Steps to Cross-Cultural Servanthood


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.


Building Bridges for Gospel Conversations with International Students



As we start out the new academic year, our students and ministries may be thinking of how to connect with international students.  Sometimes we charge right in with spiritual conversations without knowing much about these students, what their context is, or what their spiritual needs and questions are.  We often lack a bridge to help them understand who Jesus is.

I want to describe four words that can help bridge the gap of misunderstanding, and help to make our conversations more clear.  Think of these four words as four spans crossing a river that bring the Gospel closer to those who need to hear.


The first span is love.  If we are going to reach these students we need to have God’s love in our life so it can overflow into a credible witness.  Working cross-culturually can be an exciting venture, but it can also be a confusing and frustrating venture as well.  Misreading cues or being tired of catering to special food restrictions can make us want to quit.  But when we think of God’s mission and his love for the nations, we have the vision to keep trying.  Several ways to bless these students is through hospitality and servanthood.  We can “wash feet” by hosting students for several days while waiting for the dorms to open, picking up students at the airport, or inviting them over for meals.  But in order to show this love, we have to be open to others.  In his book, Cross-Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer defines openness as “the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe.”  Being open is the first stage to show God’s love.  It moves us off our comfort zones and into action.


If we are going to reach international students with the Gospel we are going to have to spend time with them.  We need lots of face time and “hang out” time to let them in on who we are as a Gospel people.  They need to see that we are authentic in what we profess, and that we can be trusted.  Many students will be experiencing culture shock while in the educational transition in the US.  We can help them by being there to explain cultural norms, and to be their advocate when “the system” seems to baffle them.  For many students the words grace, God, Jesus, and sin will need to be explained many times before they have a clear understanding.  Don’t forget, for many of them, they are talking to us in their second or even third language.  By spending time with these students we incarnate the Gospel as well as speak it.

But it wont all be suffering and frustration.  Hanging out with students from other cultures can be fun as well.  You can brush up on your Chinese, Hindi, or Portuguese while eating some incredible food.  Do you think your soccer game is good?  Wait till you see their skills.  And you will have to laugh at your self and American culture when someone asks you why we do certain things, and you end up saying, “I have no idea.”


Listening is a very important part of sharing the Gospel with other people.  It is also very important with sharing cross-culturally.  We often think we have a “silver bullet” presentation that can explain everything quickly to everyone.  But listening to the actual questions people have is important to addressing their real concerns.  Is the student you are talking with a Hindu, Muslim, atheist, or animist?  What is his or her background, experiences, and status back home?  What is his misconceptions about Christianity?  What are the personal fears and hopes of the student with whom you are sharing?  Knowing the answers to these questions can help cut to the heart of the spiritual problem, but also build trust in the relationship.  There are many verses in the Bible, but when we listen to our friends and the concerns, hopes, and hurts they have, the Holy Spirit has an unique ability to bring to mind what we need to say.  Know your Bible, take comfort in the truth of the Gospel, and listen.


If we want to learn how to reach international students, one of the best things we can do is learn from international students.  We need Christians with a cosmopolitan view of God’s kingdom and how it is much, much, bigger than our small collegiate experience of life.  In seeing God exalted in the nations, we need to spend time learning about the world views, languages, customs, and histories of those we pray to experience God.  The college campus should be a learning environment, and there are many opportunities to connect with students while learning.  Language clubs, cultural exchange partners, international clubs, study abroad, and of course sharing meals or a cup of tea on campus open many doors for learning.  But in learning, God also does something else.  He changes us.  He helps us see how our own American culture shapes our view of Christianity and the expectations that come with a culture.  He gives us a new perspective and the ability to go deeper in our relationships as we share the good news of the Gospel.  Hopefully, in learning we also become better at sharing the Gospel in clearer, more culturally relevant ways to our friends.  Hopefully, we become more humble and dependent on Him, and less confident that we know all the answers.

I hope these four words, love, live, listen, and learn will help you build better bridges with international students, and with those bridges, better Gospel conversations. For more ideas about connecting with students see my post on Third Spaces.


Third Place for International Students

For eight years, every Friday night during the apexels-photo-27451cademic year our ministry hosted students for a free meal and a chance to practice English, make friends, and talk about topics that allowed us to share our worldviews.  We played music, learned about different cultures, looked forward to seeing old friends and making new ones.  We shared the Gospel with students who had never been to church, or in some instances, had never met a Christian.

Though I didn’t think of the term “Third Place,” every criteria mentioned by sociologist Ray Oldenburg was included in our ethos:  free or inexpensive, food and drink important factors, highly accessible, welcoming and comfortable, involved regulars, and old and new friends could be found there.

In a recent post on the Collegiate Collective about Third Places and campus ministry, Ben Pontius described what is a Third Place and why these spaces are needed.  His article got me thinking about Third Place and international students, and how to help people create, or in many instances, take advantage of preexisting Third Places.

For  many international students there is not a natural draw to attend church or check out a campus ministry listed as a “club” or RSO.  So, we tried to create a neutral place or “spot” where we could integrate Christians with non-Christians.

In those days we used the fellowship hall of a local church to create a cafe style meal and conversation time with our international students.  We had great help by American students and church members, but also met many Christians who could not grasp an incarnational ministry that did not focus on getting people to church to “hear the preacher” rather than being missionaries themselves.  One of the biggest problems, of course, was that students could not understand the preacher. Nor did they want to get up early on a Sunday.

Other ministry leaders wanted us to bring international students into the local Christian college ministry.  Here the problem for many of the visiting international students was no connection to Christian campus culture.  They were excited to be hanging out with other students, but just could not follow what was going on.  There were just too many cultural divides (depending on where they were coming from of course).

So utilizing  neutral spaces for international students is crucial.  And it does not have to be as elaborate as a meal with programing and all the planning that goes with it.  The key theme is an outwardly focused, incarnational mindset that sees the Third Place as a connecting point.  The  Third Place is a gateway to more conversations for certain, but it is, in and of itself,  a valid use of time and resources for Kingdom purposes.

So, what are some Third Places for international students on the campus?

First of all, one of the great things about doing ministry on a campus is that the campus is a melange of all three places:  it is work, home, and neutral space to many students.  The library, the quad, the gym, and the “study lounge” in dorms all have a feeling of being certain degrees of neutral.  Look around at the space on campus and be creative in using it.

Second, the great thing about working with and through the university International Student and Scholar Office (ISSO) is that you do not need to reinvent and administer programs that already exist.  Many of these programs are designed to match people together.  Some programs are even open to  non-students as well.  Make use of them!

Examples of Officially Sanctioned University Events 

  • English Conversation/Cultural Exchange Programs on Campus.

Many colleges have programs that match an American student with an international student to learn about cultural differences and perhaps practice English.  Most ISSO offices are looking for more American students to join than international.  Cast vision for your students to be learners, listeners, and friends through this program.  It’s up to the participants to find the place, but the program has put the people together.  It won’t be hard for students to find a Third Space while having coffee and talking.

  • Host Family Programs that Church Members Can Join.

Just like they are often looking for American students to be cultural partners with international students, many ISSO offices are looking for non-student families and singles to be host or “friendship families” with students.  Sometimes the ISSO will need a home for a student to stay in for a few days, but mostly these programs are to match up a student with a family to meet several times a month throughout the year.  This is a great opportunity to get families involved in supporting your efforts on campus.  Though having students over to a home is not technically a Third Place, I think many international students may see it as something the university offers as supplemental to their experience.  Most encouragingly, the students are excited to be there.  But you don’t have to start at home.  You can meet on campus or take a student shopping.

  • International Programs Coffee Hours on Campus.

Some ISSOs actually create the Third Place for you!  Check around to see if the ISSO hosts regular coffee hours or drop-ins for students.  These can be great ways to keep consistency in regular meetings and met friends of friends to keep expanding your network.  If your college does not have a coffee hour, perhaps you could help get one started or offer to sponsor some of the meetings.

  • Joining and Participating in an International Students Club or Language Club

Check out your college’s list of RSOs and see if there is one listed as international or language specific.  This can be a great way to help American students learn about different countries, cultures, and language practice.  Thinking of going to a Spanish-speaking country for a mission trip?  Why not practice the language while meeting students in the Spanish club?  Many of these clubs meet in classrooms around campus, so again, the university has provided the space.

I encourage you to read Ben’s article on Third Place and then look around your campus for places where you can integrate Christians with international students.  Use your imagination to create wonderful Third Place for ministry while also making use of Third Place that the university has provided for you.