In Romans 12:4-5, Paul reminds believers, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function,so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” The beauty of being a part of the body of Christ is that, no matter where you are from or what skills you possess, you have something in common with people from all over the world. When you join a team, particularly one that has members with backgrounds or cultures different than your own, it will be critical that you remember the One who saved each of you and the common goal you are all working towards: helping those who are lost find salvation in Jesus Christ.
First, we need to define cross-cultural teams. Simply put, a cross-cultural missions team is made up of people who are from the host culture and people who have come to that area to be missionaries. (Even if you are primarily working with people who come from the same country you do, there are cultural differences to deal with based on what specific location and background you come from.) No matter the mixture, these groups of people work together to evangelize, disciple, plant churches, and any number of other missions related tasks. There are massive benefits to this approach: those from other cultures get to learn about the host culture from those native to it, language translation is more readily available, and many people are more receptive to someone from their own culture sharing Christ with them. However, working in cross-cultural teams also presents many challenges. There are language barriers, cultural differences in dealing with conflict, and differing expectations for what each member of the team is supposed to contribute. By following these tips, you can confidently start working with your cross-cultural team as soon as you reach the field.
- Be aware of cultural differences- In the words of G.I. Joe, “And knowing is half the battle.” Realizing that there will be differences in how you and your teammates think about and face issues is a huge step in preparing your heart and mind to work well with your cross-cultural team. You can research the culture, talk with other missionaries who have experience with that location, and communicate with the local members of your team beforehand when possible to learn all you can. For example, many Americans deal with conflict in a more straightforward manner than many Asian cultures. But rushing to defend yourself or to place blame (even if you do it in what you believe is a kind and reasonable manner) can cause great offense to your Asian coworkers because it causes them to lose face. Knowing how to approach a coworker from a different culture when there is conflict is just one example of the cultural differences you may face. Educate yourself early by asking lots of questions and taking time to learn the values and beliefs held by those around you.
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- Try to understand the different communication styles of your team- Communication is a critical part of any team, from a marriage, to a sports team, to a cross-cultural team. There are great resources available to help you and your teammates find out what your communication styles are, but as a team, you must all commit to learning about each other and using those styles to make communication more effective. As just a small sample, in my time overseas, I (from the United States) had the privilege of working with several Canadians. We were all in Asia as teachers. One of the earliest conversations we had was about the difference between Americans and Canadians when someone offers you a snack or a drink. The Canadians insisted that you should never take something that is offered to you the first time. You should wait and see if your host offers it a second time to make sure they really mean it. They thought that we Americans were rude if we accepted right away. The Americans in the group generally agreed that it was perfectly fine to accept something the first time it was offered; whoever offered it was trying to be hospitable. (Obviously this is an overgeneralization, but it quickly showed us all that we had a lot to learn!) Taking time from the beginning to understand the ways the different cultures on your team operate will prevent bigger problems down the road.
- Be humble, especially about your own culture- Our tendency as humans is to think that the way we do things is best. We gravitate towards the familiar and can unconsciously look down on what we don’t know. As you enter the field and begin working with your cross-cultural team, follow Paul’s advice from Philippians 2:3- “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Your missions work is not a competition to see who has the best ideas; you are part of a team. Your cross-cultural partners can be invaluable if you will choose to learn from them instead of trying to change them. Of course, there will be times when they must learn something new from you, but as each of you seek to “count others more significant than yourselves,” your team will grow more unified and be able to do much more to further the Kingdom of Christ.
- Remember that you are there for a common purpose- The Apostle Paul traveled all over Asia Minor and parts of Europe working with people from different cultures. He referred to both Jews and Gentiles as “fellow workers” (2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:25; Philemon 1:1), acknowledging that they were all working towards the same goal. Your goal as a missionary is furthering the Kingdom of God by telling people about His saving grace. If you keep that the focus of your team and filter all decisions, conflict, and ministry through that lens, you are obeying God’s commands for unity in the body in a way that will be evident to those around you. How you treat the others on your team can be a huge part of your impact for the Gospel (John 13:35).
As you begin your work as part of a cross cultural team, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:5-6)