The new frontiers for our Baptist witness have shifted from merely a focus on geography to a focus on culture with the advent of the global village. In the United States, we are living in close proximity to people of different cultures and radically different worldviews.
Richard Nisbett (The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … And Why) points to differing systems of thought between cultures–East and West–and suggests that these systems produce different worldviews and cognitive processes resulting in different attitudes, values and beliefs. The inevitable consequences of these varying worldviews are that different tools for understanding the world are developed by different cultural groups.
Cross-cultural competencies that were once required only for ministry in other countries are now basic requirements for those who seek to minister effectively in cross-cultural settings in the U.S. We are already living in a multicultural and multi-ethnic nation, yet many who serve the cause of Jesus have yet to acquire basic cross-cultural competencies for ministry effectiveness in this context of ethnic diversity.
Our world is changing so fast that it is challenging to keep up with the shifting nature of nations. Seventy-five percent of the nation states that populate the United Nations today did not exist 50 years ago.
Many people from historic and new nation-states, representing a wide array of cultures, are streaming to our borders and making their home in communities that were once largely mono-cultural.
Business people understand this new phenomenon and agree that the skills or competencies required for effectiveness are people skills in cross-cultural settings. Professionals in education, government, military and social work venues understand the need to acquire cross-cultural skill-sets for effectiveness in our time.
I am suggesting that the same is true for those of us who seek to incarnate the presence of Jesus in ministry.
From an ethical perspective, our credibility and integrity as messengers of the gospel come into sharp focus as we seek to minister in contexts that are increasingly diverse and thus, complex.
Glen Stassen and David Gushee (Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context) use the term “character ethics” to describe the forces that shape individuals who make decisions about right and wrong. They contend that we live in a time of globalization and cultural diversity that requires adaptability and the need to be more aware of one’s social context.
Stassen suggests that Jesus is the example of character that we should seek to imitate. Our Baptist witness is made stronger as our practices in a culturally diverse context approximate the incarnational quality of Jesus’ life and work.
This kind of conviction is what led the leadership of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to become a culturally diverse organization in 1948, 12 years before the civil rights movement burst onto the American cultural scene.
This Christian organization sought to change the nature of its staff and students to more accurately reflect the ethnic college student population nationally, currently numbering 27 percent. Today InterVarsity Christian Fellowship boasts that 16 percent of its staff is ethnic and 35 percent of its students are ethnic, up from 4 percent for staff and students 30 years ago.
The leadership team of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship knew that it had to climb a steep learning curve and acquire cross-cultural competencies to navigate uncertain waters.
The current context for our Baptist witness is no less complex, no less diverse and no less in need of ministers who possess cross-cultural competencies. Bernard Adeney (Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World) suggests that “there is no space which is not cultural space.” He argues that not only our personal practices but institutional, economic and political practices reflect and influence the beliefs of our culture.
How we relate to people of cultures different from our own speaks volumes regarding our cross-cultural competency and awareness of our cultural biases. Our cross-cultural competencies, or the lack thereof, call into question not the credibility or integrity of the gospel message but that of the messenger. So how does one begin to acquire cross-cultural competency?
Adeney suggests that overcoming ethnocentrism is a good starting point. In order to overcome ethnocentrism one must be willing to recognize that one’s values are not the same as God’s, that our own interpretation of Scripture comes from one’s own particular cultural context, and that God’s values may be expressed differently in a culture different from our own.
One’s ability to acquire cross-cultural competency depends on a willingness to undergo a process of transformation. The Apostle Paul said “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:2, NIV).”
The word for “pattern” is “tupos” or “type” in Koine Greek. In other words we must resist relating to people of other cultures in a way that is common to this world.
The word for “transformed” is “metamorphoomai” from which we derive the word metamorphosis. In other words, we will not be able to acquire cross-cultural competency unless we are willing to undergo a transformation of our mind. We have to reprogram our way of thinking, our worldview, so that it truly reflects the worldview of Jesus.
One of the most helpful tools for locating our cultural bias and cultural point of reference is an instrument developed by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers, Ministering Cross Culturally: An Incarnational Approach to Relationships.
Lingenfelter and Mayers help seekers walk through a grid of basic cultural values and provide excellent insights and examples related to North American, Latin American and Asian cultures and contrast these cultures with the balance that Jesus was able to strike in relation to these basic values.
Duane Elmer (Cross Cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting In Around the World) expands on the work of Lingenfelter and Mayers and provides additional tools for understanding cross-cultural competency.
Cultural diversity will most certainly usher in new opportunities for relational conflict. How we handle conflict in cross-cultural settings once again speaks to our integrity and credibility as messengers of the gospel.
One of the best resources to acquire cross-cultural competency is Elmer’s book on cross-cultural conflict (Cross Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry). The wealth of Elmer’s work is found in the contrast between Western and non-Western approaches to conflict resolution.
Another helpful tool contrasting Euro-American and Hispanic-American cultures was developed by my wife, Dr. Belinda Reyes, associate professor of communication disorders at Our Lady of the Lake University. (E-mail me for more information.)
Acquiring cross-cultural competency is an incarnational journey into the ethos of another people and another world. It is the world next door that Jesus bids us to enter. Will you follow him there?
Albert L. Reyes is president of the Baptist University of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas.