Taking a job in another country can be a thrilling experience — it means stepping into new social and business cultures, experiencing people and places that are different than your norm. But it can also be intimidating.
One of the biggest questions we’re asked centers around finding and building that all-important community in your new country. Stephanie and her husband spent eight years living and working in Africa and the Middle East. Here’s some of what they’ve learned.
For international workers who follow Jesus, community is more than valuable. It’s absolutely necessary if you want to thrive in your new culture. But simply having a community isn’t enough.
Excellent communities inevitably provide two things that Jesus-followers living in and adjusting to a new culture need: support and trusted relationships, both inside and outside their group of like-minded believers. During our eight years in Africa and the Middle East, God provided great relationships in both contexts for our family — and we never would have survived without them.
Part of that support you need early on comes from people who will take the time to show you the ropes. Find them. Cling to them.
In Africa, one family, in particular, took us under their wing and showed us simple things like which grocery stores carried imported American stuff, where the best places were to buy meat and produce, and what perks to look for in an international bank. We were international neophytes — we knew nothing — so getting guidance from people who knew the turf meant the world to us.
This mentor couple really walked us through a lot of mental and spiritual adjustments, including the realization that we’re all broken people living in a fallen world, and we don’t always make the right choices. From them, we learned how to navigate that lesson in a gracious way, and also learned to watch ourselves so we didn’t get caught up in the normal ups and downs of living and working in a foreign culture. Learning the reality of international living from them truly was a godsend.
Our experience with that couple illustrated that to be truly excellent, communities have to embody the vulnerability, transparency, and accountability that foster relational depth. A group of people that exudes those traits sustains itself and creates a wonderful witness to colleagues and friends who don't yet know Jesus.
As you build that relational depth, you also come to appreciate the fascinating diversity of the Body of Christ at work. We aren’t always going to see things the same way. We’re not always going to be doing the same things the same way. But we need to build each other up intentionally, knowing that we share the common goal of reflecting the love of Jesus, drawing people to Him, and seeing Him lifted up.
Living that way models true Christian community to the non-believers you’re getting to know outside your tight circle of believers. Even if they don’t reciprocate things like vulnerability and accountability, they’re seeing it demonstrated. They’re watching you build up your believing friends and demonstrate Christ-like community. That paves the way for meaningful, Jesus-centered conversations as they observe you living an authentic Christian life.
We need Christian community so that we can go out every day and live, work, and love our neighbors. We also need that deep community so that we can be the light of Jesus among our friends, colleagues, and neighbors who don’t yet know Him.
If you only focus your attention on your like-minded community and just see your new neighbors as projects, they’re going to see right through that, and you’ll miss out on the discoveries and real joy of cross-cultural living. In Africa, in particular, we lived in a true melting-pot culture with multiple national languages. Getting to experience all that through the perspective of our neighbors was amazing.
Obviously, having a biblically like-minded community is paramount, however, intentionally exploring local culture and investing in friendships with your new colleagues and neighbors helps you adapt cross-culturally and understand where they’re coming from. It gives you a way to connect and create lasting friendships.
As you go about your everyday moments — living, working, and serving those in your new community —you’ll have the opportunity to reflect the hope and goodness of Jesus. Oftentimes this leads to conversations about faith, values, and sharing the hope you have in Jesus. We are the fragrance of Christ to those who are being saved. Having those local relationships gives you the freedom to share your faith and the love of Jesus with people who might not otherwise hear, and it gives you the chance to share your life in a real and dynamic way because your life is always a light for Jesus.
Above all, remember what Scripture teaches about community: "Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them together in perfect unity." (Colossians 3:2-14)
Living like that sustains you, builds others up, and shows the world what Christian relationships are really about. In short, authentic community means the world to everyone!
Stephanie Gibson and her husband, Thomas, have lived and worked internationally in two different capacities, the latest stint as marketplace workers in the Middle East. They currently live with their three children in Tennessee.