Serving Cross Culturally

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” – Philippians 2:5-11

Short-term missions have seen significant growth in the last two decades. With seemingly remote places of the earth becoming easily accessible because of air travel, cell phone coverage and Internet access, people are able to travel from the U.S. to almost anywhere on the globe to proclaim the kingdom of God. This year, by participating in a short-term team, you will be joining millions from around the world who are embarking on this life-changing journey of mission work.

While the number of short-term team members has been on the rise, Christians have been crossing over cultural, language and social barriers for millennia. Even in the Old Testament, we see men and women of faith like Abraham, Ruth and Daniel traveling beyond the borders of their homelands in obedience to God. Have you ever considered that Jesus, the Son of God, was also a missionary? He left heaven, stepped out of eternity and came to us here on earth.

Have you ever paused to think what it must have been like for Jesus to come to earth?  To leave the perfection of heaven for the brokenness of earth?  To leave His Father’s side to spend time with man, get to know sinners and eventually die for all mankind?

Jesus Christ is always our ultimate example. He truly became what Paul desires us to be in I Corinthians 9:22 – be “all things to all men.”  Above all, our encouragement to you is the same that Paul gave to the church in Philippi – “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”  Continue to strive to have His attitude as you are preparing to learn, to go and to be transformed.

Appreciating the Global Community

Traveling to Latin America, Africa or Asia may not compare with Jesus leaving heaven for earth, but the trip is still significant.  So what can we do to prepare?  We believe it is essential to have a growing knowledge and understanding of the country and culture in which you will be serving.

As you’ve told people about your upcoming short-term trip, many have probably asked, “Where is that?” After you’ve shown them your destination on the map, you realize once again that this is not just an ordinary road trip. You are about to embark on what possibly could be the most incredible journey of your life! After hours or days in cars, trains, planes and airports, you arrive in an unknown city to serve people you have never met before.  Although you won’t be able to have every question answered before the trip, it is critical to prepare and equip yourself well for this adventure. One of the best ways to get ready is to answer the question, “Where am I going?”

During this trip you are going to experience a lot of “firsts.”  Some will be pleasing, while others might leave you frustrated. To maximize your effectiveness on this trip, it is important to learn as much as possible about your host country prior to your trip. A good starting point is to study your host country’s history. You will discover that defining events such as hurricanes, wars, civil strife, colonialism, religion and even personalities, have greatly impacted the lives of the people and developed culture.

Thankfully, we have moved past the days of encyclopedias that are published every 10 years, and we are now living in the age of the Internet. After you log on, you are only clicks away from volumes of information about your host country.  Scour the Web for information about the culture, language, popular foods and favorite activities.  Take time to read about their history and economic situation. Explore the country’s political, religious and ethnic diversity. Familiarize yourself with current events occurring in the country. This information could be a great way to start a conversation with someone in the community, but make sure you don’t bring up topics that may be controversial. If you have something you would like to talk about but aren’t sure if it’s appropriate, please discuss it with your team leader first.

You should also pursue information beyond the Internet. Go to the local library and search for books and documentaries about your host country.  There might even be a popular Hollywood film that has been inspired by an important historical event or personality in that country.

You will encounter many differences in a new country—a new language, new customs and new ways of life. When you are encountering these situations, remember that these “new” ways may not necessarily be better or worse than what you are used to. Different ways of driving vehicles or different perspectives on time are two examples of experiences where you may become easily frustrated or uncomfortable. On the other hand, you may idealize the simple way of life in a community and the apparent hospitality of the people.

This chapter will help prepare us for many of the differences that we will encounter by learning what life is like in the country where we are serving, how to interact with those from a different place (cross-cultural communication), and what to do when we become uncomfortable in a new culture (cross-cultural stress).

The Intrigue of Culture

The idea of culture is not new to any of us. Culture is the set of shared attitudes, values, practices and lifestyle habits that characterizes a group in a specific region and/or demographic.  Aspects of culture include things that are easily visible—language, food, religion, traffic, national symbols. It also includes things less noticeable—values, gender roles, marriage rituals, importance of time and so on.

In the United States, we generally share a common language (English), even though some may speak with an accent or pronounce words a bit differently. The variety of foods we eat is an aspect of our culture. The fact that we mostly use knives and forks instead of chopsticks or our hand is part of our culture. Many Americans consider themselves Christians or acknowledge having a Christian background. Our culture is not only expressed in our religion but in how we worship. The pews in our churches, the type of music we sing, the flow of services and the day we worship on—all reflect our culture. These are visible aspects of American culture. Some of these are so innate in our culture that we really do not think about them too much. Take a few moments to think about additional characteristics and diversities of American culture.

It is important to know some of the basic information and culture of the country in which you will be serving.  Recognizing that information is readily available on the Internet, we challenge you to investigate the political background, history, geography, religion and economics of the place you will be serving.

We recommend the following websites for your search:

Also, please look through Food for the Hungry’s country-specific documents. These resources will provide you with information specific to traveling with FH and will include additional details regarding visas, vaccinations, clothing and other important information for your short-term team.

Perhaps you have been on several trips to the country and community before.  It may be helpful for you to share some of your insights with new team members. What surprised you on your first team? How do the people greet each other? Are there any gestures that may be inappropriate?

Even though we can share many tips from previous experiences, continually seek to understand more about the people’s culture, history, religion and practices. You can do so by reading articles, watching movies or asking appropriate questions while in-country.

Invisible Aspects

While the visible aspects of culture will seem more apparent, it is usually the invisible aspects of culture that can frustrate us. Differing views about time, relationships, community, priorities and work can rub us the wrong way. These differences might also be the things that we fall in love with and value about the community.

We also recognize that there are aspects of every culture that are broken and wrong. Whether it is the devaluation of females, abuse of any type or corruption among leaders, these aspects of communities are sinful. In the next chapter on poverty, we will look more at all of these. We may recognize negative aspects of both the host culture and also our own.

Culture Stress

It is likely that you will experience feelings of stress or frustration during your time overseas resulting from either the visible or invisible aspects of culture. Recognize that these feelings are an important part of the adjustment to a new culture. Expect things to be different in your host country. Realize that you will likely develop one or more symptoms of culture stress; it is a normal part of the adjustment to a new culture. Culture stress does not have to be a bad thing. Each team member may develop different symptoms and to varying degrees.

So what are the signs that you are becoming stressed because of either a visible or invisible aspect of culture?

  • Aversion to local foods
  • Crying, feeling emotional
  • Depressed mood
  • Excessive concerns over cleanliness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability towards host culture
  • Loneliness
  • Longing for family, home, routines (homesickness)
  • Negativity towards American culture (including the behavior of your team members)
  • Restlessness
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Withdrawal

This is not a comprehensive list. Some of these symptoms may be the result of other issues, such as jet lag or true illness. However, if you or another team member notices that you are having these feelings of culture stress, here are ways to help you through this time.

If you are feeling culture stress while overseas, be honest and share your feelings with another trusted team member, such as a spouse, close friend or your team leader. Read passages of Scripture that are calming and encouraging to you such as Psalm 91 or Philippians 4:4-7. Pray that you would not become discouraged by the differences. Set realistic goals for yourself – remember, it’s about listening and learning, rather than doing. Work to incorporate some of your regular routines and make time for your personal quiet time. It’s important to eat three meals a day and drink plenty of water. Finally, remember to laugh at your mistakes. If you ask someone to pass the pecado (sin) instead of the pescado (fish), go ahead and laugh.

If another team member comes to you with feelings of culture stress, refrain from jumping to conclusions about what they may be feeling. Be a supportive listener. You may not be able to fix anything, but you can provide a listening ear. Read the Scriptures listed above with them. Extend extra grace and patience to all your team members. You are all in a new and potentially stressful situation. Be sure to pray for one another before separating.

With all of the preparations that you are making to be part of this short-term team, the most important preparation is your own heart and mind. Plans are likely to change, so be flexible. Frustrations may be daily, so be patient. God has much in store for you to learn and grow from this experience, so remain teachable from start to finish. You will have many opportunities to serve others as Christ did, so be attentive.

For Further Thought…

1.  What are some of the invisible aspects of American culture that we don’t always recognize?

2.  How might learning about the country help you to become a more effective short-term team member?

3.  How can you best show humility and servanthood on your short-term team?

4.  The Platinum Rule states, “Treat others the way they would want to be treated.” How can you and your team members practice the Platinum Rule?

5. Read the Home Visits & Gifts article.

6. Read and think about the quotes from FH field staff on serving cross culturally.

Going Deeper

1.  Take a look at

This website was created by Business for Diplomatic Action. It offers 25 tips for Americans traveling abroad as well as a new perspective on the world if there were only 100 people.

2. Read Cross-Cultural Servanthood:  Serving the World in Christlike Humility by Duane Elmer.

Cross-cultural specialist Duane Elmer gives Christians practical advice for serving other cultures with sensitivity and humility. He offers principles and guidance for avoiding misunderstandings and building relationship in ways that honor others.

3. Research the political background, history, geography, religion, language, weather and cultural traditions of the country in which you will be serving. Share with your teammates.

4. Read Kelly’s Story. Consider what you can learn from Kelly’s experience.

Chapter 3: Understanding Poverty >>