Compelling Cultural Encounters: Seven Ways to Connect People with the World

By Marti Wade

Hey, mobilizers! You’ve got the missions bug and want to spread it. What can you do? Here’s a starter list of ways to create compelling events and encounters of a cross-cultural kind. Some of them can be done without much time or money, though putting more heart into them will likely improve the results. Ready to think outside the box?

1. Cultural simulation

Get people’s attention and lodge an experience in their memories by creating a bit of tension. I know none of us likes to be  uncomfortable for very long. But the few moments of pain and surprise that come with a cross-cultural simulation can be great teachers.

Mission mobilizers have facilitated this by re-creating a border crossing, a police raid on an underground church, or simply what it’s like to be in another culture. Sandra, with World Relief, offers a good example: she coordinates The Refugee Project. This three-hour simulation transforms groups into refugees who are escaping for their lives, seeking safety somewhere, anywhere.

Carefully handled, a simulation like this can help us understand a bit more what life is like for someone with whom we may have never felt a point of identification.

2. Make it a meal

Maybe you’d like to avoid the “wow, those people are so different from us” dynamic. You can still go for the cultural simulation, but instead of dramatizing the differences, design it to build on more common ground.

Coordinators for Encountering the World of Islam tell their students to come to the next class session hungry and on time, because they’ll be sharing a meal. Praying for students’ appreciation for Muslims and Muslim cultures to increase, they simulate what it’s like to visit a Muslim home for dinner (complete, of course, with yummy food). Write them for a document that includes tips and recipes.

Such an experience helps students appreciate that while they may not feel up to debating the theology of the Trinity with a Muslim they may meet, they can sit down and eat together and make some new friends.

3. Fun for kids means more fun for all

Plan your cultural exposure event with fun in mind. Make it a family event, complete with games, food, music, videos, and other creative bells and whistles designed to hold the attention of the younger set. Have the kids participate by singing a song, leading an activity, or serving snacks. Chances are good the kids will want to be there and probably bring their parents, too. Maybe everyone will find it more fun than a more grown-up event would be, and the memories are more likely to “stick.”

Shane took this idea and turned it into a field trip. He took families from his church to a nearby city full of refugees. The kids went into shops and tried things they’d never seen before, hosted a kaleidoscope of refugee kids for a homegrown carnival, and worked like dogs deep-cleaning a local community center. A year and a half later, people still talk about it and want to do it again.

It’s one thing to have a cultural experience in the safety of, say, your home or church, but you can take it a step further by venturing out on someone else’s turf.

4. The best way to serve may be letting them serve you

Matt used to live in the Middle East. He recognizes that the Muslim community in his California town wants more than anything to be respected and known as people who are friendly and hospitable. During Ramadan he rounds up small groups of Christians interested in reaching out to people from different cultures and takes them to visit the local mosque for iftar, the meal served at sunset after a long day of fasting.

If that sounds too intimidating, a little research can probably identify festivals and events near you that celebrate specific cultures or holidays. Gather friends and family and take them there. Honor your hosts by giving them the chance to show you all they have to offer.

5. Get out of the mission trip bubble

If you are organizing a short-term mission trip in a cross-cultural situation, look for ways to make sure those who go get out of the foreign bubble. A real, ongoing friendship would be best, but even a brief encounter can be a highlight of the trip.

Maybe you can finagle an invitation to join a soccer game or attend a wedding. Visit an English class and hang out with the students afterwards. Pair up your short-termers and send them home with a trusted local friend for lunch or, better yet, make it an overnight home-stay. When your local partner makes this opportunity known in the community, you may have no lack of volunteers!

“Divine appointments” can’t be controlled or arranged in advance, but when you take a team overseas, put this on your to-do list: look for someone born and raised in your host community to give you and your teammates a culture briefing, language lesson, city tour, or all three. Any of those things will help you get a look behind the scenes.

6. Coordinate a cultural scavenger hunt

Most of us need a little push before we’re willing to embarrass ourselves or ask for help, but few things do more to endear us to others than to let them laugh at us or just give us a hand.

When short-term teams come to visit Angie, she makes sure they get a cultural orientation and sets up a cultural immersion experience:

“We take the group to the largest market in South America, pair them up, and tell them to write down a dictated list of items. Here’s the catch: the list is in Spanish. We give them some Bolivian money and tell them to go buy the things on the list.”

“If it works out right they are forced to interact personally with Bolivian people in the heart language of the people. Any fears or barriers start to crumble or disintegrate completely. What fun to discover, with the help of kind and patient Bolivian shop owners, what crazy things you can find, like pomelo, goma eva, guantes, pil frut, and un cuaderno. They come back to the bus with a sense of accomplishment and a connection with the Bolivian people that lasts for the whole trip and hopefully beyond.”

Want to know what those words mean? You’ll have to look them up, or make your own trip to the market!

7. Be neighborly with someone from another nation

Maybe you’ll never get on another airplane, but you’re in luck: the nations are coming to your town. Can you put out the welcome mat for them? You’ve heard the statistics about how few international students ever visit a local home. Consider being one of those rare people who bucks this trend!

I don’t know about you, but when I think of hosting internationals, what comes to mind are the exchange students from Germany or France who came to my high school for a year at a time. Many schools and international student ministries set up home-stay situations that do not require such a big commitment. You might be able to host an Arab or Chinese student for just a meal, a weekend, or a week. As a bonus, your own kids (if you have some) will never forget it. They’ll be more likely to reach out to people different from them when you set the example yourself.

Explore the cross-cultural hospitality options in your town, then let your church or network know about them. Then, be the first one to sign up to participate.

Fuel inspiration and encouragement for this kind of ministry with a fun event like those described above or a you-can-do-it book like Donna Thomas’ Faces in the Crowd.

Conclusion

There you have it, seven creative ways to break down the barriers and create cultural encounters. Have you done some of these? We’d love to hear about it. Go to our website or Facebook page to tell your stories or share more ideas.

Marti Wade is a writer, speaker, and project manager for the Church Partnerships Team at Pioneers. Since the mid-90s she has also helped prepare cultural research teams to explore unreached communities and mobilize efforts to serve them.

Marti has managed and published Missions Catalyst since 2004 and is the author of Through Her Eyes, a book about the lives of women serving cross-culturally in the Muslim world. She married Chris Wade in May 2012.

3 thoughts on “Compelling Cultural Encounters: Seven Ways to Connect People with the World”

  1. Readers are shy about leaving comments here, but we got quite a few emails from readers telling us they found this article helpful. If you have any questions or additions, we’d still be glad to hear them.

  2. This 7 ways to connect was used in a missions class. It produced some very interesting discussions, particularly from the foreign students. Thank you

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