I had just learned about Cha, and I was pretty excited to order this Bengali tea at our new favorite cultural-hub and impress our waitress with my very non-White person knowledge of what I could ask for that wasn’t on the menu. Only insiders know to ask for Cha at our curry spot, and I was about to prove my credentials.
“Daya Kare a Cha,” I asked the waitress.
“Cha now?!” She asked, indicating that I hadn’t even received my food.
“No…. (insert embarrassingly long pause here) after the food?”
She smiled graciously and walked away, thankfully not commenting on the egg I now had on my face. And I am thankful, because learning to work in a new cultural context is hard. It’s not fun to not know anything: to be a total stranger not only to every person, but also to culture and language and etiquette.
It’s nerve racking to sit through several hours in a restaurant and not know how to order, how to eat your food once it comes to the table, how to pay, whether it’s appropriate to make conversation with your female waitress because she is of marriageable age and you’re in a Muslim neighborhood. It can be shameful to you and them if you are friendly in the way that you might be with your “usual” server at your “usual” place. Is it more shameful if you are friendly to a female with your wife sitting there with you or if she isn’t sitting there? Is it shameful for your wife to speak up if a question is directed to both of you by the male business owner? Who can you ask without creating the offense you’re trying to avoid? And what about the two jars by the register, one is for tips and one for Masjid (giving to the Mosque); how do you clarify without seeming derogatory towards their place of worship? And what if you mispronounce the phrase saying that you do not have children and accidentally tell someone that you gave your children away (note: this was not something we did, but one of our friends did)?
There are a lot of ways to fail when working cross-culturally. There are a lot of barriers to incarnating the gospel in a new context and among a strange people; but there are also good reasons to undertake the task:
1. Our failures teach us humility. When we begin to think through the many difficulties we have in sharing the gospel across cultures, we are reminded of how many of our own cultural barriers we must first transcend to even hear the message ourselves. In the Bengali neighborhood, I’m working with people whose culture is, in many respects, much closer to embodying the historical values important to the writers of scripture. They are more able to hear things in scripture than I am coming from my own culture. It’s humbling to be corrected on your theology by a non-believer; to hear someone who can read scripture for the first time and who is already in a better position to understand Jesus’ parables and the world the gospels come out of because they haven’t inherited the sins inherent in my own worldview. Ministering cross-culturally teaches us that we all, regardless of background or culture, approach the gospel from a distance. It teaches us that our culture fails to realize the Kingdom of God and that we are dangerously syncretistic in how we think about our culture’s relationship to the world God is creating in Christ. Ministering cross-culturally teaches us that the only way to “lead someone to Christ” is to walk beside them, because we all have a ways to go.
2. Failure is the only way we learn. Whether it’s a new language, a new skill, or new disciplines in the Christian life, the only true way to master anything is to try and to fail–over and over again. But when we’re afraid to step out, afraid to be embarrassed and to look foolish we cut ourselves off from the way that we as humans learn anything. Learning, especially for the disciple of Jesus, requires taking the posture of a child. It requires admitting our ignorance and our inability to bring ourselves to a position of competency. We have to ask for correction, ask for advice, and ask for forgiveness when we inevitably fail. It’s the only way we’re ever going to learn anything.
3. Incarnation is the way Jesus taught us. “Why do you care about planting ‘indigenous churches,'” a friend asked me when I told her about our work in NYC, “the gospel is about challenging culture not giving into it.” And in many respects she’s right. The gospel is going to challenge and overcome so much of about every human institution, including culture; but the same gospel calls us to follow the example of a Messiah who deeply embodied the culture of his time and context in order to communicate the good-news of God. Jesus had to learn Aramaic, he had to go to Torah school, learn to tie his sandals, sit through synagogue every Saturday, go to the temple, celebrate the holidays of first century Palestine and learn to teach and minister in ways that were effective in the world he lived in. His apostle Paul understood this and by the same principle became “all things to all people” who he ministered to. If we really care about joining in the ministry of Jesus, then we will take seriously what the incarnation of God means when we are working cross-culturally. We will learn to take the lowest place, learn to be empty of self, learn to take on flesh the way God did in order to share the good news with all nations.