I love Star Trek. I love the stories about humans going to the far sides of the galaxy, seeking out new life forms and exploring new worlds. In one particular episode at the end of season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew stumbles upon a shuttle carrying 3 cryogenically frozen humans from 400 years in the past. They awaken the frozen humans and what follows is the sometimes comedic, sometimes frustrating interactions between the Enterprise crew and the three humans from the past.
The three respond differently to their new surroundings. One accepts his fate and tries to learn about the new culture while also celebrating his old culture. One cries because everyone and everything she knew is gone. The third lashes out in anger because normal has been redefined and he discovers that what once made him a powerful and rich man no longer has any value. Both groups feel the marked differences between them.
And as I watched this show, I wondered if the multiple generations found in our churches suffer from the same cultural differences.
Some churches have members who range from children to those celebrating their 100th birthday. Think about how much life has changed in the past 100 years. Kids today have never known what it is like to live without Google. I grew up with dial-up internet. I remember the thrill of the words, “You’ve got mail” and the introduction of Facebook. I watched the news about 9-11 in high school. My mother’s high school was segregated until her senior year. She remembers the Vietnam War and the first man on the moon. My grandmother lived through World War 2 and remembers sugar rationing. She sat around the radio listening to radio shows until her family was finally able to get a television.
As I look at these generations represented in our churches, I wonder, “Has our culture changed so much that in some ways, we have a cross-cultural encounter when we speak to those of a different generation?”
And if that is the case, how do we move forward?
I propose that we start using the principles of cross-cultural communication to build multi-generational relationships. Below are things to keep in mind when bridging the cross-cultural divide. As you read them, consider someone in your church who belongs to a different generation.
Recognize that you will be offended…and that you will offend.
In some majority world cultures, people remark, “You are so fat!” and mean it as a compliment. Translation: “You are blessed because you have enough food to feed yourself.” The unsuspecting American, however, finds this remark incredibly offensive. In some cultures, the host is humiliated if their guest’s plate is clean because it means they did not provide enough food. In others, the host is humiliated if the food is not finished because the guest doesn’t like their food.
Cultures, values, and societal norms differ. These differences lead to conflict, misunderstanding, and offense. When we send teams overseas, we tell them, “You will find things about this culture that are uncomfortable or seem rude. The foreigners probably don’t mean to offend you.”
Become a learner
When we enter into another culture, we notice that things are uncomfortable or unusual. Instead of jumping to conclusions, we ask questions. Why did you respond this way? Why did you act this way? What did you mean by this? What would you have done in this situation? These questions show the other person that you genuinely care about them and demonstrate the humbleness of a learner. Instead of assuming that our way is best, we ask questions in hopes of finding understanding.
As we seek understanding, we offer grace to those who don’t understand our culture. Did that person ask a taboo question? We recognize that they are learning. Did they respond to you in anger? Maybe they misinterpreted your question or your action. Did it take a long time for them to respond? Maybe they are thinking through something foreign to them. Instead of jumping to conclusions, thinking the worst of the person, or being offended, we offer grace.
Learn to die to ourselves
In cross-cultural situations, we recognize that we must take on parts of the culture. While we will never truly be cultural insiders, we must learn to speak their language, understand their culture, appreciate their values, and meet them on their turf. We learn to die to ourselves, a sometimes painful process in which we relinquish our rights so that we may love others as Christ loves them.
Once the conversation is started, we keep talking. We don’t become cultural experts in one conversation. We take what we learn and apply it to the next situation. And the next. And the next. And we start to “understand” the culture (as much as we can as an outsider).
So consider that person in your church from a different generation. What would it take to cross to the other side of the sanctuary, sit down, and introduce yourself? You’d have to assume that they might offend you someday. You might offend them, too. But recognize that in many ways, they are from a different culture. You occupy the same geographical location, but the culture around us has shifted so much that we don’t always understand each other. Ask questions. Learn about how they see the world. Look for common ground. Offer grace when they offend you. Learn to speak their language, understand their norms, and get inside their skin. And even though these people are different and these relationships are messy, keep talking.
Because the world will know us by our love, which includes the way we love those of different generations.
Anna Daub is a PhD student at Southeastern Seminary in Applied Theology. She is interested in cross cultural studies and the arts as well as creative methods for theological education. She currently works for SEBTS’ Global Theological Initiatives Department. When not studying, she loves being outside or in a coffee shop with a friend.