Learning To Adapt Cross-Culturally

“I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).

I (Norm) recently returned from two countries that are among the most spiritually needy in the world. While I was there, all of the workers, except one, had come from Latin American or southern European countries. I was the minority, a North American. I thank the Lord for this experience, as it was very rewarding and fruitful. As we plan to go to the nations and learn to adapt cross-culturally, there is an important question we need to ask ourselves. That question is, “How should I respond to living with people from a different culture?” Is it going to be easy? We are going to have to work at adapting in a cross-cultural situation. The following are some things that will help in learning to adapt cross-culturally.

How to Adapt and Work Cross-Culturally

“Culture is the way we do things because of what we value.”

  • Realize that culture is good and is from God – Simple reasoning suggests that diversity is an expression of creativity. Creation is full of diversity. Humanity is diverse. As the book of Revelation portrays, there will be people from every diverse language and tribe around the throne of the Lamb. It seems that each piece maintains its distinctiveness yet fits into the whole of God’s Kingdom. So as you go, you must see different cultures as good and learn how to encourage the development of your ability to relate in such a way that the Christ you present is seen as relevant, and necessary, to the person from another culture.
  • See each culture from God’s viewpoint – In traveling to over seventy nations in the last 25 years, we have witnessed very diverse cultures. Many times people will ask which one we liked the best. That is a hard question to answer because every culture has beauty as well as evil. All cultures have been affected by sin. The message of the Gospel, when properly applied, will enhance the original beauty of the culture while cleansing it from evil. A good cross-cultural communicator will see the culture from God’s viewpoint, appreciating the qualities it has while not being oblivious to the evil that has invaded it. God’s wisdom is available for the worker’s task.
  • Be aware of ethnocentricity – A Christian response to culture should be based on scriptures like those found in Philippians 2:3, “Consider others better than yourselves.” Because of sinful tendencies, we are more prone to think of ourselves as best. The anthropological term for this is “ethnocentricity.” Ethnocentricity is a compound word. Ethno is the Greek word for ethnos or nation or people group; and centrality, meaning in the center. This portrays the idea of “our way of life is the center of the universe.” No culture is better, only different. Each culture has a worldview that is only partial at best. Life the way God created it to be is too complex to be explained by individual cultures. This is a real motivating factor for missions. Only when all the nations or cultures come into a mature standing in the Kingdom will we also be complete!
  • Realize that enculturation is beneficial – Most people do not know they have a culture until they are taken out of it. We live in fish bowls. In these bowls we have certain comforts. We know how to get around. We feel secure. But there are limitations that we do not even know about because we haven’t seen anything different. When we enter another culture, we are entering another fish bowl. Suddenly things appear strange, our systems are upset, and we feel dizzied by the stress. Even our familiar relationship with God and family can become unfamiliar. After a period of enculturation, the stress subsides and we learn to get along. We may even adapt to the point of liking our new culture more than the old. The blessing for cross-cultural workers is this enrichment and expansion of life appreciation by forsaking the limitations of the old and incorporating the new.
  • Learn cultural manners – A key to adapting smoothly to a new culture is to learn new manners. Most of what we do with inter-personal relationships revolve around meeting the needs of another. Manners are crucial because they communicate the importance of another individual. Problems arise when we think that our manners will be interpreted the same way as those of another culture. They often are not. A Christian woman in the West, for example, may express kindness with a smile and glance of the eye. In many countries this would be interpreted as flirtatious. We need to study the manners of the people we live among, and remember that theirs may have different meanings. They seldom have an interest in learning our ways, so we must learn theirs.
  • Realize that body language speaks louder than words – Our hand motions, placement of feet, eye contact, facial expressions, clothing and jewelry (or lack of it) all send signals that will be interpreted differently. I was in India where it is a common expression of friendship for men to walk together hand in hand. They relate differently. In India it is not customary for people to hug each other. Body language speaks loudly. We must adapt to the cultural ways of expression.
  • Cultural adjustment takes time and effort – The supreme example is Jesus. He made a cultural leap from heaven to earth. He became a servant, giving Himself for the people with whom He wanted to communicate. The messenger lives his message. What we are speaks more than what we say. In the above example of walking hand in hand with men, it took time and effort to adjust. But it was just another way of showing friendship different from my own.

Biblical Examples

“There is much in missions that calls for acceptance of the other… Unless we enter into our relationship with another with an accepting attitude, we will not be able to discover all that can be known about that person and minister to his total life.” Marvin Mayers

When teams go to new countries, there is the need to relate, respect and appreciate other cultures, and realize that the medium for communication (the team members) will be the message. We must learn to accept one another in order to minister the life of Jesus. The biblical examples of Jesus and Paul will help you to be a cross-cultural communicator.

  • Sit and learnThe Identification Principle Jesus related to His audience. “He had to be made like His brothers in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest” (Hebrews 2:1). We humans have a bad tendency to talk too much rather than listen. Look for the good things in the culture that can be used to build bridges. Be aware of clothing, eye contact, body posture, age, laughter, hand gestures, volume, authority structures, taboos and gender relationships. A good example is the Apostle Paul in Athens. He was observant and learned from the culture. Therefore, he was able to identify. We also must go with a humble attitude to learn and to be a student of the culture. We need to investigate and listen. People like talking about their culture. 
“I see that in every way you are very religious, for as I walked around I observed your objects of worship… I even found an altar with this inscription: To an unknown God. Now what you worship as something unknown, I am going to proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23) 

  • Stand and serveThe Incarnation Principle Jesus Christ was the world’s greatest cross-cultural communicator. He knew how to love people. He walked in humility and lived among people on earth in a way that was attractive to others. We must seek to be like Jesus. We need to have a positive attitude about the culture, appreciating and accepting their differences as we live among them. 
“In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1, 14) 

As you go forth to the nations, realize that God will help you to be a good cross-cultural worker. He is living in you, and He can help you to relate correctly. If your relationship with Him is secure, you can weather the stormy seas of possible changes, feelings of rejection, uncertainty or loneliness. Yes, times of frustration and confusion will come, but we can choose to lean upon Jesus who never changes. He will help us excel if we choose to take the time to learn. He will help us to react as He would in cross-cultural settings.

“And they sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation'” (Revelation 5:9).

For additional training on mentoring in culture; characteristics of a cross-cultural worker and coping with culture shock, read the book called Go Forth in Power and Favorable Wind by Norman and Debbie Przybylski.

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