Editor's Note: This article is adapted from training materials for our Helipad training, which equips those who want to live, work, and/or study overseas. You can find out more information here.
Culture is the way in which human societies order their corporate life, the sum total of ways of living developed by a group of people and handed on from generation to generation. As such, it is corrupted by sin. There is more than one culture in your country, whether you are home or abroad, varying from traditional to fairly “modernized." In order to determine the culture of the person or people whom you encounter, you can ask questions like the ones below.
But before you start—don't expect to arrive at definitive answers to these questions, at least anytime soon. Culture is complicated, and even more so when you don’t know the language. Nevertheless, these are the kind of questions that should guide you in reflecting upon your experiences overseas. At first, it will be more important to ask questions than to find answers. It will take time, but understanding the culture and worldview around you will help you contextualize the gospel so those around you can understand it better.
What are the central cultures and what are the fringe cultures in your new country?
Why are some central and the others fringe? (This question will take you a long time to answer. Keep thinking about it!)
What other people groups would this group identify with?
How do other people groups think of the people here?
What have you noticed about time and space as understood by locals?
How is child-rearing carried out?
In what ways do you see modernity (Western values) colliding with local culture and traditions? Where do you see this? What are the results? What about the future?
How do people learn here? Do they read? What languages? Do they listen to music? Do they watch TV? What kind of TV? Which people do what?
How do they learn their culture and traditions? Who teaches them and when? with books? with what?
What are the rules of polite communication?
What are the channels for information?
Are there recognized storytellers? Does anyone listen to stories? Who? When? Where?
As you learn language, think about how people choose different languages for different subjects here? What kind of things do they discuss only in their heart language?
What kind of things do they discuss in other than a heart language?
What are the traditional rituals? When are they held? With whom? In what language? What roles does alcohol play in this society? Among whom?
Are there different standards/expectations for single and for married women? Men? How do people group themselves at rituals? Why do you think they do this?
What rights exist and where? For whom?
How are leaders chosen/recognized? at university? in the neighborhood? in the extended family?
When does a person become an adult? How does this happen? What role do parents play in the decisions of children and young adults?
Who are the respected authority figures? Why are they respected?
What does an honorable woman look like? An honorable man? Do you know any?
How do people talk about sickness or disease or accidents? What does this reveal about their worldview?
What life-cycle rituals have you observed? What can you conclude about the worldview of the people from these rituals?
Are there annual or seasonal rituals? What are they?
How much do students and young adults enter into these rituals, events? Why?
What constitutes a crisis here? Is that different from what constitutes a crisis in U.S.? Why do you think that is so?
What are the crisis rituals and what do they look like?
Is there a difference between public and private life here? When and why? Do you think the secularization/modernization has had any effect on this?
What are some interesting household habits?
How do people show affection here?
Who makes up a “family?”
How do people view children in this culture? What observations lead you to this conclusion?
What do your new friends here believe about God? How do they talk about religion, what kind of words do they use? Do the men and women speak differently about this?
Would storytelling be a good way to tell the message? Why or why not? For whom?
What do people believe about the supernatural realm? Is that true for all age groups?
What are potential barriers to gospel reception? Barriers in the target population…barriers in us? How can we remove some of those barriers?( This will require a lot of reflection over an extended period of learning.)
What are potential bridges to gospel reception? How can we take advantage of those bridges? What is the history of Christianity among these people?
Caleb is the co-founder of The Upstream Collective. In 2002 he and his family moved to Spain, leading a team of church planters focused on art, social action, and culture exchange. He is also a co-author of Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Caleb is Director of Program Innovation at Mission Increase. With the Upstream Collective, he now serves as a trainer, innovator, and board member.