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Cultural Sensitivity in the US Context

A large movie poster of Shah Rukh Khan was not what my wife and I expected to see as we walked into the movie theater in southern Indiana. We had recently moved from South Asia, so we were used to Bollywood movies, and we even had several favorite movies and actors. But we were a bit confused to find a movie theater in semi-rural Indiana featuring Bollywood movies. This unexpected cross-cultural encounter caused us to start asking questions. If there is a market for these movies here, then who are the South Asians who live nearby? How can we meet them and be welcoming to them? How can we share the gospel with them?

As the United States becomes a more diverse context, the church must be prepared for cross-cultural encounters at all times, even in unlikely places.

We discovered that the town is home to one of the largest diesel engine manufacturers in the world, and they employ many well-educated Indian engineers. My wife ended up doing some contract work for this company for several years, which gave her an opportunity to meet many of the people from this unique diaspora community. As the United States becomes a more diverse context, the church must be prepared for cross-cultural encounters at all times, even in unlikely places. Below are some ways the church can grow in cultural sensitivity as they prepare for these encounters.

Increase Awareness

The United States is rapidly becoming more culturally diverse. Census data from 2010 and 2020 show that the US population already looks much different than it did at the beginning of this century. Those identifying themselves as “White Alone” dropped by 9 percent in a period of twenty years (from 69.1 percent in 2000 to 60.1 percent in 2020). Our communities—even the most rural communities—include a growing number of people who look different, sound different, think differently, and live differently.

Becoming aware of the cultural diversity around us is the first step in developing cultural sensitivity and considering how you might be a cross-cultural disciple-maker. Once you become aware of the different cultures around you, you will begin to see your community differently.

Ask Questions

How do you learn about the culturally diverse people around you? You might think the best way is to read a book or an article about specific cultures. Reading is a good start but a poor substitute for building relationships with the real people in your community. The best way to get to know them is by asking them questions.

But even the questions you ask and the way you ask them require some cultural sensitivity. First, avoid asking leading questions that begin with “Is it true that . . .?” You might have heard something on the news or read something about a country, culture, or religion. This information may or may not be accurate, and these questions tend to place the other person in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they have to defend their cultural practices. Instead, ask open-ended questions such as, “I would love to hear about your family. Can you tell me about them?” This gives them the chance to share what they find important about their culture.

Reading is a good start but a poor substitute for building relationships with the real people in your community. The best way to get to know them is by asking them questions.

Second, some questions can create unintentional offense. For example, asking someone directly, “Where are you from?” assumes that the person is from somewhere else. In our culturally diverse context, we will increasingly find people who have African, Asian, and Hispanic cultural backgrounds but who have grown up in the US.

Here are a few questions that might help you get started:

  • Can you tell me about the food in your place? What is your favorite meal?

  • I would love to hear about your family. Can you tell me a little about them?

  • What kind of work does your family do?

  • What are your major holidays? What do these festivals celebrate?

  • Can you share a little bit about what you believe?[1]

One note for anyone who is uncomfortable with the last question—in most cultures around the world, they find it strange not to talk about their religion. This is not the time to debate or argue with them—this is the time to listen and learn about them.


Be Hospitable

As Americans, we like our privacy and our personal space, and our homes are often impenetrable fortresses that reflect our radical individualism, something that is quite foreign to many people from other cultures. While there are positives and negatives to American individualism, as Christians, this cultural characteristic can be a barrier to biblical obedience. A 2012 study by Bridges International revealed that 80 percent of the 900,000 international students in the US will never be invited into an American home during their time here. We can and must do a better job of welcoming people from different cultural backgrounds and obeying the New Testament’s multiple commands for Christians to practice hospitality (Rom 12:13; 1 Tim 5:10; Titus 1:8; 1 Pet 4:9).

Hospitality doesn’t have to be complex—you don’t have to prepare a three-course meal and have everything perfect. It also doesn’t just have to be for a special event (although inviting people from different cultural backgrounds for birthdays, holidays, weddings, and other major life events would be a good thing). Hospitality is often more about spending time with people than providing things for them. Offering a simple snack and a glass of water is often more than sufficient. Creating an environment where relaxed conversation is the focus is more important than what food is served.

Hospitality is often more about spending time with people than providing things for them.

Continue to Learn Cross-Cultural Communication

Communicating within your own culture is often hard enough; communicating cross-culturally involves an additional set of challenges. Even when a language barrier doesn’t exist, speaking with someone from a different culture can be frustrating for both parties. Fortunately, cross-cultural communication is a skill that can be developed. While it is impossible to perfect the art of cross-cultural communication, we have the responsibility to do everything we can to communicate effectively—both to share the good news of Jesus and to build genuine friendships that seek to honor and respect the image of God displayed in other people and the beauty of other cultures.

In the past, I have heard people say that the nations are on our doorstep, but that’s no longer completely accurate. The nations are in our schools, workplaces, grocery stores, coffee shops, and everywhere else. We should be inviting them into our living rooms and kitchens, and when the opportunity arises through our conversations, we should be prepared to share the gospel in a contextually appropriate way.


NOTE

[1] These questions are based on the “Five Fs” of Food, Family, Finances, Festivals, and Faith discussed by Keelan Cook.

 

Matthew Hirt (PhD in International Missions from SEBTS) has served in both pastoral ministry and international missions. He currently serves as missions faculty at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, where he trains aspiring pastors and missionaries to be obedient to Christ in fulfilling the Great Commission. He is a contributing author and co-editor of the book Generational Disciple-Making: How Ordinary Followers of Jesus Are Transformed into Extraordinary Fishers of Men. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Peoples and Places: How Geography Impacts Missions Strategy. You can follow him on Twitter.


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