By Jon and Tanya Parks
Every missionary has stories, and we’re no exception even though we’ve been on the field for less than a year and a half. They’re stories of cultures colliding… often with confusing or funny results.
For instance, there are the times we have sat at restaurants waiting up to thirty minutes for our waiter to take away our obviously empty plates…only to realize we’d forgotten to signal that we’re finished by placing our silverware side-by-side on the plate.
Or there are times we have been approached and spoken sternly to by complete strangers at the city bus stops. They gesture at our daughters (7 and 9 years old), sitting on the bus-stop bench, as if they are breaking some kind of law. Later thanks to language training and with help from friends, we understood what was happening: Slovaks never sit outside when it’s cold, thinking this causes sickness. We were being fussed at for being negligent parents and exposing our children to illness!
When these kinds of events happen, at first it might seem funny. Later it feels frustrating. Finally we were surprised to realize that these people – strangers to us – were actually expressing concern and politeness to us. We just didn’t recognize it because it was expressed in a way that seemed rude or intrusive to us, even though they viewed it as completely appropriate.
All of us deal with cultural differences to some extent, depending on where we live and whom we interact with. The differences can be as large-scale as those between different countries, to more subtle differences like those between neighbors.
And because of that I think we all also deal with “culture shock” – our response when those differences confuse us, interrupt our lives, and even challenge our own values. Culture shock is not a bad thing – just the opposite. This kind of reaction is a signal we’re coming to grips with the fact that everyone does not think, feel and act the same way we do.
And the “shock” is no fun. In fact, it begs the question: What’s the point? In a world that gets smaller everyday, where English is becoming a universal language, where it’s possible to communicate with someone around the world in real time, where we can send money and resources overnight to help those in need… in that kind of world, why do we even need cross-cultural missions? Why put ourselves through that?
Because cross-cultural missions is in our DNA as believers in Christ. Consider the Gospel itself, the Good News that God is breaking into this world with the Kingdom of God. By nature, this Gospel is other – it was God’s plan, not ours, and we could not understand it. These ideas of forgiveness, compassionate justice, loving our enemies… these were (and sometimes remain) almost impossible for us to comprehend. They had to be translated, but God didn’t just send us a tract, dropping the Gospel into our laps as a leather-bound volume. Instead, Jesus himself became the first missionary – crossing cultures so that Good News could be seen, heard, understood (John 1:10-11, 14; Philippians 2:5-8).
And that’s what we’re called to do – cross between cultures, share that Good News. It takes place on different scales. Sometimes it means stepping outside our own language and culture, so that we can speak the Gospel into a different one. Sometimes it means speaking our own language but stepping outside our own life and circumstances, so that we can speak the Gospel into someone else’s.
Whatever the distance of the steps, the process is usually uncomfortable and awkward. But it’s absolutely vital. If we never take those steps, the Good News withers and dies, like a seed that never leaves the farmer’s hand.
And the amazing thing is that the Gospel actually flourishes in the translation between cultures. The Good News isn’t translated in spite of our differences, but more often because of them. Our presence, in other cultures and in other people’s lives, is vital because of what our differences offer. Because we see with different eyes, we are able to see and name things that are inherently good within a different culture, as well as things that need to be transformed.
Maybe you don’t consider yourself a cross-cultural missionary, but whether you do or not, you are one… every time you come into contact with someone else. The differences might be great or small, but they are there. Your own stories might be funny, or downright painful.
Where are you crossing cultures and where are you experiencing “culture shock” as you encounter differences with others? How is God calling you to speak the Gospel in a new way?
Turn it around: How is God’s Good News being spoken into your life through the differences you encounter?
May we find the grace to persevere through “culture shock,” to let God show us what is beautiful and redeemable in others, to translate the Gospel so it can grow, and grow, and grow!
Jon and Tanya Parks serve as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in Kosice, Slovakia. Check out the feature profile of Jon and Tanya in the December/January issue of fellowship! magazine. Read online here.