February 9, 2016

Missteps of Multicultural Ministry

Recognizing the cultural undercurrents

I was the new pastor, and while everyone welcomed me warmly, I frequently found myself lamenting to my wife, I don’t seem to be connecting with the people. Second EFC was then, and still is now, a wonderfully multicultural church in the heart of Brooklyn, New York. But I kept falling into miscommunication and missteps that left me confused.

One experience stood out: Our trustees had called a meeting to decide whether to transfer our banking services from one institution to another. We began by discussing the pros and cons of each. Eventually, wanting to move things along and reach consensus, I went around the group and asked each member if they were in agreement with the decision to change. Each person replied in the affirmative. Wonderful. I closed the meeting with prayer and left the room.

I didn’t get five steps from the door when one of the committee members tapped me on the shoulder and said, “We cannot go ahead with this change.”

“Didn’t we just go around the table and everyone said ‘yes’?” I asked, confused.

“Yes, but the way they said ‘yes’ really meant ‘no.’”

What had happened in that meeting was an example of a cultural dynamic referred to as “high and low context.” Some culture groups (primarily Eastern) accentuate the context within which interactions occur—for example, who is sitting where, who is or is not speaking, and the way things are said (“high context”). Other groups, like my Western culture, are more focused on just getting things done (“low context”). My failure to pick up on the highly charged context prevented me from understanding what the people were actually relaying.

This dynamic is common when engaging in multicultural ministry. Cultural differences also show up in arenas such as:

  • authority and the response to it

  • individualism vs. collectivistic mindsets

  • long- or short-term decision making

  • male-female role differentiation

  • the degree of comfort with risk-taking

The more cultures you mix in one setting, the more potential for conflict.

One of these things is not like the other …

For missionaries, becoming aware of these dynamics constitutes the basis for preparing to go “on the field.” For U.S. churches with multiple cultural groups in one setting, the complex matrix can be daunting.

This phenomenon is seen in monocultural settings as well. For example, in a white Western church, church leaders must relate to baby boomers, millennials and Gen-Xers at the same time. Each has its unique worldview, expectations and ways of communicating.

But in multicultural settings, an additional challenge is that many of the written materials we use to teach and disciple are written with a Western/American bias. I can’t tell you how often I have had to take time out of a Bible study to explain a concept, phrase or term—constantly “transposing” the material to make it understandable.

So what can we in multicultural ministry do?

First, understand that you come at ministry with your own cultural bias.

Take the time to do an honest self-assessment.*

For example, in my ministry context there is a high degree of “power distance” surrounding the role of pastor, meaning that my authority and opinion exceeds all others. However, my Western bias says that my ideas are not any more important than anyone else’s. Thus, in meetings, I would often try to solicit others’ opinions but received little response. I discovered that people felt it was a sign of disrespect to “speak above the pastor.” So what I have learned to do is solicit their opinions one-to-one before a meeting, then present them as options to the group. This makestheir ideas my ideas, helping them to show the proper respect their culture expects.

Second, conduct a thorough exegesis of your church’s people groups.

As Paul did in preparing to speak at the Areopagus in Acts 17, study the cultures present; try to understand how they think, what they value, and what hopes and expectations they hold. Then, use the information to develop ministry strategies and program objectives.

For example, in educational settings, the Asian culture elevates learning while the Western culture focuses just as much on making the time enjoyable. Thus, in developing an after-school program for our church in a largely Asian community, we had to drop some of the “fun and games,” or people from the community would not send their children. Similarly, for cultural groups that value “being there” more than “being there on time,” we have had to be more flexible in how and when we schedule church events.

Third, evaluate the material you use for evangelism and discipleship.

Most of it was probably developed from a Western perspective and reflects values, idioms and complexity of words that will be difficult for other culture groups.

As an example, I conducted a research study in our church, asking a representative multicultural group to evaluate a lesson plan from a Western-based discipleship course. This involved “transposing” the material—rewording or rephrasing sentences/concepts so that people from any culture group could understand them. When we surveyed the congregation, asking whether the original or transposed sentence was “more understandable,” the majority chose the latter.

Fourth, strive for “kingdom-cultural values.”

According to Ephesians 2:11-22, in Christ we have been transformed into new creations, and the old cultural barriers of hostility (“us vs. them”) have been abolished. We are to strive for a new set of cultural values based upon kingdom principles, not national identity.

For example, when I conduct meetings, I often ask, “How does this idea, concept or practice play-out in your culture?” This helps each of us see how our culture has influenced our mindset and then, together, identify the kingdom standard.

No one culture has a lock on how to live the Christian life, but each culture has features that resemble a kingdom mindset. Our role as leaders is to ensure that the multifaceted gospel clearly shines through, and that we model, teach and encourage our congregations to live in accordance with its demands. Then, we’ll move beyond language to a shared set of values, a humble vulnerability and a life lived-out together in love.

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