"A missionary friend of mine once said, 'Things were simple before I went to Africa. I knew what the African's problem was, and I knew the answer. When I got there and began to know him as a person, things were no longer simple." - Elisabeth Elliot
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While I've viewed myself as fairly astute in traveling cross-culturally and I have even lived cross-culturally, I'm discovering how much I really have to learn about ministering and serving cross-culturally. What may be viewed as service in the American culture may not be understood as service in another culture--or worse yet, can even be offensive!
When we read about Jesus washing His disciples' feet and following the Jewish custom of servanthood, what do we as modern day, Western Christians think? We know it's supposed to be a model of servanthood, but it really has no cultural relevance for us Americans. I've personally been at seminars where the main speaker literally washed some of his staff's feet in front of all of us. I've also been at weddings where the bride and groom washed each others' feet. We all knew it was supposed to symbolize ultimate service. But the actual act had lost its significance. In fact, if someone were to wash my feet now, it would be odd and embarrassing! I wouldn't feel honored, and I certainly wouldn't feel like I'd been served.
It's the same way with many Western acts of service. We assume that giving clothes to the poor, meeting someone at a coffeeshop, cleaning the home of a new mom or an elderly person, offering money to help out someone in a tight spot, or giving up our free evening to spend time with someone, will come across to the recipient as acts of service. We certainly mean to help out and to serve the other person--yet the recipient may not view it as such. I would submit to you that it is not the duty of the recipient to try to understand that we meant to serve them, it is our responsibility to perform acts of service that are culturally relevant to the recipient.
I would highly recommend this book for anyone serving in any capacity, and in any country--including America. As the US becomes more culturally diverse, we must make sure that our servant model of being Christ's hands and feet is culturally appropriate.
So how we do that? How do we start to identify acts of service in our own culture and then seek out how to serve in another culture? We must start by learning. We must start by learning about the other culture, learning from someone in the other culture, and then learning with them. And when that happens, I think we'll agree with Elisabeth Elliot that "when I began to know him as a person, things were no longer simple."