How to Prepare for Cross-Cultural Mission Experiences
Every day we connect with people who are different from us. These connections usually go smoothly, because despite our differences we share the same culture. On many mission trips, however, this is not the case. We intentionally go to places where the culture is unfamiliar and our differences are obvious at every turn. Adjusting to 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 agility will help you see God’s creativity in new cultures and 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 from you starts with cultural agility, the ability to adapt the way you interact with people based on the cultural context. This doesn’t mean being an expert on every other culture; that’s a nearly impossible task. It also doesn’t mean being inauthentic or “fake.” Instead, cultural agility involves being aware of your own cultural biases and managing those biases 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 your culture values punctuality. In many cultures, however, arriving two hours late for an event is no big deal. Recognizing your own biases will help you handle differences like this with understanding and humility.
Cultural agility also means continually being 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 culturally appropriate ways. Cultural sensitivity is an important part of cultural agility, but it is often overlooked by mission teams. Being culturally sensitive involves how you act in public situations as well as how you connect with individual people.
When your team goes out into public spaces, think 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 eating at 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 their dignity and 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 it, you can still prepare for some of the cultural differences you may encounter. Here are a few ways you can become more familiar with a culture:
- Read non-fiction books about the culture or fiction books that take place within it.
- 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.
- Ask your host lots of questions.
- Meet with someone from the culture you’re going to visit. Ask them questions about their culture and how it is different from yours.
Cultural difference questions
Here are some questions to think about as you research the culture you’ll be visiting:
- How do people greet each other?
- Are there any gestures that are considered offensive?
- What type of clothing do people wear? Do we need to be careful about what we wear?
- How does “time” work in the culture? What does it mean to be “late” or “early”?
- Are there any cultural practices to know about when entering someone’s home?
- What cultural practices are involved with food?
- What do families look like? What about gender roles?
- How does the culture react to tattoos? Jewelry? Piercings?
- Is it a good idea to wear clothing that features U.S. or Canada symbols and wording?
- Are there any other aspects of the culture worth knowing? What sets it apart from other cultures you’re familiar with?
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:
- Handling Culture Shock on a Missions Trip by Mike Nagel (article)
- Serving with Eyes Wide Open by David A. Livermore (book)
- Leading with Cultural Intelligence (video)
- Understanding Culture Stress by Howard Culbertson (article)