Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Living as Strangers

Written by: on June 11, 2019

My husband is a five on the enneagram. That means he likes to be “in the know.” He’s the kind of person that would eat up books like Culture shock! London and Culture Shock! Great Britain. These books explain everything from how to hail a taxi to what to wear to different social events. I suppose I’m someone who likes to learn and discover these things on my own, as I experience them.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s always a good idea to know basic rules of etiquette when traveling abroad. The more I travel, the more I find myself growing in my observation skills. I may not read books about every country I visit (or rather, I never read books about any of the countries I visit); however, I do watch what others do, ask how to say “please” and “thank you” in the local language, and try to be a good student of the local culture and a polite guest.

And this learning to be a guest, or in my case, living life as a stranger, is teaching me much about what the apostle Peter was referring to when he wrote: “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.”[1] Living in a country that is not my country of birth makes one an alien, but indeed, as believers, this is to be our stance as well. If missionaries engaged in their cultural adaptation process as a spiritual journey as well as a cultural journey, they would grow in humility, mutuality, and love, equipping them for greater effectiveness as ambassadors for Christ.

Terry Tan, author of Culture Shock! Great Britain, makes some statements and observations that ring true on both the cultural and spiritual levels.

“I am the foreigner, and most of the accommodation has to come from my quarter”[2]

This is a tough one for the missionary, who arrives to announce the Kingdom of God and knows from her own experience that those who come under the reign of Christ will experience great transformation. Missionaries come anticipating the transformation of the other, not expecting to have to be transformed themselves. Historically, missionaries have even imposed certain “Christian” behaviors, expecting outward change to lead to salvation. Culturally, I must be the one to adapt. French greet with a kiss on the cheek, not a hug. I make the accommodation. But what about us as strangers spiritually? Even there, do we make accommodation?

I’m afraid we do. We must.

We submit to human laws. We live in human economies. But the closer I come to Christ, the more these things break my heart. I don’t blame them or criticize them, I merely see in them how desperately all of creation is crying out for a savior. Even the greatest political and economic systems cannot meet the deepest needs and desires of the human heart. And while in some places revolution is the Christ-like response to these systems, for most of, peaceful accommodation is the better option.

“Richer are those who assimilate without clouding their sense of identity.”[3]

But even as we assimilate into these human systems, we do not lose sight of our identity in Christ. As he changes us, we become those yeast-like change agents that breathe holy life into our surroundings. We live non-consumerist lives in capitalistic economies. We seek the good of others, going beyond justice (what is fair) to mercy and grace. This is how we are salt and light. Consider how Martyn Percy described the salt of the earth: “The salt must always respect the type of earth in which it is situated.”[4]

This is a good word for the missionary as well.

“Don’t be anti-social even if you are disinclined to have ‘one for the road’ after work.”[5]

There is a sort of reverse-hospitality that must be enacted as we cross cultures. While the host culture is the one that receives the stranger, we who travel must choose welcome their customs and ways and integrate them into our lives. If having a beer after work goes against one’s religious beliefs, go out with your friends and order a Coke. In France, wine is a way of life. Many a missionary have missed out on true fellowship because they were disinclined to accept a glass of wine. When we pull back from their customs, we stay disconnected from their lives. If missionaries want to have an impact, we have to live where they live, eat what they eat, drink what they drink.

As temporary visitors to Cape Town, Hong Kong, and London, we get to taste new cultures, but we are not actually required to adapt. We ma adjust our way of living for a short time, but we anticipate returning “home,” where we will easily fall back into our own way of doing things. But as Christians living as aliens in the world, we must swim against the cultural tide, choosing to continually adapt to Kingdom Culture and to be transformed into the likeness of the King.

[1] Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. I Peter 1:17.

[2] Terry Tan, Britain. (Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2008), Kindle loc 186., http://proquest.safaribooksonline.com/9789814435956.

[3] Tan, Kindle loc 191.

[4] Ian S. Markham and Joshue Daniel, eds., Reasonable Radical? Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018), Kindle loc 5584.

[5] Tan, 4482.

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

5 responses to “Living as Strangers”

  1. Great post, Jenn!

    I’d love to be a fly on the wall and watch you and your husband take on new cultures. It would be interesting to see the differences in your approaches.

    This week’s text reminded me of Martyn Percy’s preference towards sociological understanding alongside theology.

    When we understand the cultural context, we understand how to present ourselves and Christ in ways that translate to our audience.

    What has been the greatest way that you’ve had to adapt to your context in France? What has been the greatest hurdle you face when teaching new missionaries of cultural customs and etiquette?

    • It took my husband and I a while to figure out how oto travel together, but now we really benefit from the others’ strength. Typically, David plans out every other day, figuring out hours of operation of museums, transportation to various sites, and even where we might eat. Then on the other days we follow my way og “going with the flow and seeing where the wind takes us.” we both enjoy every day, and having variety in our approach.

      Having been here for nine years, I don’t really remember what the big hurdles were for me. With new missionaries, its usually helping them to slow down and be relational rather than task oriented.

  2. Greg says:

    I am not one that usually reads a lot of books either…often I do google top ten things that offend the particular culture and learned a lot.

    I try to look at a 2 week trip as a time to see if I want to come back and really dig into the culture. When we were in southern France we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and would love to spend more time embracing the culture. I assume that is why I resist cruises so much. There really isn’t a chance to engage nationals when visiting a country only buying trinkets and visiting over populated tourist sites…sorry that was a soap box. Christians do often want things clean and clear…but we know that cross cultural ministry is messy, frustrating, and so rewarding.

    • I hear you, friend. I just booked a month in Thailand to kick off a three-month sabbatical when I finish my DMin (Mid-October-mid-Nov). I’ve long wanted to visit this country, and I am so looking forward to not only the cultural experience, but time to reflect and refresh and play in the ocean. I’ll be there, in the same place, for 30 days, 10 of which I will be joined by my hubby, 10 with a friend, and 10 alone.

      WHEN you come back to France, I’d love to show you around some of my favorite places:)

  3. Mark Petersen says:


    I loved your comment, “Missionaries come anticipating the transformation of the other, not expecting to have to be transformed themselves”.

    We have found complete transformation from the multiple cultures in which we’ve lived, including the present one.

    When in SE Asia, would love to connect you to Phnom Penh friends.

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