How to Prepare for Cross-Cultural Mission Experiences

Every day we connect with people who are different than we are. Many times, these connections go smoothly, because even in our differences we share the same culture. On many mission trips, this is not the case. We intentionally go to places where we are not familiar with the culture, where our differences are obvious at every turn. Adjusting to being in a new culture can be difficult. You might be tempted to judge or reject parts of the culture because you are not used to them, or because you feel uncomfortable. So how do you prepare for a cross-cultural mission experience?

Developing greater cultural awareness and cultural agility will help you to see God’s creativity in new cultures and to be more open to the experiences others live every day. Here’s how you can grow your cultural agility and sensitivity before your cross-cultural mission trip.

Develop cultural agility

Connecting well with people who are different than you starts with cultural agility, the ability to adapt the way you connect with people based on cultural context. This doesn’t mean being an expert on every other culture. That’s a near-impossible task. It also doesn’t mean being inauthentic or “fake.” Instead, cultural agility is being aware of your own cultural biases and able to manage them when you interact with people from other cultures. 

Since most of us don’t really know how to explain our own culture, the first step toward cultural agility is identifying what makes your culture distinct. Think with your group about the traditions/customs, values, institutions, and worldviews represented in your culture. How might your cultural biases shape the way you think and act? For example, you may be offended if someone shows up to an event two hours late because in your culture, punctuality is important. However, being two hours late for an event is no big deal in many cultures. Being aware of your own biases will help you handle differences like this with humility.

Cultural agility also means being continually open to learning from the differences you encounter. For example, you might find that being less focused on time helps you relax and enables you to engage more fully with the people around you. 

Practice cultural sensitivity

It isn’t enough to be culturally aware, you have to also be prepared to ACT in ways that are culturally appropriate. Cultural sensitivity is a part of cultural agility, but it is a part that is often overlooked by mission teams. Being culturally sensitive involves not only how you connect with people, but how you and your team act in all situations.

When your team goes out into public spaces, be thinking about how you will appear, as representatives of Christ. North American cultures tend to be louder and more boisterous in public than other cultures, so be aware of how loudly your group is talking or laughing when walking down the street or in a restaurant. In many countries, it is common for people to speak multiple languages, including English. Be aware of how what you say in your group might sound to a local who understands English. 

Cultural sensitivity also applies to how we interact directly with the people we meet. You may be invited to hear someone’s story or to come into their home. Be mindful of their feelings as you respond to their story or their home. Ask questions that affirm the dignity of others, and that do not imply that they should be more like North Americans. 

Study the cultural differences

Before you leave for your trip, do your best to learn about the culture with which you’ll be engaging. Although you won’t be able to learn everything about the culture, this can help you prepare for some of the cultural differences you may encounter. Here are a few ways you can learn more about a culture: 

  1. Read about the culture, or read books that take place in that culture.
  2. Watch a movie, documentary, or TV show about people in the culture. Research what you watch beforehand to make sure it portrays the culture accurately.
  3. Ask your host LOTS of questions.
  4. Meet with someone who is from the culture you’re going to visit. Ask them questions about their culture and how it is different from yours.

Cultural difference questions

The questions below deal with common cultural differences that you may encounter on your trip. Before you leave, we encourage you to either research or ask people who know the culture these questions.

  1. How do people like to be greeted?
  2. Are there any gestures that are offensive?
  3. What type of clothing do people wear? Do we need to be careful about what we wear?
  4. How does “time” work in that culture, and how does it affect things?
  5. Are there any cultural practices to know about when entering someone’s home?
  6. What cultural practices are involved with food?
  7. What is the makeup of the families? What do gender roles look like in this culture?
  8. Does the culture have any unique aspects of it?
  9. How does the culture react to tattoos? Jewelry? Piercings?
  10. Can we wear clothing with USA or Canada symbols and wording on it?

Recommended resources for cross-cultural mission

Want to learn more about cross-cultural engagement and short-term missions? Here are a few resources we recommend:

Want more trip planning support? Our short-term mission team would love to help.