Few things make mission more work than a lack of cultural preparation.
That is even truer in short-term mission where you do not have the benefit of time to repair the damage that you may do by being culturally unaware.
Oftentimes what we as visitors see as a harmless activity can be seen by locals as offensive. Let me give you an example.
Years ago I was serving in the small village of Santa Rosa, just north of Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.
Our project during the visit was to get the first coat of stucco on a church that we had finished a few weeks earlier.
Our group worked hard to get the paper and then the wire all nailed, stapled, and ready for the mezcla. Soon students were busy putting the cement on the walls to make sure this church was going to be safe from the elements.
Now one of the things you have to know is that you always need at least two coats of stucco. And after each coat, you need to make sure that you “scratch” it so that the next coat can adhere better.
Normally, you will use a special tool like the one pictured here and afterwards your building will look something like this one is starting to look like between coats.
When we got done, the entire building was ready for the next coat but it was also completely covered with verses from the bible in both Spanish and English. Sometimes that happens when you are working with a group of 20 high school students.
It took the locals almost two years to tell me that we had made a big mistake during that trip. Our drawings and verses, which we had thought were just innocent fun, had been seen as mocking not only to the people of Santa Rosa, but also to God and His house!
If I had been a little more culturally prepared beforehand, we probably would not have made that error.
So with that in mind, I’d like to share a few resources that I believe will help you, your team, and your church be better prepared when you serve cross culturally, whether that is overseas, or even right in your own neighborhood in our increasingly multicultural and diverse country.
“From Foreign to Familiar” by Sarah Lanier – This little book will be a God send. Ever wondered why some cultures do things differently than you? Read this book and learn why. Often times, just knowing why things are the way they are, is half the battle!
“Culture Shock” – I have the Mexico edition, [pictured above] but this book exists for almost every country. If you want to understand the cultural clues and know why people where you are headed refuse to shake your hand, or do not cross their legs in meetings, this book is indispensable.
“Short-Term Mission Workbook” by Tim Dearborn – I have used this book for years and if you have served with me, you have been the recipient of some of the lessons it contains. The “Eight Great Questions” for effective debriefing come from this book.
“Serving With Eyes Wide Open” by Dr. David Livermore – Livermore is tough on the STM crowd with this book, but fair and his examples ring true. This is one of the most important books I have ever read on STM.
Finally, let me recommend one other resource to make sure is in your bag when you go… a Culture Gram. These little five page missives give an incredibly concise picture of where ever you are headed. At a cost of only $4.00, anyone serving without having read one of these is almost guilty of malpractice.
So there you have it. Five great resources that will help you avoid some of the cultural gaffes that are possible when you serve overseas, or in other cultures!