Cross-cultural work is all about living between two poles and keeping them in juxtaposition. The problem is that modernity - our western Enlightenment culture - drives us to resolve that tension.
On the one side, every cross-cultural worker sooner or later is overcome by a pressing need to find points of connection with the local culture. And indeed it is true that unless the truths and values we present find purchase in local soil, they are unlikely to thrive and be accepted. This is why for the serious cross-cultural worker so much of what is done and said must first answer the question, "Is this locally appropriate?" All of us have seen the trouble that comes from ignoring or under-valuing the local culture: hurt feelings, damaging impressions, failed plans, lost opportunities . Cross-cultural work that does not make it a priority to engage with the local culture on its own terms is insulting and unlikely to produce fruit.
On the other side of the tension stands the theological reality that the Gospel of Christ is not bound by or contained within any earthly culture. We cross cultural barriers first and foremost as ambassadors of a heavenly culture - not our own (in my case western) culture. And if we compromise on our representation of Kingdom culture our mission is a failure: we no longer embody the "more beautiful country" we claim to represent. Cross-cultural work must always remember that our message is "meta", it is larger than any earthbound tradition or value system. Our citizenship is not of this earth.
Living with tension is uncomfortable; it offends our sense of rationality and we want to "fix" it, to resolve the seeming contradiction in favor of one side or the other. And yet to emphasize either side of this pair to the exclusion of the other is to invite disaster. Allowing the local culture to completely dictate the terms under which the Gospel is permitted to interact with local society makes an idol out of that local culture by setting this false "local culture" god in authority over the divine King we are supposed to be representing. At the same time, dismissing all earthly manifestations of human culture as irredeemable and devoid of Kingdom value is to forget that this same divine King lived and walked amid earthly people, revealing himself intimately and sufficiently in a particular culture.
And so the faithful cross-cultural worker must constantly be reminded to hold these two tendencies in tension. We need to learn the art of how to be in the world, but not of it; to see signs of the Kingdom all around us, but to never forget that this Kingdom cannot yet be found fully manifest in any earthly culture; to be seriously incarnational, without losing sight of the transcendent nature of our message; and to be both friends and prophets, each in their appropriate time and place.
Cross-cultural work requires wisdom and divine guidance to help us keep these two vital priorities in tension. Too much weight on one side or the other of the fulcrum and the entire exercise collapses into sin and folly.
Image credit: Tension, by Domiriel, via Flickr