Context Shock vs. Culture Shock?

June 2022

By Jeff Holland & Josiah Holland, XP Culture

Do you know the difference? And is your team equipped to survive both?


As my team stepped outside the airport terminal and into the hot sun in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, several team members exchanged squinted glances. Even though I had told them what to expect, the sight of men in military fatigues standing guard by our bus with loaded rifles was still a bit shocking.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” I heard Dennis say under his breath.

My teammates were experiencing context shock – the newness and unfamiliarity of a new environment and context.


Upon arriving in Santa Rosa de Copan, we waited 2 hours before our host, Abel, was available to meet us at the hotel where we were staying. His son, Jose, was there to make sure we were successfully checked in and taken care of. It was a Saturday and we had caught Abel during his siesta.

Although the Bible has plenty to say about honoring the Sabbath, and Abel had sent his son in his place to show us hospitality, some of my team members were perturbed that we were already off-schedule by more than an hour. “Is he going to be this late to things all week?” Jennifer asked me as she walked laps around the hotel courtyard, trying to get in her 10,000 steps for the day. We were encountering culture shock – exposure to new cultural norms and values.

Culture is like the air we breathe—something we take for granted until we are underwater.

A new culture can feel suffocating or scary. It can also be amazing. In fact, you can think of culture like a big piece of candy with different layers of color and flavor.


The Outer Layer or behavioral level is what we experience first. It’s what we see the people do; the way we hear them interact. It’s how they measure personal space, and how they present themselves to others.

With patience and observational skills, we can go down to the next layer– the cultural values and beliefs. We learn if people value age and wisdom or youth and vitality. Relationships and people or tasks and prestige. We also learn beliefs pertaining to concepts such as the meaning of life, life after death, equality, and justice. Values and beliefs are tied together and drive our behaviors.

The inner level is Worldview: the “way” that people see the world and how things exist. Behaviors to Values and Beliefs to Worldview. It’s so entrenched that the culture isn’t even aware of it. Many Western cultures have an innocence/guilt worldview while other parts of the world primarily see things through honor/shame or power/fear.

On short-term trips, it is hard to see below the surface of behavior. But we can research the culture we will visit. 


Start with the Obvious Outer Behavioral Level: Are they in cities or spread out? In offices or on farms? How long do people live? And so much more. 

Then learn about the local values and beliefs by talking to people who have lived in the culture. As a believer in Jesus, you want to help people understand a Christian worldview, but it’s easy to cause more confusion than clarity when you visit for such a short time. Those who live there long-term are going to be the best at helping locals understand Jesus. We follow their lead. 


We need to be open-minded and non-judgmental as we practice understanding and respect. From there we try to do things in ways that are appropriate in their culture.  Paul said that when he was among the Jews he acted like a Jew. When he was with non-Jews, he acted like the locals. Why? He said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means, some might be saved.” We don’t do sinful things, but as much as possible we also don’t insist on doing things our own way. When we eat in an African village where food is eaten with hands, we don’t pull out a fork. When everyone starts the day at sunrise, we get up.

So much of your success is dependent on the grace of God and your humble heart. If you can see that He is in charge and you are not, you are in a good place. 


First, don’t take yourself too seriously. Learn to laugh at yourself. Learn to apologize. Cultural and linguistic faux-pas or mistakes are going to happen.  But be careful to not take your time of service lightly. Some mistakes cause a real mess that will require other people’s time and energy to clean up.

Second, work hard on the pre-field preparation. Learn as much as possible about the people before your visit. Also, get to know your team as much as you can. A good pre-trip orientation can help, especially if someone who has lived there can fill you in on the culture and people.

Third, don’t stop learning. Once you get to your destination, it can’t hurt to talk more about what to expect and what is expected of you. Your preparation lays a foundation so you can keep learning, and I hope it gets you excited to continue building on it when you arrive.

The list could go on, but being lighthearted, hardworking, and continuing to learn can make a big difference as you humble yourself and join a powerful God.

Co-written by Jeff and Josiah Holland

Jeff has served as a missionary for 12 years in Africa and 15 years in the US. He and his son, Josiah, the CEO of XPCulture, equip short-term teams to prepare well and re-enter effectively with the help of an online training platform.