This past summer I went to Tanzania, Africa with a missions organization. This was my first missions trip overseas and although our team attempted to prepare me for the culture shock that I would inevitably experience, everything changed when we first stepped foot off the plane.
The first day as we rode through the numerous unpaved roads lining the city, I couldn’t stop staring out the car window despite my nausea. What felt like thousands of people surrounded us, either moving leisurely in different directions or standing still, gazing into the chaos. While men were commonly in shorts and t-shirts, every woman I saw was fully clothed from head to toe in either a niqab, hijab or burka. Hundreds of children skipped through the streets in uniforms at every corner. Vendors were ubiquitous.
When we got to our location we were outside the city, and thus did the majority of our evangelism in local villages. While the dress was similar, the homes were more spread apart and made of stone, clay, and palm branches. Many people were cooking outside or sitting in the company of their neighbors.
Interestingly, the visual differences in their material culture reflected the traditions, beliefs, and social roles of their nonmaterial culture.
Over the two weeks that we were there, we interacted with church leaders, village people, and many more community members that allowed us to peer deeper into their embedded culture. We even attended a traditional Muslim wedding ceremony that exposed the clear segregation between men and women in their society. While American weddings tend to focus on the bride, here the women were largely excluded from the ceremony and the groom was the center of attention.
Evangelism was completely different in this foreign field as well. I was surprised at how many people were willing to listen to what we had to say. So many stopped what they were doing to invite us in their home. They would lay out a blanket for us to sit on. They would acknowledge our testimonies with questions and insights. Throughout our trip we ministered to over 200 people, distributed 100 copies of the New Testament, led 38 people to salvation, and witnessed 10 healings.
Being that their culture is so inherently spiritual and thus more receptive to new religious ideas, proclaiming the word of Christ in Tanzania felt too easy. Their eagerness to listen and accept Jesus as their Savior almost dissuaded me from sharing the gospel.
There was an aspect of simplicity that made me feel as though we were taking advantage of their situation.
Their responses harshly contrasted the way people in American culture react to evangelism. I grew up an hour outside of New York City. Something as simple as eye contact can prompt the immediate response to turn away. A word even spoken in one’s direction is greeted with a “no thank you” and a cold shoulder. People are opposed to stopping in their tracks to listen to another. Homes are personal and not to be shared with strangers.
My whole life I had fought tooth and nail for a friend to simply attend a church service with me, let alone accept Christ as their personal savior. Here, we were encountering strangers who within minutes of hearing the good news, prayed and devoted their lives to God.
Even when bridging gaps in culture, it’s clear our task remains the same. The Great Commission states, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. We are called to witness to all nations, despite the discomfort that is inevitable when engaging diverse cultures. Thus, when we respect other cultures by not trying to enforce our own, we allow God to move in a way that everyone understands.
God’s kingdom transcends the constraints of culture.
Although the ground may seem to be less fertile in the US, we live in a society where opportunities abound to demonstrate God’s love. Seldom do we realize the freedom we have to engage the various cultures that surround us. We have the ability to stand out and be a people that listens to others, meeting people where they’re at. This may take intentionality and patience, but the end result will no doubt be rewarding for all.