Ministering Cross-Culturally

Ministering Cross-Culturally
By Don Hanscom

“Culture” is the sum of the distinctive characteristics of a peoples’ way of life. For example; the distinctive characteristics of worship in North America are very different from the characteristics of worship in other parts of the world. Culture, then, is the definition by which people order their lives, interpret their experience, and evaluate the behavior of others.

Humans, whoever they are, or wherever they are, are the work of God’s creative activity. In today’s world, cross-cultural ministry is simply being an effective witness wherever we are.

“Culture” is the sum of the distinctive characteristics of a peoples’ way of life. For example, the distinctive characteristics of worship in North America are very different from the characteristics of worship in other parts of the world. Culture, then, is the definition by which people order their lives, interpret their experience, and evaluate the behavior of others. Thus, since we are born into a particular social context and family, we all have a “personal” culture. We develop personal lifestyles and a set of standards and values by which to order and organize our lives. There is also shared culture within the church, because culture is always learned and shared with others.

Many have wondered how it was possible to spend eighteen years as missionaries in a country like Pakistan, as my wife and I—along with our family—did. We learned to love the people to whom we were called to minister so much that we were willing to enter their culture to the best of our ability. Thus, we earned their respect and admiration. The advantage that we have in
North America is that we are reaching these people in the context of our culture with the majority of them wanting desperately to enter our culture.

In many countries, a person arriving an hour late for church services is still not late. In Pakistan, the people would find my anger because of their tardiness unacceptable and puzzling. Most North Americans begin to experience tension when others are fifteen minutes late. I will never forget the wedding ceremony I attended in Pakistan that was seven hours late. No one seemed to get upset—no one except the missionaries.

Many cultures are event-oriented, while the North American culture is time-oriented. We are concerned about punctuality, the length of time expended, and the use of lime to its maximum potential. Event-oriented people want an activity to be completed regardless of the length of time required, and they emphasize unscheduled participation rather than carefully structured activities. Event-oriented people are concerned more about the details of what is going to happen than about when it begins and when it ends. For them, the present is more important than the past or the future. This is true in every aspect of their life, from building highways and houses to visiting relatives. In order to keep my sanity, I adjusted my thinking to go to the service one or two hours after the announced time to start. I would usually arrive just in time.

Most North Americans are “segmental” thinkers. Segmental thinkers demand clear-cut, black-and-white issues, insist on universal application of principle, and cannot feel secure unless their perceptions are recognized as being correct.

Often people in other cultures see most issues as gray and open for debate, rather than black and white and closed. They want to examine the total circumstances. They believe that each situation is unique, and they are uncomfortable with standardized procedures and rigid rules. They resist being pinned down to a particular position on an issue or to a particular social role.

Most of us in North America have learned to be crisis-oriented, rather than non-crisis oriented. Strange as it may seem to us in North America, the majority of people in Third World cultures are non-crisis oriented. We tend to examine every activity for potential flaws or problems while these gracious people see that as being pessimistic.

Non-crisis oriented people have an abundance of new ideas and interests, but do not have a clue how to get them accomplished. They ignore potential and real problems and often refuse to seek advice. They downplay the possibility of crisis, often avoiding taking action or making a decision.

We North Americans run around shaking our heads in dismay at their lack of planning and predictability. These tensions will eventually cause frustration and anxiety, as well as a serious communication breakdown and a loss of support.

My experience in working with people of a diverse cultural background was that my sense of urgency was not always shared by others. I had to ask myself the following questions: Is the problem as critical as we believe it to be? How much damage will occur, even if the job is not done? What options are open to us should the expected crisis occur?

A common error in cross-cultural ministry is to assume that people understand us when they hear our words. An even more common error made by us who minister cross-culturally here in North America is to assume that just because people speak English, they understand what we are saying. We fail to see that different personal cultures can prevent mutual understanding. We feel that our way of decision-making and crisis management is best. We must ask ourselves whether it is more important to do it our way or to work with the people around us, building mutual understanding and cooperating to make decisions and solve crises in a manner acceptable and beneficial to all. There must be an attitude of mutual understanding, acceptance, and respect.

This hurts, but I must be honest. I am so task-oriented that I tend to make life miserable for everyone around me. People who are task-oriented find satisfaction in reaching objectives and completing projects; their lives are motivated and directed by an unending succession of objectives. They take on a frenetic pace that is filled with activities because they aspire to complete a greater number of tasks than is possible in the time they allocate. Tasks dominate their lives, and people are viewed merely as part of their work schedule. Social life usually becomes an extension of work activity. Conversation at social gatherings is limited primarily to problems. Casual conversation can be difficult, with the task-oriented person outwardly appearing to be listening but thinking of all the things he could be doing. Other subjects bore him, and social activities are often seen as a drain on productivity, or as an interruption of his time of working alone. Achieving is more important than building relationships.

Most of us in the ministry are well equipped for administrative responsibilities, teaching, or preaching. As long as we can schedule our own activities and work independently of others, we will be effective in our service. However, frustration often lies with fellow workers. We become intolerant of others who show less commitment to the task at hand than we do. We are impatient with those who spend so much time in apparent frivolous conversation, and whose lives are not organized around a list of objectives. We can become extremely judgmental of our coworkers, as tensions arise over goals.

Here is the bottom line: people who arc not meeting people and loving them through interaction have lost sight of the great commission. Our ultimate goal must be to reach people for Jesus Christ. “As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (I Thessalonians 2:6-8, NIV). We have no greater goal or task than to live in such a way that we respect, love, and share our very lives with those to whom we seek to minister.

We have heard it said, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” This statement is definitely truer in cultures outside North America. I discovered throughout Asia, cultures and individuals are concerned primarily with a person’s birth and social rank. Respect is given to individuals on the basis of their social position.

Everything within my spirit cries out against a status-focused society. This is distasteful to me. But Jesus had it in His clay. People who find their identity and self-worth in the prestige that is ascribed to them, enjoy playing the role, and relish the titles bestowed upon them. It is important for those ministering cross-culturally to understand this and to work with it.

We do see this more and more in our own society and culture. It is manifested when people buy homes in certain neighborhoods or join country clubs that reflect their ascribed prestige. But for the most part, in the North American culture, individual identity and self-worth arc bound up with personal performance. The big question is, “What has the individual accomplished?” And prestige, for the most part, within North American culture does not last long. People are quickly forgotten, and respect is given to success that is current and continuing. People who have achieved prestige often develop a highly critical attitude about self and toward others. They quickly forget past achievements and strive to accomplish new goals. I have noticed that achievers enjoy and respect other achievers. North Americans love successful people. However, we must recognize that self-worth comes through neither ascribed nor achieved prestige, and that one must be a servant in the pattern set by Christ.

In most cultures, losing face is perceived as a weakness. These people try to avoid failure and error at all cost. They would rather not take an exam than take it and fail, or would prefer not to turn in a written assignment rather than demonstrate an inability to write. They simply do not want to make mistakes, and when they do, they try hard to cover up their errors or to excuse them. In a few cultures, children will commit suicide rather than return home with a failing grade in school.

Once when I was president of Pakistan Apostolic Bible Institute in Lahore, Pakistan, I knew one of the students was lying to me, but I did not know which one it was. I set out to expose the liar. I am still waiting to find out who it was! While living in Pakistan, I also was faced with the unpleasant task of firing one of the domestic workers whom I was trying to win to Jesus Christ. I made the mistake of going directly to the worker. I was very polite, hoping to help the young man save face and to maintain a positive relationship with him. But he took it hard, lost face, and from that time on, no matter what I tried, he refused to have anything to do with me. I learned quickly that whenever I had to discipline a Pakistani to send someone else to talk to them. In that culture, to tell a man to his face that he has failed is to treat him like an insignificant child. Sending a messenger to the second man meant that I considered him as my equal, or superior and that I could not rebuke or expose his weakness to his face.

This pattern of avoiding confrontation is characteristic in many cultures. Mediators are essential to build relationships or to repair the breaches that conflict has torn in the fabric of social relations. My Canadian upbringing denies the validity of such mediation. As a leader, I should accept the unpleasant obligation to reprimand in person. To send someone else is to abdicate my authority and responsibility.

We often fall into the trap of pursuing the ways in which our home culture manages authority and conflict, even when these ways trample on others, wounding and alienating them from us. In our cultural arrogance we scoff at what we perceive are the weaknesses of those to whom we minister. Tragically, they in turn scoff at what they see as weaknesses in us. This attitude creates walls of rejection between us and greatly impairs the work of the church.

In cross-cultural ministry, we must learn to adapt and accept without reservation the fact that God made us all, and that what He has done is good. And, since these people of diverse ethnicities are now living in the United States or Canada, we sometimes unintentionally (or intentionally) make attempts to “Americanize” or “Canadianize” them. It is important for us to accept their culture, although culturally different from us, as a valid way of life, and use that culture, or language as a bridge to reach them with the only saving gospel message of Acts 2:38. They must become our brothers and sisters in Christ.

From, “Pentecostal Herald”/July 2008/Page 48-51, by Don Hanscom