Editor’s note: Joel Barkman grew up as a missionary kid. Kara had never considered missions. After they married, they felt God calling them to reach Spaniards through art and music. They signed on with SEND, raised support, went through training — and now they’re gone. But they’re taking us with them. Throughout their initial year on the field, Joel and Kara will share here about their experiences as first-term missionaries in Spain. Click here to read about how they felt before they said goodbyehere for their first dispatch from Spain, here for Joel’s reaction to the first time he felt entirely overwhelmed and here for Kara’s mixed feelings about living far from home

By Joel Barkman, SEND missionary from the US to Spain — As we get more acquainted with our teammates on the Spain field, we continue to explore what it means to be a part of a truly multicultural team. The missionaries on this field come from Guatemalan, Honduran, American, Canadian, Filipino, German, Costa Rican and Hungarian backgrounds, bringing our group to a mix of eight cultures. (Nine if you count Californian!) It is truly an amazing experience to be teamed with such a wide variety of cultures, but it comes with its challenges too.

At the beginning of the summer, we had our annual SEND Spain conference, and for the first time (I believe) all of the worship and preaching were in Spanish. (Previously they had been in English.) Several of our teammates from Guatemala speak little or no English, and so it was decided that we would use the common language of Spanish. 

Because my wife, Kara, and I are only a few months into our Spanish language study, it was difficult for us to track with what was going on. During the worship time, we found ourselves focusing on keeping up with the words on the PowerPoint rather than really being able to worship. But we also understood that it was our first conference and we had the least Spanish capability of anyone there.

international missions, church planting in Spain
The SEND Spain team.

For me it was eye-opening to talk to others who had been in Spain longer than we had, and who could speak much better Spanish than we could. Some of them were very disappointed that everything was in Spanish. They had been looking forward to this event — the one time every year where they could pray, worship, hear sermons and fellowship in English. We ended up singing a few songs in English, and the speaker (who was bilingual) translated parts of his sermons as well.

In the end, it left something to be desired for some, but it’s difficult to know how to do things in a way that everyone feels comfortable and relaxed. One could argue that the Spanish speakers get to pray, hear sermons and worship in Spanish all the rest of the year, but the differences between Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish are still enough to make it not quite feel like home.

This language issue is just one example of how the difficulties of intercultural teaming can play out. Other things we talk — and sometimes even joke — about:

  • How quick Canadians are to apologize, especially in contrast with Spaniards.
  • How no-nonsense a German can be, and what is regarded as confrontational versus “just letting them know my opinion.”
  • How a Filipino may try to make his point by telling a story rather than saying the point directly.

Even within the same culture, you have some who are planners and others who are doers; there is potential for misunderstanding, even between people who speak the same heart language. That potential for misunderstanding grows exponentially when you mix in the non-native tongue factor (some of our teammates are using third or fourth languages to communicate!) as well as cultural differences and norms.

You might be thinking now, “Why would anybody want an intercultural team?” As missionaries we are being the hands and feet of Jesus, and I have a hard time thinking of a better representation of that than a multinational team working well together to share Christ. Too many times, Christianity has been received by those being ministered to as an “American religion.” This is already a very difficult obstacle to get past, and it’s only that much harder when the entire team of people sharing the gospel are American!

As I write this, I can’t think of a single time since arriving on the field that I’ve thought of or talked with others about how to share Christ in an “international” or non-American way. It hasn’t been an issue. With the many nationalities represented on our team, it is very clear to anyone new to Christianity that this isn’t America trying to export its culture; it is rather something greater that unifies cultures to one purpose.

And to take this even further, I believe that being a part of an intercultural team is a huge testimony to nonbelievers, as long as we are working well together. Yes, God made us all different. And even though there are difficulties, working out those differences before nonbelievers brings glory to God. It is worth it. I’m telling myself this as much as I am telling anybody reading this, because I know that may be far greater difficulties and challenges ahead than we have faced in our few months here.

One final thought: When I imagine Heaven, I think of the most intercultural, interracial, mixed group of human beings ever to be all together. If we had that kind of mix here on earth, it would be chaos. But there, everything will work together in perfect harmony, our differences will compliment each other in the most perfect and unpredictable ways, and a song like never before will be sung for the glory of God.

More from the First Year on the Field