All missionaries, expats, and immigrants experience some variation of culture shock. It’s that feeling when you move to a new culture that can range from mild irritation to inability to leave the safety of your own home because you believe the culture is trying to kill you.
Paul Hiebert in his book Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, defines culture shock as “the disorientation we experience when all the cultural maps and guidelines we learned as children no longer work” (66). Scott Moreau in his book Introducing World Missions, describes it as the moment when “you realize your scripts no longer work” (184). Basically, it is the shock we experience when the new world around us doesn’t make sense.
So what? Why this random blog on culture shock? I write this summary because all I’ve ever been taught was, “When you move overseas, you will go through culture shock. Be prepared for it.”
But what if instead of only preparing ourselves to go through culture shock, we were prepared to see its symptoms in our neighbors? What if we could help those people adjust to their new culture? What if meeting that felt need helped us build gospel-centered relationships?
Here are six practical steps to build relationships and share the gospel through recognizing culture shock and helping someone deal with it.
Introduce yourself as soon as possible.
When someone moves to a new area, they are often incredibly lonely. They don’t know anyone. They don’t have any friends. And they may find themselves in a culture they don’t understand. That is where you come in. Introduce yourself. Welcome them to the neighborhood. Invite them over for dinner or out for coffee. Be the one to initiate.
Become a safe person
When going through culture shock, everyone needs a cultural guide, a person who helps them understand what is happening in the host culture. Be that person for your neighbor. They will have many questions and frustrations about their new host culture. Be ready to help. But beware! To be a safe person, you must learn how to listen and not make fun of them or criticize them for their lack of cultural understanding. You also need to learn about their culture. What are culturally safe ways to help your neighbors without belittling them?
Be available to join them on cultural outings
Sometimes, the best way to be a cultural guide is to go with the person. Take them to a cultural outing. Go to Walmart, help them set up a bank account or invite them to spend a major holiday with you. Ask questions along the journey: How does this differ from the same outing in your country? Was this difficult for you? What made it difficult?
Don’t criticize their culture….or your own.
We can have a tendency to get ethnocentric when working with other cultures. Ethnocentric is a fancy word for “I think my culture better than yours.” It’s ok for your new friends’ cultures to seem strange, but don’t criticize them. Remember that in their cultures, your cultural scripts will not work, either. Embrace the beautiful diversity of our world.
Also, try not to criticize your own culture, either. Your friends will have things about your culture that they don’t like. Don’t join in the complaining. Instead, point them to amazing things about living in this culture.
Take the opportunity to learn about their culture
Humble yourself to the state of a learner. Ask about holidays. Ask about their cultural norms. Try their favorite foods. Listen well and look for ways to love their culture, too.
Be intentional in sharing the gospel
It’s easy to do relational evangelism without the evangelism part. We build relationships, but never get to the gospel. In this case, build a safe relationship with your neighbor, but do not shy away from letting them know you are a Christian, sharing your testimony when you get a chance, and always being prepared to share the gospel when the opportunity arises. You’ll be surprised at how open many of your neighbors might be.
Culture shock isn’t only an American or missionary phenomenon. Every person who moves to a new culture demonstrates some symptoms of culture shock. This applies to people who move from the far corners of the world, from different states, or from a different part of town.
Why not help the person in culture shock? You can walk with them as they navigate the tricky waters of learning the new culture, in hopes that while you walk with this foreigner in a strange land, you are able to point them to Jesus, the one who gives us a permanent home.
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.