Engaging the culture around you with the gospel can be a struggle. Deciding that you are a “missionary” right where you live doesn’t automatically result in effective engagement with those around you. In an article I read recently, “Why People Struggle with Engaging a New Culture,” it identified several of these struggles that are faced when adjusting to an international assignment. These responses are certainly relevant when applied to a missional context here in America:
- “I don’t want to.” This response may take a variety of forms from “cocooning” in your own home instead of meeting your neighbors, or only spending time with your Christian friends. This may be verbalized directly, or simply observed through busyness with “church” activities.
- “I don’t know the culture around me.” This lack of basic cultural awareness may result in avoidance or resistance in actual engagement with the people and places around you. Failure to understand and appreciate the culture will prevent healthy missional initiative.
- “I don’t like the culture around me.” This is clearly related to the above perspective which lacks an understanding of the culture. Failing to make friendships with those who live near you in the culture may lead to a strong dislike for the culture. “Maintaining a distance from the culture in turn leads to a posture of judgment rather than understanding.” Even when you dislike certain aspects of the culture around you, building relationships with people within the culture can open your eyes to appreciate differences.
- “I’m afraid of cultural differences.” Often times when exposed to different cultural behaviors, there is a sense of fear that results from the unknown aspects of the culture. We’re often afraid of things which we don’t know anything about. This may appear as feeling disloyal to my own culture and my friends. It may also be reflected in viewing cultural differences as wrong, rather than simply different. Again, encouragement and friendships are key to adapting and accepting cultural differences.
- “It doesn’t feel right.” From a personality standpoint, the more rigid you are or the more structured you may be–the more difficulty you have in a new environment. Making cultural adjustments can be challenging wherever you are. While you cannot change your personality, being aware of who you are can help you to identify why things don’t feel right. Personal awareness can help overcome resistance to engaging the culture because “it doesn’t feel right.”
Engaging those in the culture around you isn’t always easy or natural, but it is necessary to embody the mission and message of Jesus. Making an intentional commitment to study (exegete) the culture around you is a necessary first step.
Also, be aware of any tendencies toward separatism or extractionalism. Both of these are obstacles to engagement. Separtism is a pietistical avoidance of “sinners” based on a fear of contamination and a “holier than thou” self-righteous attitude. Extractionalism is moving new Christians out of relationship with non-believers in the culture in order to foster new relationships almost exclusively within the church.
Cultural adjustments may be necessary even in your neighborhood, town or community. The challenge of making disciples wherever you live may require a cross-cultural experience. Be understanding. Be patient. Seek to be Jesus to those around you.