It started out as lunch with a college friend. I was standing in line at Chipolte’. I had watched him pull into the parking lot and then stepped into the restaurant to get in line. By the time he got out of his vehicle and walked in, there were 4 other people in line behind me. I waved him forward to come stand in line with me to order. We both knew what we wanted and quickly ordered a burrito and rice bowl. As we payed separately, the woman behind us said,
“You aren’t paying for his meal?”
“No, we’re paying separately,” I replied naively.
“That means you cut in front of me and that’s rude!” she replied.
“But he’s with me,” I protested. “We’re eating together.”
“But you’re not paying for his meal and that means you just cut in line and that’s rude!” she said. I could tell at this point that I had genuinely offended her.
“I’m sorry I offended you,” I said. “I didn’t mean to do that at all.”
“You’re NOT sorry,” she replied.
“Ok…” I didn’t know what to say at this point. “I hope the rest of your day goes better…” She laughed, but I don’t think she was amused and I was confused.
As I reflected later, I realized that I had offended her culture. I thought, since my friend was in our party of two and I was in line, that he could join me. Since we didn’t have one check, she saw this as line jumping and highly offensive. I had offended her without intending to. And here is where things get sticky. First, we think of culture as just being ethnic, racial or socio-economic. And it is that. However, culture is also your sense of right and wrong, your age, your family background and your church (or lack of it). Secondly, all cultures have a sense of right and wrong, but all cultures have both truth and error in them. Was she wrong? Was I wrong? I’m not the one to say, but I wish I’d had the presence of mind to pay for her meal. I didn’t think of that until later…
Why do I even mention this?
For me, this illustrates the point that we need to be more culturally aware to be effective in ministry. Without awareness, we can quickly step on other people’s cultural toes and offend them. I did it standing in line at a Chipolte’ in Indiana! So I need to understand cultural intelligence because only then can I truly be like Jesus. He was the perfect example. Culturally, Jesus lived in the nation of Israel and the region of the Galilee. However, he made a couple intentional trips to gentile areas and had no problem relating cross-culturally to people there. Even when he did offend people, mostly in his native culture, he knew what he was doing.
And practically, did you know that there are now more Hispanics in the US than in Spain? Did you know that in less than 25 years, Caucasians will no longer be the dominant culture in the US? That information could cause us to fear OR it can cause us to work to understand other cultures so that we can minister to them. Let me give you a couple places to start…
- Eat at an ethnic restaurant (NOT Taco Bell). Cultures express themselves through food. This is a safe way to stretch your cultural understanding.
- Get to know someone who is different than you. There are lot’s of ways to do this. If you’re an adult, get to know someone in high-school. They have a different culture!
- Attend a church from a different tradition. All churches have a different culture so go see how other believers worship!
- Ask curious questions. Don’t judge right away. Find out what they do and why? Asking “why?” is good practice for learning about cultures, for leadership and for life!
You can’t change your own culture. You don’t have to apologize for your culture. But as believers, we have to realize that Jesus calls us not be defined only by culture, but instead be defined by Him. That will take patience, mercy and compassion…