So, you made it overseas. You cleared customs and now you are on your way to you host’s home. Hopefully you have arrived early enough to allow your system to adjust. You have even exchanged a few dollars to have local currency. Now what?
Things will likely be different than what you are accustomed to. Different foods, different dress styles, different sounds and smells. All of these things can be pretty exciting and a bit overwhelming on your first visit into a new culture. Personally, I am an explorer at heart. I like to try new foods, see new things, experience new worlds. But caution is important. Things can be uncertain and even dangerous. Plus, as a visitor to a foreign country, you will have to accept that you need to play by a different set of rules than you do in the United States. The service may be slower, the lines may be longer—and the line may close altogether at the meal time or for a siesta! Who closes their business in the afternoon for a couple of hours? Well, the Spanish do. You will have to adjust and do so quickly.
Your host will be a valuable asset as you begin to acclimate to a new world. What things do I avoid? What gestures are considered offensive that in my culture might be acceptable? The way you sit, the way you point, the distance in which you carry on a conversation with someone, the way you greet, the way others greet or carry out their social relationships are often culturally unique. Resist the urge to make a joke about what you see. It may seem funny to you as a westerner, but to your hosts it will be normal. For example, in Zambia, you may see men holding hands, but it is not what you think. Among the Ojibwe of Canada, you may see people point with their chin or their lips because it is offensive to point with your fingers. In India, in the south, Christians do not wear shorts (half-pants). It is just the way it is. Be culturally sensitive.
One big issue that Americans seldom consider is the use of their hands. In many cultures, the left hand is reserved for unpleasant things and only the right hand is used for clean activities—greeting people, eating, etc. These are little customs that carry a big offense if not observed. Never extend your left hand to someone.
Another area that you need to prepare yourself in advance is in the manner of church customs and behavior. In many cultures, men and women do not sit together, or the children do not go to junior church. While we might think that junior church is essential to an orderly worship service, much of the world does not. Be prepared for interesting visitors in church: animals, dogs especially, may wander in. Children may be allowed to wander about during the preaching. It is a bit disconcerting trying to preach with a two-year-old standing in front of the pulpit. I have had it happen before and so might you.
The singing will likely be unfamiliar, in the musical style and in the words and in the audience engagement. I have a friend who gets nervous when Americans visit him on his field because the indigenous music sounds worldly. I am generally pretty relaxed on this issue. If I do not know the words and have little understanding of the culture, I try not to judge the local church prematurely, especially its music. Singing in a minor key sounds strange to me but not to others. In southern India, Christians may use a tabla (an instrument akin to bongo drums) to keep time. I once asked a class of Indian DMin students about the instrument. Was it an Indian instrument that all religious groups used? Or did it originate within a religious tradition that was then borrowed or imported by other traditions? They could not agree, and therefore I did not have an opinion. It may not be what we do in the States, but who am I to say that it is wrong in India, especially as a visitor?
You may also encounter different communion practices, both in the elements themselves and how they are administered. Many Baptist churches of the world use wine in communion. I decided a long time ago that this would not be an issue for me when I am celebrating the Lord’s death and resurrection with local saints. My own views on the Christian and the use of alcohol are fairly well known, and those views notwithstanding, I have participated in communion services where wine has been served. If you think this might be an issue, consider beforehand how you will deal with it. I am not persuaded that “pretending” is the best way around this. But think about what you will do. Ask your host for advice if necessary. Whatever you do, do not make a scene.
Local food customs are another interesting issue. What you eat and how you eat it is important and the meal itself may be as much about the conversation as about the food. Try everything, even if you think you would not like it. Oftentimes, you will be served delicacies that may not be appealing to you but are considered a real treat within the culture. I do not like coffee, but if I am served some in the home of someone who has me in as a guest, I will drink coffee. I have never had alcohol in someone’s home. I would politely refuse, though I cannot remember how long it has been since I was offered some—more than twenty-five years, I suppose. Generally, I try everything, at least once. Seconds are optional.
Embrace the culture wherever you can. Cross-cultural experience is a wonderful opportunity to reach out to people in other worlds. We are members of one Body and we should embrace one another whenever and wherever possible. May God give us a wider ministry for the sake of the whitened fields of grain!
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Great God! The Nations of the Earth
Thomas Gibbons (1720–1785)
Great God! the nations of the earth
Are by creation thine;
And in thy works, by all beheld,
Thy radiant glories shine.
But, Lord! thy greater love has sent
Thy gospel to mankind,
Unveiling what rich stores of grace
Are treasured in thy mind.
Lord! when shall these glad tidings spread
The spacious earth around,
Till every tribe and every soul
Shall hear the joyful sound?
Smile, Lord, on each divine attempt
To spread the gospel’s rays,
And build on sin’s demolished throne
The temples of thy grace.