Book of the Month: Ministering Cross-Culturally

(By Alyssa)

As we’ve mentioned previously on the blog, our training at Mission Training International has been invaluable to us. We’re especially putting into practice these days the concepts and exercises learned at the language acquisition course (PILAT) as we begin a new language with completely new sounds and utilize language partners to learn out of the classroom more than most of us did in France. The second course we all took at MTI (SPLICE) also included very valuable information and reflections for us such as insight into how we handle stress, deal with conflict, approach transitions, rest and keep the Sabbath, grieve losses, build community, endure and enjoy paradox, and face cultural differences. One book highly recommended relative to the last point was “Ministering Cross-Culturally”. I bought the book at MTI in May 2012 and finally read it on the plane to Burundi. :) But, I did find it fascinating and extremely relevant, so I thought I would review it here: 

The authors utilize Jesus’ incarnation into the Jewish culture of His day as an example of how we can become incarnational in the cultures we serve. We will never fully become Burundian but we can sacrificially adopt language and certain cultural ways of life to more effectively live out the gospel in community with them. That won’t be possible if we don’t first understand our own cultural background and biases and then also humbly observe and study the new culture’s values before passing judgment. Part of our time here at Banga is dedicated to observing the rural Burundian culture in addition to beginning language learning. The challenge is that language (of which there are four in Burundi) is just one of ten primary message systems found in every culture! 

After providing a basic values self-assessment, “Ministering Cross-Culturally” highlights 6 basic value categories where cultures tend to emphasize one side or the other of the spectrum. We don’t yet know experientially where the Burundians will fall in most of these categories, but likely significant differences will manifest themselves as we observe and function in the culture. We pray for grace to give and receive especially in those tensions! 

  1. Tensions about time: Time versus Event orientation - concern for punctuality vs concern for the details of the event no matter how long it takes, concepts of lateness, etc. No question as to where most Americans fall on this spectrum! However, “our attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus, to satisfy the time and event priorities of others before considering our own.”
  2. Tensions regarding judgment: dichotomistic vs. holistic thinking - black/white judgments vs. open-ended judgments.
  3. Tensions associated with handling crises: crisis vs noncrisis orientation - anticipating crisis and emphasizing planning vs downplaying the possibility, delaying decisions, and focusing on actual experience. This will be interesting to observe in the hospital setting. In Kenya, there was certainly more of a noncrisis orientation and a lack of a sense of urgency that led to cross-cultural conflict at times. Developing relationships went a long way in narrowing that gap, though, so we begin to pray now for friendships with hospital staff. 
  4. Tensions over goals: task vs. person orientation. The conflict is clear there! “Wherever we serve, our objective should be to live in such a way that we respect, love, and share our very lives (including our priorities and goals) with those to whom we seek to minister.”
  5. Tensions about self-worth: status vs. achievement focus - prestige (often identity) ascribed by birth and social status vs by one’s own achievements. Of note, “Jesus rejects both orientations as inadequate!”
  6. Tensions regarding vulnerability: concealment vs willingness to expose vulnerability/ error/ failure.

Thankfully, we interact with these differing cultural values in the people God has placed around us only “empowered through faith and freedom in Jesus Christ and living in the Spirit and not in the flesh.” 

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