Understanding

Post 4 of 5 on Principles of Cross-Cultural Servanthood

Working in a cross-cultural setting comes with so many challenges.  Even simple things like shopping, cooking, and running errands become exhaustingly complicated chores. In your home country, these things can almost be accomplished on “autopilot,” but in your new country, you are mentally invested in every outing, conversation, and monetary transaction. Along with mental fatigue, you have to endure a culture that in many ways is very abrasive to your own cultural background. Many days our natural fight or flight mechanisms want to kick in. But getting angry or running away to hide under your bed covers does not accomplish much. These Principles of Servanthood have taught us to be open and accepting of the people around us who are only doing what is normal in their lives. We have formed relationships built on trust in order to learn from the people. And now it’s time to start putting the pieces together.

Understanding is the ability to see patterns of behavior and values that reveal the integrity of a people. People’s behavior generally fits within a cultural pattern that works for them and gives them meaning and control in their lives. Too often we assume others are foolish or illogical simply because their reasoning is not self-evident to us.

When we enter a new culture, we should approach it as a puzzle to be pieced together. We cannot be against the culture and societal habits because they are indifferent. We need to ask “why?” a lot, and use the new information from awkward situations to daily reshape our understanding of the people around us. Just like a puzzle, the individual pieces seem silly and incoherent, but they come together for a perfectly acceptable effect. As we engage with people around us, we need to remember God’s ongoing work of sanctification in our life. He uses people and circumstances to grow us. So even if the culture is abrasive, we can remember the author of Hebrews’ challenge to “strive for peace with everyone.”

Serving without understanding creates confusion and embarrassment. Elmer provides this example…

With the help of a cane an old Filipina woman hobbled down into the ditch alongside a road on the outskirts of Manila. An American woman watched with interest from a distance. It appeared that the old woman was in some trouble. The American woman hurried to the ditch and anxiously looked down. Sure enough the old woman appeared to be in agony, her face full of pain as she squatted in the ditch. The American woman went down the embankment to render assistance. As the woman got close, the old woman began waving her cane in a threatening manner while firing off verbal assaults. Confused but determined not to leave this suffering woman, the American Good Samaritan examined the situation more closely. Only then did she realize that the old woman was having her daily “bathroom” visit and was not in need of any outside assistance.

Posts on Cross-Cultural Servanthood:

  1. Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2006.

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