In my work as a lecturer over the past year, I've had the privilege of working particularly closely with students from a number of different nationalities and cultures. This has been especially exciting for me because it fits into a lifelong love for other languages and other places. As a student I loved being part of the meetings of international students at my university Christian Union, and seeing how people from very different parts of the world (and with wildly contrasting life-stories) could come together in worshipping Jesus and encouraging one another.
Now I'm working on the other side of the chalkboard (so to speak) as a lecturer. Part of my job is to help communicate the ideas and tasks required of the syllabus to the students so that, regardless of where they're coming from (figuratively or literally), they'll be able to make sense of them and put them into practice. This isn't always totally straightforward, as I'm sure you can imagine – but it can be very rewarding! Whilst there have been many occasions where a student response has suddenly revealed that we've been talking at cross-purposes for some time, there have been many others where I have come away from teaching feeling hugely excited because of a breakthrough of some kind, a moment where a bridge has been built between our cultures and there's been an instant of mutual understanding – or, equally, when I have been suddenly awoken to some aspect of a student's culture that throws my own into sharp relief, or indeed puts me to shame.
I believe that a touchstone for our attitude as Christians towards those of other cultures is found in the account of Pentecost in Acts 2. Not only did this momentous event mark the birth of the church and the arrival of the Holy Spirit as a universal anointing for God's people, but it also presented a tantalising reversal of the curse of Babel. Where in Genesis the multiplication of language had brought chaos and division, here the Spirit's gift of tongues united seekers of God from many nations in worshipping Him and hearing the truth about Jesus. This is a foretaste of the new creation, where peope from every tribe and tongue will come together to worship the Lord; those of us working across cultures in an academic context have a unique opportunity to show this same unifying love and power in our own attitudes and actions. Here are a few things I'm trying to remember as I teach in this context:
- God's love cannot be culturally constrained. As the world enters a period of increased tribalism, some voices wish to draw Christianity into the orbit of a particular cultural group – either to claim ownership of it, or to outlaw it. But from the beginning, the message of Jesus was radically anti-tribal (to an extent that caused friction among all the cultural stakeholders in the early church). We need to be very careful that we don't conflate our own culture with God's calling.
- We need the Holy Spirit. God deeply desires to break down divisions between people-groups, especially those with a long history of hostility. What He did at Pentecost He is still doing now, through the power of the Spirit. As we serve across cultures at university, we need to ask for His help not just to overcome language barrier, but to reflect His genuine love for and interest in all the people He has made.
- All Christians are cross-cultural. Paul called the Philippians to see themselves as citizens of heaven, living as ex-pats in their earthly world. We should be able to understand something of what it is like for a student in an unfamiliar culture, because we are all in that position to some extent – 'foreigners and strangers on earth', in the words of the writer to the Hebrews. Let's not get too comfortable, but take every opportunity to reach out across cultures, as God has reached out to us.