We know that Jesus came to serve and not be served. His example sets a high standard for us to follow. We all should be servants in some way. But let’s face it, when it comes right down to it, we often are commanding servants, well-meaning but blind servants, or perhaps befuddled servants. This is especially true in cross-cultural situations. Often the way we serve is geared to our own culture and may not be appropriate in another culture. The way we help might be confusing or frustrating to those we are trying to help. According to a study cited by Dr. Duane Elmer, 76% of missionaries are of a “duty bound” personality type. This means they are interested in getting things done and transmitting communication. They are not that good at receiving information or being sensitive to their hearers. Think about that. Those who have the drive to get something done, are often the least likely to listen to those they are trying to help.
Thankfully, Duane Elmer’s book Cross-Cultural Servanthood helps us layout stepping-stones to create a path to appropriate servanthood. Though written for those who are going to be living in another culture, I have used his steps to help train volunteers here in the U.S. working with international students. I think your training and ministry experience will be greatly improved by walking his path.
So what are the stepping-stones that lay out a path to culturally appropriate servanthood? Dr. Elmer lists six overall steps: openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding, and serving.
Here is his layout of the steps.
Openness is the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe.
Acceptance is the ability to communicate value, worth and esteem to another person.
Trust is the ability to build confidence in a relationship so that both parties believe the other will not intentionally hurt them but will act in their best interest.
Learning is the ability to glean relevant information about, from, and with other people.
Understanding is the ability to see patterns of behavior and values that reveal the integrity of a people.
Serving is the ability to relate to people in such a way that their dignity as human beings is affirmed and that they are more empowered to live God-glorifying lives.
Each definition includes the word “ability.” An ability, according to Dr. Elmer, is “something we can do, do better and even master.” And that’s good because we all need to to improve, especially when we are in a cross-cultural ministry.
Each one of these steps has much to offer us in improving our ability to serve cross-culturally, but I only have space to focus on the first two which are needed to begin the journey.
When I was heading up a ministry focused on ministering to international students one of my major frustrations was finding volunteers (both students and non-students) who were “open” to spending time with international students. Many people were good at making meals, giving money, or verbally supporting what I was doing. But it was often hard to get people to actually get in the trenches, so to speak, and do the hard work of cross-cultural relationships. But after reading Dr. Elmer’s chapter on “Openness,” I understand that many people, even while wanting to serve, are not able to be effective due to a limited ability to be open.
According to Dr. Elmer, several skills are needed to be open. These skills are: suspending judgment, tolerance for ambiguity, thinking gray, and positive attribution. To sum these skills up, perhaps we should say that we need more cultural mental “margin” in how we think about others. Perhaps things will not make sense in the beginning, but with time we will come to see the patterns that do make sense in the lives of others. By not writing someone off early in the relationship due to miscommunication, unexpected behavior, or prejudice, we remain open for more understanding and those long-expected “aha” moments. Being open to those who are not like us is the gate to cross-cultural servanthood.
What I like about the chapter on “acceptance” is how he describes obstacles that prevent us from accepting others. He lists five: language, impatience, ethnocentrism, category width, and dogmatism. Each of these obstacles have impact on our ministry to people from other cultures, but one that really interested me was “category width.” Narrow category width people don’t have as many categories for classifying experiences. Thus when they experience something that seems culturally “different” they may just place it in the “wrong” category. This person, this situation, this behavior is “wrong,” so I need to move on. For those with “wide category width” they are able to create new categories for “cultural differences.” You can see how having “narrow category width” sets up conflict between missionaries/servants and those they wish to help.
So how does Dr. Elmer’s steps help us become better servants? Discovering, learning about, and processing these obstacles is a great training exercise to improve one’s ability to be a better servant. Reading through the list of steps and then asking yourself or team questions about how they relate to your ministry will bring out issues you most likely have not thought about.
- Do you care if your team is building trust with those you are serving? Or do you “serve” from a position of power?
- Do you want to learn from those whom you serve? Or do you just want to teach them?
- Do you see integrity and value in the culture of those you minister to, or do you just want to change them?
- Is your serving affirming their dignity and empowering them to live God-glorifying lives?
I could go on and on with the questions, but I think you are getting an idea of how you will be challenged yet encouraged by reading Dr. Elmer’s book. Doing cross-cultural ministry can be an exciting, spiritually rewarding ministry. It can also be a frustrating and draining ministry. But the good news about working with young student volunteers is that you can begin bringing up these issues and improving skills before natural tendencies that make cross-cultural ministry difficult get deeply ingrained in them. Start laying out your steps for this very important journey.