Cross Cultures

Part of the frustration with trying to persuade flows from the fact that, in most cases, the other person comes from your own country. You would assume he had a similar set of experiences, similar education, and that the two of you share the same culture and general values. 

So, you ask yourself, “How can he live where I live, see what I see, know what I know, and still not think like me?”

The truths you hold to be self-evident seem alien to him. 

There’s a simple reason for this: geography is not culture.

Growing up in the same town, in the same time and attending the same schools does not make you the same. There may have been a time in these United States when the cultural themes that bind us were more commonly held, but if that did exist in anything other than nostalgia, it didn’t last for long. The golden ages of radio and television, when the entire country enjoyed the same broadcast programs at the same time, are long gone. Now, we have nearly unlimited entertainment and information choices that we enjoy whenever we each choose. 

In my childhood, we boys sat next to Nan on the old green velvet sofa, as Pop sat in his chair, and we watched the same shows together — The Wonderful World of Disney, Gunsmoke, All in the Family, and the Lawrence Welk Show, among others, every week.

Like much of the country, we saw the same commercials, laughed at the same jokes, and got the same information about the state of the world from Walter Cronkite, or Frank Reynolds, and a handful of others. 

Now, each member of nearly every family has his own “television” in the palm of his hand. Even when the family sits together in the living room, ostensibly to watch a show or movie together, most of us also scroll Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, Instagram, MeWe, YouTube, etc. We’re in the same room, but we’re not together. Our minds and hearts are not in the same place as our bodies. Geography does not equal culture.

This is a microcosm of our nation.

While you may view this as another example of the USA “slouching toward Gomorrah,” I think it’s more a return to the pre-national broadcast days. The era when we had something resembling a unified culture spanned from about the 1930s to the surge in cable TV that hit its stride in the mid- to late-1980s (roughly).

Before that, each state, each community, each ethnic group, each neighborhood and even each extended family had its own unique flavor, culture, values. The common bonds, such as they were, had more to do with ethnic heritage, and, frankly, with the Bible (although even that spawned a variety of sects, each of which took a peculiar perspective from it). In a major city back then, one might read from a dozen newspapers or more, each with its own political, religious or ethnic perspective.

So, while those of us of a certain age may lament the loss of the good old days of national unity, it’s more accurate to note that our youth, and our allegedly-unified culture, were fleeting indeed, and not as glorious as we remember. 

This should come as welcome news for those who come from a Conservative perspective — those who value individual liberty. A woman may think as she wishes, worship as she wishes, watch the shows she prefers, and vote for whom she pleases.

Ain’t that America? Home of the free!

The other bit of nostalgia we often hear is that the public schools used to teach civics, and thus an entire generation would arise with a shared set of perspectives about American history, the meaning of the Constitution, and the values that bind us as a people. But if you’re Conservative, do you really want the federal government dictating the curriculum of the local school? Besides, it’s only in post-WWII hindsight that we called my Pop’s fellow citizens ‘The Greatest Generation.’ Recall that they wanted to have nothing to do with that European war. It took a major propaganda campaign, and a misguided Japanese attack on U.S. soil, to change these isolationists into a heroic nation of warriors. That, too, shaped the culture, but it was far from monolithic.

The point of this journey through U.S. cultural history is not to lament the past, nor to condemn the present, but to acknowledge a fact of life. 

To persuade another — whether she hails from Nepal, from California, from the next county, or from the second bedroom in your own home — is to do cross-cultural education, or perhaps, ministry. 

More than anything, this “Cross Cultures” concept is meant to ease your mind. 

If you were to welcome a visitor from Nepal into your home, and host him for a week, you would expect to have communication challenges, and to discover divergent views between the two of you. However, if you’re like most people, you’d find these differences somewhat charming, and you’d seek to learn more about what he believes, and how he lives in Nepal. Even if you found some of his ideas repugnant, you’d likely treat him with respect and even affection, making ample allowance for cultural differences.

To do cross-cultural ministry among people who grew up here doesn’t require surrender of your own views to every stranger you meet, but it does mean treating each person as intelligent, sane, and good (at least as good as me).

Keep in mind, that when the other person is with you, he also experiences culture shock. To him you seem to have come from a different country (or planet), just as he seems to you. He wonders how you could have grown up in the same nation and yet failed to “get it.”

If you take the cross-cultural ministry perspective, you’ll suffer less frustration, since you don’t expect him to see the world as you do, and you know it might take a while for him to come around to your views, if ever he does. You’ll see it more as a puzzle, and find thrill in solving it. 

Years ago, when I was pastor to a small congregation in a small town, I’d occasionally talk with a Christian who expressed shock and offense at the lifestyle choices of some of our visitors, or the folks with whom I mingled in the local pool hall. I’d gently remind my Christian sister that sinners act like sinners, and that, truth told, so often do we whom Jesus had saved, despite our new nature in Christ.

I got the reverse treatment out on the street, where sometimes a non-believing friend would warn another to watch his mouth because “Scott’s a preacher.”

I’d tell them, “You be yourself, and I’ll be myself.” 

I never expected people to change their behavior until their heart changed. Even after they came to Christ, change often came slowly. 

It’s a Jungle Out There

As I write this, my younger daughter prepares to return to a jungle village in Bolivia where she’ll devote her life to sharing the gospel of Christ with the local folk. In recent years, she spent about five weeks in that village. They speak a tribal language which most of them can’t write. They bathe in, launder in, and drink from, the river, which contains piranha, stingrays and various other bio-hazards.

Before native Bolivian missionaries came to the village, marriage was unknown there. A man would often mate with a young teenage girl, and she became his…until she wasn’t. Many of the men drink alcohol prodigiously. Having little in the way of medical care, life expectancy hovers around 40 years. The children run barefoot through the jungle, climb wild fruit trees and throw down coconuts and citrus. While my daughter was among them, the villagers killed and ate a massive armadillo. (Tastes like chicken.) They kept a small monkey as a pet, until they ate it. 

My daughter will live in a hut, draw her water from the river, and try to reach the women and children with the Gospel of Jesus. To do so, she’ll have to learn their tribal language. She’ll also need to become more fluent in Spanish; the language of her co-workers. She’ll be the only English-speaker, and the only U.S. citizen, living in the village which is a three-day river journey from the city. (She gets there in a small airplane that lands in a grass field.)

As you can see, she’ll need to make a lot of lifestyle and mindset changes to build relationships, and to earn a hearing for the gospel with these people whom she loves.

One thing she won’t change is the core truth of her message. No matter what you speak, eat, or do for fun, Jesus died to set sinners free, and you may enjoy eternal life only in Christ. 

Even though the message won’t change, she’ll need to discover ways to connect that good news with the way the tribe already sees the world. She tells me that, unlike in the United States, the villagers have little difficulty understanding that there is a spiritual realm in addition to the things we see. But to them, that’s mostly a source of fear. She’ll teach them that perfect love casts out fear, and that Jesus is that perfect love.

The team working with my daughter has already had some success in reaching that community, but they didn’t do it by first…

  • insisting that the local people acknowledge how right we are,
  • by demanding they adopt a new culture,  
  • nor by insulting them.

Rather, the missionaries…

  • walked among the people,
  • treated them with love and dignity,
  • learned their language, and
  • lived out the freedom they enjoy in Christ.

The locals often see the difference, and want to know more. Thus the missionaries earn a hearing for the gospel. 

Likewise, I don’t expect people who disagree with me politically to think or to behave like me, or to pay tribute to my ideals. I expect them to disagree, to resist, and to question my motives.

Why wouldn’t they? They live in another culture, and I’m engaged in cross-cultural ministry.

Instead of frustration at their alien ideas, I seek to show compassion, and to realize that I, too, am an alien who wants respect and love.   

If you want to spread your ideas, you must learn to cross cultures.