Living Overseas

Living and Serving in a Cross-cultural Setting

Part One:  Setting your attitude about yourself.

About You. You do not need to “become someone else” to be a witness. God can use you just as He made you. Your gifts and weaknesses will both come into bold relief in the overseas setting. Your role is to make use of your gifts, and when you find you are not up to a task, to believe that your weaknesses will result in a deepening of trust in God (2 Cor 1:8-9). You are a bundle of successes and failures, of happy memories and sad regrets, and I encourage you to believe that God can use exactly your kind of bundle for the people he is sending you to.

The “you” that you are includes both an old and a new nature. The stresses of overseas living will bring out both. Your impact on your new friends will include both. When your new nature shows itself, you are displaying how Jesus can change someone’s life. Even when it is the old nature that shows itself, that sinful act can be part of your authentic representation of Christianity, since it provides an opportunity to talk about forgiveness and about God’s underserved love for you. More on Life as Witness. Also see Principles of Spiritual Warfare

You will inevitably draw on your life experiences to cope with your difficulties, and I want to affirm that.  Those experiences include your past spiritual lessons. When “cultural adjustment” turns into “culture shock,” these experiences and your dependence on your team together will pull you through. More on culture shock.  More on personal growth.

Part Two: Tools for understanding other cultures.

Using continua (these are lines connecting opposites, such as a line between an “individualist” and a “group” outlook). You will want to understand where your culture falls along each set up opposing tendencies. For example, some cultures value being on time, and other cultures are OK with starting late if that means waiting until everyone is present.

Using an onion diagram. Getting to know a culture is like peeling back the layers of an onion, starting from the superficial, obvious characteristics, and working down to the underlying worldview.

The term  “contextualized” means that you will express the gospel in ways that the listener is able to relate to. The term “indigenized” means that those who become Christians will shape the church in terms of their world view.  The early church dealt with problems of indigenization, The gentile believers did not follow the laws of Moses, and so a church council came up with a solution that did not require them to become Jews, unlike Judaism, which does require people to become proselytes.

Part Three.  About Communicating.
You have probably seen the witnessing diagram that shows a chasm between us and God, with Jesus then serving as the bridge. Cross-cultural communication is like an additional smaller chasm that must be crossed before you can explain the big chasm and the bridge. Here are some ponts to prepare you for successful cross-cultural communication.

All your relationships are cross-cultural to some degree, so you already have been exposed to the needed skills. “Cross-cultural living” therefore is not an exotic topic, but simply a matter of honing your existing skills.

Your listener will re-interpret your input according to his own world view. For example, imagine what it would be like to explain the word “sheep” to another person who is playing the role of an Eskimo. We all pick and choose from input the parts that we can make sense of within our experience, and that we can “work into” our existing view of life.

It is the responsibility of the communicator to cross the gap: in order to express the gospel in the terms that the other person is most likely to understand. You do not have control over how the other person will respond, but you hope the response will be based on an accurate understanding. Your purpose is not to criticize someone’s religions, but to talk about Jesus. Growth in the following four areas will help you to share the salvation message across cultures:

Avoid Misunderstandings
Avoid Cut-offs
use Bridges
Use Handles

  1. Avoid Misunderstandings. Becoming sensitive to areas that the other person may misunderstand. Example: A missionary told a group of Hindus he was going to explain how to be born again. Their response was “that’s the very thing we’re trying to avoid; we want to escape from the cycle of being born again”. Our goal is to determine if the listener might misunderstand the point about Jesus and salvation that we are making, and seek for ways to explain it more clearly.
  2. Avoid Cut-offs. Becoming sensitive to areas that may shut off conversation prematurely. For example, a Muslim is offended if you begin by stressing that Jesus is God, because he assumes you are denying that there is only one God. The word “prematurely” is used to indicate the problem of the listener taking offense and stopping the conversation before you have had a chance to share the gospel. After the Gospel is shared, the person may take offense at the cross. This is a sign that the person has understood you. Although the person may reject the gospel, nevertheless the person has heard the gospel and cannot forget it. The conversation may end at that point, but it is not a “premature” end. Before you have had a chance to share the gospel, you will want to minimize unnecessary conflict and bring any topic back to the topic of man’s need and God’s answer. The challenge is to determine which areas may cut off the conversation, and then devise a strategy for how you would eventually get to that topic in a more tactful way. In the example of the Muslim’s offense at regarding Jesus as divine, the approach suggested in many books is to begin with the earthly ministry of Jesus, and let the person see how Jesus gradually reveals his nature through his actions. more on cut-offs
  3. Identify bridges. These are aspects of our common humanity. Since we are both human, we can expect that they will have needs that are similar to our needs. The task is to identify the need and show how Christ is the answer to this need. The ceremonies of other religions often show us the “felt need” that the worshipper is looking to fill. The story of Jesus and the woman at the well shows how Jesus identified and used bridges.
  4. Identify Handles. These are aspects of other religions which can be used to bring up the subject of Christ. They could be similarities or opposites. An example of a similarity is that Muslims worship one God as creator. Whether or not that God is the same God that Christians worship, it is still a useful handle for conversation.
    — or —   Here is an example of an Opposite. While Buddhists look to Boddhisatvas for encouragement as they work out their own salvation, Jesus actually brings about salvation. In a conversation, you use the handle by saying “isn’t that interesting — my view is just the opposite.”

Here are charts to help you apply the principles above to the three aspects of the gospel message: Sharing about the human problem (separation from God due to sin);  Sharing about Jesus as the answer; and Sharing about Faith and its benefits

Also see: Basics of personal witnessing;  Suggestions for each World religion

Part Four: Acting on cross-cultural understandings
a. Come as a learner
b. Be content to take the role of a guest
c. See your “being dependent” as an important element of bonding
d. See barriers as stepping stones
e. You do not have to “agree” with the host country’s custom, but you do have to adapt your life to them, to avoid frustration and to keep your credibility. Some westerners approach other countries as a crusade to break their taboos and free them up to be more like Americans.  I recommend Paul’s approach of “being all things to all me, so I might by all means win some.” See yourself as a servant, not as a criticizer. This is so that the real change agent you are bringing – the gospel – has a chance to be heard.

Considerations for making your personal mission plan

Last part: Why Christianity is well-suited to cross-cultural sharing.

The Bible is bilingual, showing that Greek words can be used to contain the meanings of Hebrew concepts. For example, the Greek word “theos” was originally used to represent Greek gods such as Zeus, but was successfully accepted as a term for the Biblical God. [This is in contrast with Islam, which says that its concepts can only be expressed in Arabic.]

Jesus himself crossed cultures, from heaven to earth, showing by example that he fully adapted to the host culture by “becoming human.” The term “incarnation” is used by mission leaders today to designate the close adaptation missionaries should make to their hosts.

Jesus contextualized concepts by using parables – he talked not about angels but about farming. 

His attitude was humble. Philippians 2:6-8 tells us he did not insist on his prerogatives as God, but humbled himself even to the point of death.

Paul had a similar attitude In 1 Corinthians 9 he mentioned a number of rights, but then said “I have not made use of these rights.” In verse 22 he says “I have become all things to all men, so that I might by all means save some. 

There are also several reasons why Lutheranism is suitable for mission work:  In the Lutheran way of evangelism, there is no pressure to force a response: just introduce Jesus and let the results up to the Holy Spirit. It is Gospel centered: transmitting god’s love, not a behavior code or a prescribed experience.  More about being a missionary as a Lutheran  

You will find help for the many challenges you will be facing in the coming months on the Resource page for missionaries, called “Life and Work on the Mission Field.”

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