Before moving to the United States from Nigeria in 1982, my mentor from church held a sendoff party for me at her home, and there she shared some advice with me. She said, “You are going to be worshipping with people whose ways of life will be different from yours. Watch and learn the way they do things there. Don’t tell them to do things the way we do here in Nigeria, and do not condemn them, as long as they are not violating God’s principles.” She also reminded me of Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 9:20-21, “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law.” She was advising me that my experience would be better if I would try to be like an American while serving God among Americans.
Some might assume it is easy to have a good relationship with anyone around the world who is also saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost. However, I have seen firsthand how cultural differences can be challenging, even within the church family.
Why did this trusted friend feel the need to counsel me about getting along with believers in the United States? Some might assume it is easy to have a good relationship with anyone around the world who is also saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost. However, I have seen firsthand how cultural differences can be challenging, even within the church family. Since moving to the United States nearly forty years ago, I have also studied cultures extensively in my professional career. Although my Nigerian friend was not a cultural studies expert, I now know that she truly grasped what culture is all about.
Cultural practices and perspectives
Understanding another culture goes beyond learning about food, clothing styles, and music. In the field of foreign language studies, where culture is at the center, we also talk about “cultural practices” and “cultural perspectives.” Cultural practices are overt markers that distinguish a group of people. For example, for some it is customary to greet one another with a handshake, while others use a hug, a kiss on each cheek, or something else. It is helpful to know about one another’s preferred practices, but this does not eliminate the possibility for misunderstanding because cultural perspectives also have an important role.
Cultural perspectives have to do with the way we interpret behaviors based on common beliefs and values. This means that the same behavior can be viewed as positive according to one cultural perspective and negative by another. An example would be that in some people groups it is considered rude for children to look at their parents while being reprimanded, but in other groups it is rude for children not to look at them. When we consider that the world’s multitude of cultural practices can be viewed from many different cultural perspectives, we quickly see room for misunderstandings, including among believers.
A lack of awareness in these areas can lead to confusion and even conflict, supplying our spiritual enemy with ammunition to use against the Church. When we approach intercultural situations with the right attitude and expectations, it will be easier to maintain unity in the global church body and work together effectively. An example from my personal life provides several lessons on the topic.
A friend in the night or no friend at all
For years my husband and children and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, before we had a church in that city. Consequently, our family would travel every weekend to a branch church that was about one and a half hours away. The pastor and his wife invited us to their house on Sunday afternoons to eat and then rest until it was time to go to the evening service. We did this for so many years that their house became like a home away from home for us.
My pastor’s wife was an amazing, caring, and loving woman. On one typical Sunday afternoon, as we were clearing away the dishes, she said, “You will not believe what happened to us last weekend when we were flying out to Medford!” I was all ears because she always had funny stories to tell. She then told how they had booked an early morning flight out of Madison, and had decided to drive there the evening prior and stay one night in a hotel before departing. Unfortunately, after getting to Madison they found that all the hotels were fully booked. Her story ended, “By midnight, we still could not find a hotel room, so we drove all the way home and then to Madison again in the morning to catch our plane!”
She obviously thought this was a funny story, but I was not laughing. Questions were running through my mind, but I was too upset to ask them.
She obviously thought this was a funny story, but I was not laughing. Questions were running through my mind, but I was too upset to ask them. I wondered, If she and her husband were truly our friends, why didn’t they call us when they couldn’t find a hotel room in Madison? If I had been in their situation, I would not have even considered a hotel in the first place; I would have just asked to stay at my friends’ house. Even if I had decided to stay at a hotel, once I found there were no rooms available, I would not have thought twice before calling my friends for help. That’s what friends do! Her story revealed that she obviously did not consider us to be friends, and I was hurt.
After we returned home that night, I let my husband know how upset I was to discover that my dear sister was not a true friend. By this time in my life, I had been living in the United States for almost ten years and was married to an American. I believed I had a good understanding of American ways. However, after patiently listening to my sad story, my husband told me, “You know, what they did was actually out of respect for you.” Incredulous, I responded, “What respect? If they respected us, they would not mind knocking on our door even if we were already sleeping instead of driving hours back and forth!” My husband replied, “Americans do not like to inconvenience people. They would rather inconvenience themselves than inconvenience others.” I still did not believe him until he added, “If I were in their shoes, I would have done exactly what they did.” That got my attention! I know my husband is a good man, so if he would do what they had done, I had to admit that it must not have been insulting. It must have been done out of respect for us!
Lessons for the multicultural congregation
This encounter is a typical example of how a cultural mix-up can become a spiritual setback. In this case, neither my pastor’s wife nor I had bad motives, but I misunderstood her actions. Here are a few key lessons we can learn from this situation.
Don’t judge others based on your own cultural perspective. In my Yoruba culture, knocking on someone’s door in the middle of the night without any warning is a sign of closeness, friendship, trust, and respect. However, it was a mistake for me to interpret my sister’s actions based on that standard.
We must learn to distinguish between Bible commands and cultural standards.
We must learn to distinguish between Bible commands and cultural standards. The Bible instructs us to show friendliness, but it does not say whether or not to knock on someone’s door in the middle of the night. When people do things differently than we would, that does not mean they are wrong—their way is just different. Jesus admonished the Pharisees, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). We, too, must endeavor to judge righteous judgments. That will require us to go beyond a surface-level analysis and look for each other’s true intentions.
Ask the “why” question. When we find ourselves troubled by a fellow believer’s behavior, a helpful course of action is to stop and ask ourselves a simple question: “Why?” Why did he or she do this? Could the behavior be rooted in culture? If so, what was the cultural belief that led to it?
In my nearly forty years of living in the United States, almost all of my cultural misunderstandings happened when I failed to ask the “why” question. If we do not know the answer, we could ask the other person, or someone who has more experience with that culture than we do. When we understand where the individual is coming from, we may still not like that behavior, but at least it will not confuse us or hinder God’s work among us.
Many times when a cultural misunderstanding occurs, there is the tendency not to say anything, thinking that talking about it will make it worse. However, I have personally seen that ignoring cross-cultural problems usually compounds them. The Word of God instructs us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Through honest and sincere communication we can begin to understand where our brothers and sisters are coming from.
Unto the Jews, become as a Jew. Paul said he adapted his way of life to fit with the people around him, and that is good advice for us too. When I came to the United States, I had to be careful not to expect others to change their ways for my sake. I learned that I could accept and respect the way they did things because they were not violating any Bible doctrines or practices of our church. My desire was that wherever God placed me, I wanted to fit in with His work. I was willing to give up personal preferences in order to maintain unity. Still today, when I have the opportunity to visit our churches in another country, this is my mindset.
That said, we also want to remember that cross-cultural relationships go both ways. Whether we are the foreigner in a new place or the local resident welcoming foreigners, we all have a part to play.
Forgive easily but do not be offended easily. Often, cultural miscommunications are a source of laughter. However, in the worst of cases, our own fellow believers may unknowingly embarrass, insult, or even hurt us. When this occurs, we have to make a choice—will we hold a grudge or will we forgive?
In the worst of cases, our own fellow believers may unknowingly embarrass, insult, or even hurt us. When this occurs, we have to make a choice—will we hold a grudge or will we forgive?
Paul spoke of Christian unity in Colossians 3:11 when he said that among believers “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” The Apostle immediately proceeded to instruct on how to avoid conflict within the Church, thereby acknowledging that causes for conflict can still arise. In verses 12-14 he said, “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.” In situations where reason alone does not provide a solution, our love for one another will lead us to extend grace and forgive.
Heaven’s multicultural church
There are many benefits that result from cross-cultural congregations—a whole other article could be written on that topic. Yet, we must also be aware and guard against the potential pitfalls. Heaven will be filled with people from all different nations, languages, and cultures (see Revelation 7:9) and it is not too soon for us to be in unity now. When we choose an attitude of love and respect toward our brothers and sisters from other cultures, we will have the blessing of God as we serve Him together.