It’s interesting, to look back over the 29 years that we’ve been in Christian ministry and see the journey that the Lord has taken us on. Sometimes the journey has been quite difficult, but mostly it’s been encouraging, exciting, even invigorating as we have seen God at work in the lives of so many different people and situations — and most importantly in us. Hopefully, as we share some of our experiences of how we have adapted to new cultures and areas of ministry, we can help you to pray more effectively for those involved in cross-cultural ministry.
The biggest hurdle we faced as we moved to Colombia in 1991 was learning the language. Spanish is a beautiful language, so expressive and vibrant, but its conjugation is more complicated than English. Besides, what native English-speaking person thinks of conjugations as they communicate with someone! Our first 10 months in Armenia were spent in concentrated language study and it wasn’t an easy year. Acquiring a new language can be SO frustrating and at times humiliating! Sometimes we seemed to be progressing and then we were convinced that we were not learning anything. This led to feelings of anxiety and depression, even doubting that we should even be in Colombia. Many sleep-deprived nights were spent silently conjugating verbs or trying to nut out the best way to phrase a question or wondering if we’d used the right words in a recent conversation. Sometimes we just cried and felt like giving up, we thought we’d NEVER master Spanish — but eventually we did!
With discipline, hard work and by being surrounded by other Spanish speakers, little by little we progressed until one day we could communicate clearly and not get lost in a group when the topic changed. The breakthrough was gradual. We realised that we weren’t translating Spanish into English, thinking of the answer in English and then translating it into Spanish to communicate. That initial year of hard work and study gave us the ability to communicate, even though it may have been on a basic level. It took us about three years to really start to feel comfortable with the language and around five years to be considered fluent. We continued to learn, but that initial phase of real struggle was over, and we could enjoy the beautiful expressiveness of this wonderful language, especially when preaching from the Word of God.
Whilst learning Spanish was often stressful and a lot of hard work, it was nowhere near as hard as learning, understanding and accepting the culture of the people in the different areas to which God led us. Some things that people believe in foreign lands just don’t make any sense to us who have been raised in a middle-of-the-road Australian culture. Some of the cultural differences are minor, such as the food, different driving rules and habits, different ways to shop, and even different ways that the Christians worship and serve the Lord in church. Some things are bigger though and we struggled to adapt. Here are a few examples.
Soon after arriving in Colombia, we were told by one of the leaders in the Church we were attending to not trust anyone! His example was striking – “I love my grandmother with all my heart – but I don’t trust her!” To someone who grew up in a big country town and spent most of his working life in the bush, this was so difficult to get a grasp of. When you’re used to taking people at face value, especially your grandmother, it’s very challenging to become suspicious of people and their motives. After several years of being deceived and used by different people, you do begin to be more cautious, but it’s not something you genuinely get used to. This then becomes a real challenge when people are saved and are added to the Church. They need to learn that God’s culture is one of honesty and transparency and they should strive to live that way. This is not easy to do when the new Christian knows that his/her competitors in business are lying and scheming to beat him/her, so it’s great when you do see the transformation that God brings to a person’s life.
Another serious problem is the corruption which impacts on every area of life. Customs won’t release your belongings, but if you’re willing to pay a bribe it won’t be a problem. Police pull you over and pull your car apart looking for drugs or guns which they know you don’t have, but a bribe will stop the harassment. These personal dealings with corruption, however, pale into insignificance to what happens in the higher echelons of public life where political candidates pay enormous sums of money buying votes so they can win office. Once they are in office, they set about recovering their debt and becoming wealthy by stealing from the public purse. Infrastructure isn’t built and hospitals go without medicines and basic services so that people die because of a lack of care. Public servants then must borrow money, at unbelievably high interest rates from money lenders, because their salaries aren’t being paid, even though the funds are available. In the end when they are back paid maybe ten months’ salary, the politicians and money lenders grow rich on the back of the interest owed.
This type of corruption can become depressing, especially as you see people suffering needlessly and you can become quite angry. How did we deal with it? We had to come to the realization that the Lord didn’t send us overseas to change a culture, but to preach the gospel. Through the gospel, individuals are changed, and when enough individuals are changed, the culture to some extent will change.
This was born out to us in a small jungle village of 300 people where we preached the gospel and a church was started. We didn’t know it when we first went to this place, but it had the reputation as the most corrupt and immoral village in the whole area. Pretty well every kid in the village came to Sunday School. In the beginning we had to send some of the ten- to twelve-year-old boys home, to put some pants on because they were naked. Over time a lot of people were saved, and we had around 60 people coming along to church each Sunday. It was one of the school teachers who told us “This village is not the same since you people came along, it’s been transformed.” Such is the power of the gospel.
Something else that we found a real struggle was the way religion would bind people and hold them in slavery to its rituals and practices. We always marvelled at how a country as passionately religious as Colombia could be so violent and give birth to some of the world’s most wanted felons — religious though they were. This ability to live horrendously sinful lives and yet still believe that ‘the Church’ would somehow get them into heaven just didn’t make any sense to us, and yet it was so ingrained in their culture.
We found it necessary to be very clear in presenting the gospel, because it was so easy for the people to hear your message and interpret it according to their belief system. When people were saved and living transformed lives, we had so much to be joyful about. But that wasn’t always the case with their family and friends. Several times we had different mothers say to us, “I wish my child was still an alcoholic/drug addict and still be in his religion, rather than becoming an evangelical.” We struggled so much to accept that kind of attitude, but when a religion is ingrained into a society, nothing else matters but what the priest says.
These and many other issues were always hard to deal with. What made everything worthwhile is the amazing, transforming power of the gospel. It truly is ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.’
We arrived back in Australia in December of 2006. It’s incredible how much the culture of our home country had changed in the 15 years we were in Colombia. But transitioning back into Australian culture wasn’t that difficult. The place seemed to be more affluent then when we left, and technology had grown in leaps and bounds. One of the things that had a big impact on us was the rise of the coffee shop culture. Catching up with people over a coffee was the popular thing to do and entertaining friends had moved on from the traditional wood fired BBQ of sausages and steak to all sorts of fancy food. Beautiful parks had been built with free gas BBQs, so we found that we had to rethink the way we entertained people and, more importantly, how we would reach out to people with the gospel.
For the last 15 years we had done outreach by doing Bible studies with individuals or small groups in a home. A lot of outreach in Colombia was done in church buildings or through open air preaching. Now we found ourselves building relationships with people in parks, on the golf course, going fishing or entertaining at home. We were doing Bible studies in coffee shops, parks or homes using a wide variety of good gospel and discipleship materials. Life was so much easier, more comfortable and we definitely felt safer, more in our comfort zone.
One of our greatest blessings was to be working with a wonderful group of mature Christians who loved the Lord and were reaching others for him, originally at the Faith Community Church at Buderim and then with the Ballina Westside Community Church and Wollongbar Christian Church. After many years of pioneer work where we had to make most of the decisions ourselves and train the believers to grow in their faith, it was very special to be able to work in a team and receive the support and encouragement of like-minded people.
It would have been nice to serve the Lord for the rest of our lives on the beautiful Northern Rivers coastline of NSW, but God had other plans. In May of 2019 we moved to the inland town of Moree. This time our role is more one of support to the workers already here and the mentoring of future generations to serve the Lord. We love the country and the people. The Lord has some wonderful people out here — the Strahan families in Moree and Isaac and Eileen Gordon out at Brewarrina, not to mention a host of other believers who are super keen to reach the outback communities for the Lord.
The outback culture is laid back and yet very strong. It takes a certain type of person to work in a land of severe droughts and damaging floods. Added to these natural difficulties are severe problems of drug addiction and alcoholism in many of these towns, the fluctuation in farm produce prices, and the isolation. Bible studies now can involve a 140 km trip each way to Collarenebri. Outreach might involve four hours driving each way to the town of Goodooga or going out at 9.00 pm to the skate park to try and interact with the young people wandering the streets all night.
Some of the greatest challenges we face in ministry now are isolation, distance and extreme weather conditions — but the one thing that stays constant is the message of the cross. We have found that people living in any culture, whether affluent, poor or somewhere in between, all have their problems, their insecurities and their hopelessness. The message of Jesus Christ is the message they need to hear, because it is only the message of Jesus that brings people into a right relationship with our heavenly Father. It’s the only message that will bring the transformation that all people need and when we live out Christ’s culture, this breaks down barriers in any culture.
by Allan & Shelley Moss