Godspeed Missions with The Scripture Scout

Handling Cultural Mistakes on Mission Trips

Matthew 22:37-39​, Luke 10:25-37

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Handling Cultural Mistakes on Mission Trips

Mission trips are an excellent way for Christians to serve others and broaden their knowledge of different cultures. However, immersing in a foreign culture can also lead to cultural misunderstandings and mistakes. These can range from minor mishaps, such as accidentally using the wrong hand to pass food, to more significant errors, such as misinterpreting a custom or tradition and potentially offending the host culture. A mission trip leader must know how to handle cultural mistakes effectively. This post will discuss practical ways to address cultural errors on your mission trip.

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Prepare your team ahead of time

One of the essential aspects of handling cultural mistakes is preparation. Before embarking on your mission trip, educate your team on the customs, traditions and cultural nuances of the country you are visiting. It's also essential to research the most common mistakes in that country and discuss how to avoid them. Even if you cannot cover every aspect of the culture, having a basic understanding of social norms and etiquette can go a long way in preventing major cultural mistakes.

For example, if you're visiting a country where it's considered disrespectful to use both hands when presenting food or drinks, remind your team beforehand. This will help them avoid making mistakes that could be perceived as culturally insensitive. Another example is to discuss the concept of personal space in different cultures. In some countries, it's acceptable to stand or sit very close to another person; however, this may be seen as intrusive in other countries. As you well know (or you wouldn't be reading this!), it is always important to know what things may come up and prepare accordingly!

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Apologize and Make Amends

If someone on your team makes a cultural mistake, it is essential to apologize promptly and sincerely. Acknowledge your error and express your regret. Instead of being defensive or trying to rationalize the mistake, take responsibility for it. Making amends can also be helpful, but how? Depending on the error, you can offer a gift or do something else to compensate for it.

For example, if your team inadvertently offended someone in the local community, you could offer to help with a project they have been working on IF THEY WANT OR NEED HELP. This gesture will show that you are sincere in your apology and willing to make things right.

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Seek Advice from Locals

Feel free to ask a local for clarification on a custom or tradition. You can request a translator or a local authority figure for guidance. Seeking advice shows that you respect and value their culture. In many cases, they appreciate when others are interested in their traditions and are often willing to explain them further.

It is crucial to seek advice before leaving on a mission trip because it is essential to understand the culture and customs of the country you visit. This will help prevent misunderstandings, cultural faux pas, and other mistakes that could cause harm or disrespect to the local community. Additionally, seeking advice from locals can provide invaluable insight into their culture and help create meaningful connections with people on the trip. This can enrich the experience and lead to a deeper understanding of different cultures.

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Debrief and Learn from Mistakes

After a mistake:

  • Take the time to debrief with your team.
  • Discuss what happened and why the mistake was made.
  • Find out what steps can be taken to avoid similar mistakes.

It's an opportunity for your team to learn about the culture and what they should and shouldn't do. It's also a great chance to foster a safe and collaborative environment for your team.

It is important to remember that mistakes will still happen even if you have done your best to prepare and educate your team. It's essential to be easy on yourself and your team members to make them. Instead, focus on learning from the mistake and using it as a teaching moment to understand the culture better.

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Embrace the Experience

Cultural mistakes while serving others in a foreign country can be uncomfortable, but they can also provide unique growth opportunities. It allows your team to embrace learning about the host culture even more. Use these mistakes as learning tools to help promote cultural humility and sensitivity, build relationships, and help grow your faith.

What did Jesus say about this? Don't you think He did "mission work?" Of course, He did. That's ALL He did! AND Jesus recognized the importance of learning about different cultures, saying in Luke 10:25-37 that "love your neighbour as yourself" is the most important commandment. He also emphasized humility and respect for everyone, regardless of their cultural background. As mission trip leaders, we should emulate Jesus's example by creating an environment honouring other cultures and encouraging open dialogue.

Ultimately, cultural mistakes can be an opportunity for growth and learning. As mission trip leaders, our best approach is to prepare our teams ahead of time, apologize and make amends when necessary, seek advice from locals and use mistakes as learning tools. In doing so, we can create a culture of mutual understanding, humility and respect among ourselves and the local community. As Jesus said in Matthew 22:37-39, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself." Embodying this commandment during our mission trips, we can create a culture of understanding and compassion. And that is something we can all strive for!