Before I moved to Scotland, I had no experience of living outside my own culture. But the idea of transitioning to another culture seemed relatively simple: Just embrace it! I thought. Plus, I’d read plenty of missionary biographies, done my research, talked with other missionaries, and generally worked hard at preparing myself. On top of that, my wife lived in Scotland for three months, basically making her an expert in crossing cultures.
From the outside looking in, it seemed that this middle-class American from Wyoming was well prepared to move into the working-class schemes of Scotland with his wife and then four (now five) children. We felt well-prepared for cross-cultural ministry. . . . But were we?
Well, as God often does, he served us a substantial slice of humble pie. Having lived in Niddrie for just over a year now, our family is beginning to see things a little clearer. What we anticipated as a simple change in culture has turned out to be much more complex than we realized. There are many things I could share about our time here in Scotland thus far, but at the heart of all I have seen and experienced, humility seems to be the common denominator.
Growing up in Wyoming, I saw pockets of poverty and the working-class, but I experienced very little of either. I was born into a trailer-park, but by the time I was old enough to remember, my parents had become more ‘blue-collar-middle-class’. So I grew up chasing the American dream, just like everyone else. Everyone wants to have a decent job, make good money, have a family, and be happy, right?
Well, it’s not that simple. And this quickly became apparent when I moved into the schemes of Scotland. The people living in these low-income areas are not living there primarily because of no job, or lack of opportunity, or drugs, or alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, all those things are prevalent here. But at the end of the day, most people are here because it is their home. No matter what I think of their situation, this is their community. It’s the place with which they identify. It is their culture. To move on from here—to ‘better themselves’, get a city job, or make more money—would actually be to distance themselves from the thing that is most dear to them. If you’re from a scheme, trying to move up the ‘social ladder’ will quickly earn you the title of ‘outcast’.
As a middle-class American, I was completely ignorant to this cultural dynamic. I’ve had to humbly admit that my preconceptions of deprived communities were all wrong. Further, what I described above also happens when someone from the schemes comes to Christ. Most of the indigenous converts have serious fallouts with family and friends because they are now part of a new community, the church.
‘My way’ is not always the best
We may not notice it, or we may not want to admit it, but we Americans have a slight sense of superiority when entering another culture (and to non-Americans reading this, maybe it doesn’t seem so ‘slight’ to you!). No matter how willing I was to embrace change, I still carried with me a ‘my ways are better’ mindset. I think it’s a combination of personal pride mixed with a healthy dose of American pride.
But when this pride grips my thoughts, the cultural differences begin to bubble to the surface. The taxes are too high here. The roads are too narrow. Why doesn’t anyone have screens on their windows? Some of those thoughts may sound silly on the surface, but ask anyone who’s lived in a culture that’s not their own for an extended period of time, and I bet they’ll tell you that the little things matter more than they expected them to. It’s amazing how quickly the seemingly trivial can become, well . . . not so trivial.
Here’s the important point: All of those thoughts are rooted in the idea that my way—‘the way we did it back home’—is better. I know this seems basic, but it took me a while to understand the importance of viewing things as not ‘better’ or ‘worse’, but just different. And to be honest, some of the things they do here are better! It takes humility to admit that, especially when you’re culturally tired and just want to taste the joys of home.
‘Culture’ is more nuanced than I realized
Some differences in culture are easy to identify and somewhat easier to prepare for—language being an obvious one. Even though both Americans and Scots speak English, we knew there would be some language barriers. What we didn’t realize—at least not until we’d lived here a while—is that not only is the language different, but communication is as well. It took me a long time to see this because I was too engrossed in learning new words. For example, ‘dinnae ken’ means ‘don’t know’. Then there are the classic ones to get used to, like saying ‘jumper’ instead of ‘sweater’ or ‘trousers’ instead of ‘pants’.
When it comes to crossing cultures, after a while you realize that in language, communication, community, and many other things, there are nuances that are basically impossible to prepare for until you experience them firsthand. And again, these small differences that we don’t easily see have to be met with humility and experienced with patience. Books and cross-cultural manuals can be helpful, but they can’t account for all the nuance involved in crossing cultures. My knowledge of these differences and my experience are much different.
A wholehearted embrace of a new culture is much easier said than done. It requires dying to self, not just daily or hourly, but often minute-by-minute. It can feel like stripping yourself of yourself. As ready as we may be to accept our new cultural communities, sooner or later, we’ll come face-to-face with our biggest problem: our prideful hearts.
Pride will always get in the way of adapting to a new culture. Praise God that we have a Savior who willingly, gladly humbled himself. In Philippians 2:3–8, the Apostle Paul outlines the great humility of Jesus. In coming to us, Jesus didn’t cease to be God—He didn’t change who He was—but He did “empty himself” to be like us and die for us. Our best example of cross-cultural ministry is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We can be ready for any change and any culture if we put ourselves aside, put others interests above our own, and embrace Christ first before we embrace the culture.