By Bailey Kalvelage | C2C Mobilization Director Setting out to serve in a culture completely different from your own can be quite daunting. If the weight of this task doesn’t set in prior to leaving, it will when you start to pack: Pants or skirts? Long sleeve or short? I can’t help but smile thinking of a team member I traveled with a few years ago – he brought a suitcase so large I literally could have physically traveled in it! Options were clearly a priority, and I can’t say I blamed him as the granola bars he packed certainly came in handy.

What does it mean to be culturally relevant?

Culture: The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group” or “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.” [1]

Relevant: “Bearing upon or connected with the matter in hand; pertinent.” [2]

So, to be culturally relevant in short-term missions, we must act in accordance with (in a way appropriate to) the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of the people group we are serving.

But how do we do this? How can we be culturally relevant on a short-term mission trip?

  1. Study!

Study the culture and people you will encounter. Doing so will enable you to learn much, before you even leave your house. Researching topics like the history of the country or city, the do’s and don’ts of clothing and conversation, traditional food and greetings, or types of things that might offend are all worth your time. Understand and anticipate these topics, and you will be sure to act, speak, pack, and love well.

For instance, “In Benin (Nigeria), they snap fingers before shaking hands as greetings, and say Nde Ewo (hello).” [3] There are so many fun ways, outside of shaking hands, with which people greet another! And while knowing how to say “hello” is fun, this and other pertinent cultural facts will also communicate respect and love for those you intend to serve.

  1. Rely on your friends!

Build a solid relationship with a partner indigenous to the culture at-hand so your team is prepared for successful cultural relativity. When you cultivate open communication with someone who lives in the community year-round, you can give them permission to speak honestly with you about do’s and don’ts as you serve together. This way, even if you get it wrong, you’ll be able to correct your future behavior and will be one step closer to people being able to receive your message and acts of love without interference.

For example, a team member from a World Orphans US church partner wore shirts that exposed tattoos on his arms without knowing what it communicated to those he was serving. Although in Nicaragua the tattoos themselves were not offensive, they did communicate disrespect. All was not lost though! Because the US church has a healthy relationship with the Nicaraguan church pastor, he was able to communicate the cultural faux-pas; as a result, the team member was better informed and able to be culturally appropriate.

  1. Be humble and flexible!

It doesn’t matter how many indigenous friends you have if you are not willing to take a back seat and follow their lead. James 1:19 says, “…everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” Choose to be a student of the culture before and especially during your trip. This will open your eyes to appropriate mannerisms and speech throughout your trip. Remember, much of what you communicate will not come out of your mouth!

Also, if your short-term trip is to a culture very different from your own, you may be met with feelings of being out of control, which can be very scary and tiring. To help ensure you remain culturally relevant even when uncomfortable, resolve to stay flexible throughout your trip. Be willing to try new cuisine or change plans at a moment’s notice and you will be much more ready to relate culturally and minister with a full and loving heart.

  1. Focus!

There is value in returning to the same location time, after time, after time. Whether you are a team member or leader, choosing to serve alongside the same partners and in the same community, year after year, will help you become an expert student of the culture and therefore further the impact of your short-term mission.

This kind of focused connection is what World Orphans partnership is all about. By choosing to partner long-term, yearly trips become the building blocks to stronger relationships and more effective ministry. As a result, partners are well equipped to care for children and their communities, plus teams are equipped to be culturally relevant, helping to further the Gospel, not squash it - yet another benefit of church partnership.

No matter where you choose to serve and receive, being culturally relevant is key to effectiveness on a short-term mission.

This list is by no means exhaustive. We’d love to hear from you - how do you think we can work to be culturally relevant on short-term mission trips?