Who comes to mind when you think of your own cross-cultural experiences? Some of you may recall a short-term missions trip and the people you met. Yet often, many of us don’t have to venture very far at all to find ourselves interacting with someone who comes from a culture (quick definition for culture: how we view the world and how we live our lives as a result of that view) other than our own. Seeking to understand cultural differences is helpful not just when going to another country, but also in our everyday lives. We likely encounter people from different cultures—ethnic, generational, or religious—in the workplace, at school, with our neighbors, and even amongst our friends.
Differences in culture aren’t always obvious—it could be a word that doesn’t quite translate accurately or a shared value that’s expressed in another way. Something that makes sense for one person may not make sense for another. This is especially true when it comes to matters of faith and religious practice. It is essential for us to be aware of all this if we hope to share the good news of Jesus in a way others can take in and respond to.
I had an opportunity early on during my time in Kenya to act on that awareness. My husband and I (along with an American colleague) were invited to visit and speak at a prison where a Kenyan friend served as a chaplain. As was local custom, we were asked to greet guards, staff, and those detained there and provide an encouraging word.
What could we say that would be encouraging to incarcerated men and women whose first language is not the same as ours? What does the hope of Jesus mean for those who sleep on concrete floors in unsanitary conditions, with little to no access to healthcare? What does restoration look like for people whose lives feel marked with the shame of their crime?
Whether the context is a Kenyan prison or a neighbor down the street, to effectively reach across the gap of our differences, we have to make an effort to see the gospel through their eyes and try to set aside our own personal culture. These differences in culture are critical when it comes to connecting with others. Let’s look a little closer at a model for understanding the situation.
The Difference of Culture
Cultures define brokenness and wholeness based on what are called influencing dynamics. These dynamics act as lenses through which we perceive and understand the world. There are three distinct sets of influencing dynamics related to our brokenness and wholeness: guilt and innocence, shame and honor, and fear and power.
We can better connect with others about the consequences of sin and God’s work to restore us to wholeness when we recognize these dynamics. While some cultures tend to have one dominant set, many cultures operate out of a combination of two or even all three.
Guilt and Innocence: This dynamic is based on rules, laws, and widely accepted standards of morality that are internalized as right (innocent) and wrong (guilty). If you are proven or declared guilty, you face the consequences of your transgression.
Shame and Honor: This dynamic is typically related to community and tends to ask the question, “What will others think of me?” To transgress is to bring shame, and to amend is to restore honor.
Fear and Power: This dynamic reveals your relationship with authority figures. People living out of this dynamic believe that there are supernatural forces or authority figures that must be appeased or overcome.
Adam and Eve
We can look at Adam and Eve and the story of the fall to see these sets of dynamics in play. Adam and Eve realize something is wrong when “the eyes of both of them were opened” (Genesis 3:7). Upon this knowledge, they see that they are naked and sew fig leaves to cover themselves. And then they hide. When God, walking in the garden, cannot find them, he calls out to Adam: “Where are you?” Adam responds, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Genesis 3:10).
What happened at that moment when Adam and Eve took a bite of the forbidden fruit? It is here that, for the first time, they experience guilt, shame, and fear. God is the judge, and Adam and Eve are guilty of committing a wrong when they taste the fruit. After realizing that they are naked, they feel shame in the eyes of God and want to cover themselves. They hide and are afraid because they believe they have upset God.
Picture yourself as one of them in the garden after eating the forbidden fruit. Which of their responses do you find yourself relating to the most? Do you feel guilty, like you have done something wrong and will be punished? Do you feel ashamed and want to hide? Or do you feel like you have upset someone in power and you need to make it up to them?
No single dynamic is truer than another. They are simply ways of understanding the sinful nature of man. Learning how they each describe God and his relationship with human beings can help us begin to see the limits of our own cultural perspectives. Moreover, we can push these natural limits in order to better understand people who are different from us: not just people in other parts of the world, but also those who are near us.
Relating With Others Through Our Lenses
In Kenya, we sensed that the shame-honor and fear-power dynamics were dominant. With this in mind, during the prison visit, we shared about the restoration of dignity that Jesus brings (addressing shame) and how he lovingly calls us to follow him (addressing fear).
It is way too easy—tempting even—to remain in our familiar, comfortable space and never step out of that. Without making the effort to try on different cultural lenses, we miss out on a richer understanding of scripture and a deeper experience of God. We also fail to bridge the gap between our brothers and sisters who are of a different dynamic. When we interact with others through our own lenses, we maintain a limited viewpoint through which we filter everything. This is ripe for misunderstandings to happen. We can let our own lenses get in the way of learning about others—their passions, values, beliefs, and more—and stall relationships instead of building and strengthening them, allowing ourselves to grow and be edified.
What About You?
- Invite others into conversations that reveal cultural dynamics and lenses: guilt-innocence, shame-honor, and fear-power. Introduce a topic like family, professional life, school life, neighborhood or community, and so on. Then ask intentional questions like these: What happens when you do something positive or negative, and why? Who or what does it affect, and what does that look like? How does that make you feel? In light of the responses, see which cultural lenses you may recognize.
- As you dialogue with others, what are you learning about the way they see the world and interact with others? How might this impact the way you share the story of Jesus with them?
- What are you discovering about Jesus, his character, and the gospel that you hadn’t previously experienced or known?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cat Caya is a part of CRM’s Mobilization team and the Ethne collective, overseeing the Pathways program. She and her husband, Jim, currently live in Southern California after serving in Kenya for two years.