We humans typically identify our major groups based on language. That’s why nations with lots of different languages struggle to maintain cohesion. If you can’t talk to me, you aren’t like me—you’re automatically other.
But put the time into learning someone’s language well and a lot of things change. For one, you just communicated that it’s worth investing your time and life into talking with them. But you also just chose to pick up the all the hard work in making communication happen. Someone has to be in the uncomfortable position of transcending the language gap and muddling through anyway. If you care desperately about communicating the message of life, you chose to shoulder the burden.
Advice: There is a massive, underserved population of non-native English speakers right under our noses. Statistically, Latinos tend to be deeply religious and open to religious discussions. What about trying to reach them? Better yet, what about an extravagant effort to demonstrate that your interest? What would it communicate about your love if you learned Spanish, specifically for the purpose of building relationships for the sake of the gospel?
Missions is life. Missions is everywhere. If you’re a believer, you’re called to be a missionary. But what takes this from a trite missions conference meme to a life-defining reality is the idea that missions is about transcending barriers and comfort zones with the truth. In other words, we throw out the default settings of life and do things we aren’t comfortable doing because the gospel is worth it. And that is clearly applicable anywhere. In whatever setting God has placed you, make real, strategic sacrifices of time and effort to build relationships for the sake of the gospel. Jesus is worth it and He called us—all of us—to be missionaries.