Meeting the challenge of diversity

Ways of keeping a multicultural church unified

Richard A. Marker, J.D., Ph.D., is the executive secretary of the Southern New England Conference

The challenge for ministry in the twenty-first century is to think globally and to become multicultural in the way ministers view things.

No longer can successful ministers live in their own restricted world and expect to be relevant. The world is being restructured.

The world is growing smaller. The contemporary communication and transportation networks bring us together as never before. Massive global migration, especially to urban areas has brought almost every culture into intimate contact with others in almost every location on earth. This provides immense opportunity for the fulfillment of the mission of the church, which is to preach the gospel "to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people" (Rev. 14:6).*

The corporate community is recognizing the need to understand the principles of working cross-culturally. A survey of college recruiters reveals that graduates with advanced degrees in an thropology are in as much demand today as was the traditional M.B.A. some years ago. Companies like Citicorp, Hallmark, and Motorola have created vice-presidencies for anthropologists.1

Leading cross-cultural diversity

Leading a complex organization such as today's church can appear to be overwhelming. Most people have neither the training nor the experience for such a challenge. People can spend years in a foreign mission field and still not know the rudiments of how to relate cross-culturally! After a lifetime in diverse or cross-cultural situations, some may continue to make the most elementary relational mistakes as they interact with persons ethnically different from them selves. This is too often the case with those who have not been exposed to diversity from their earliest childhood.

Diversity among people has always existed. Differences are observable when it comes to age, gender, personality, life processing styles, or assertiveness levels. Yet even in close-knit families conflicts arise due to these and other differences. How much more does background, memory, vocabulary, race, culture, and language complicate our desire to under stand each other! The confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel seems to have been only the beginning of the differences that are a part of our contemporary world.

Some people fear what they do not understand. Others react or attempt to accommodate in the context of their own cultural understandings. Still, others think that they understand others' motives while such understandings may well be based on stereotyping, ethnocentrism, or unintentional parochial attitudes that are the heritage of a colonial world view. Often each of those attempting to relate constructively to one another distrust the motives of the other. Yet each may well believe that he or she is a sincere Christian. The challenge is to put the gospel and practical Christianity into informed action.

Thus, one of the greatest needs of the twenty-first-century church is the need for cross-cultural leadership—ministers who can build diverse relationships founded on trust and confidence; ministers who can model and train their people in cross-cultural relationship and leadership. Again, the ability to function in a diverse cultural environment will be a vital key to successful ministry in the future.

The body of Christ, the church, has been designed and brought into being to be a unit that thrives in or despite diversity (1 Cor. 12:12,13). There is power in diversity when genuine unity is present. All views and perspectives can be brought together in strategic planning for the finishing of the gospel commission.

"We cannot all have the same minds or cherish the same ideas; but one is to be a benefit and blessing to the other, that where one lacks, another may supply what is requisite. You have certain deficiencies of character and natural biases that render it profitable for you to be brought in contact with a mind differently organized, in order to properly balance your own."2

Barriers to unity

When Adam sinned "selfishness took the place of love."3 The sin problem is rooted in selfishness. In our fallen nature, it is natural for one to consider oneself above others. Where self reigns supreme, several attitudes may result.

1. Ethnocentrism is the outgrowth of egocentrism. It is believing that one's culture or people are superior to others. Egocentrism was near the heart of what motivated much of the colonial era. Even missionaries built discrete mission com pounds partly because they felt insecure about mixing entirely with the ones to whom they came to minister.

Christ, on the other hand, became one with humanity. "From the endless variety of plants and flowers, we may learn an important lesson. All blossoms are not the same in form or color....

There are professing Christians who think it their duty to make every other Christian like themselves. This is man's plan, not the plan of God. In the church of God there is room for characters as varied as are the flowers in a garden. In His spiritual garden there are many varieties of flowers."4

2. Prejudice—the well-known act of pre-judging other people or groups based on our ill-conceived expectations of them and our dearth of meaningful interaction with them.

3. Stereotyping—a generalization of habits or traits of all members of a certain group of people, based on scanty experience.

4. Friendly fire—unintentional discrimination through habit, unconscious behavior, or insensitivity in cross-cultural relationships. Often things learned as children may innocently cause pain to others of another culture.

5. Biased language—referring to groups of people in a limiting manner, using inappropriate labels, terms, or names to refer to a culture or people group. This mistake is as often one of ignorance as it is one of insensitivity.

6. Nonverbal communication—gestures, body language, eye contact (or the lack of it), or touching that makes reducing statements about another group.

Resolving the cultural tensions will be the goal of every mature Christian. "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:4, 5 NIV).

Changes in etiquette are very important in adapting to cultural differences. Giving and receiving compliments, recognizing personal achievements, encouraging inclusive styles of decision making, negotiating, or problem solving (which may vary with different cultural backgrounds).

"The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence."5 Often applied to evangelism, Christ's method is a necessary principle for building good relationships within the church. There are too many hurting and misunderstood souls in our congregations. The church may not be able to make a significant impact in the community until this principle is much more operative within the church. Practical Christianity must begin within the church family.

Dealing with differences

Working in an increasingly diverse climate cries out for a humble attitude that includes a genuinely open and hon est way of communicating. Others will never consistently see things the way we do. The more diverse our backgrounds are, the more true this will prove to be. Yet we should all feel comfortable being ourselves while at the same time treating others with respect. We should be able to tell one another when some thing they have done or said has hurt us. Relationships, especially in the church, grow stronger with discussion and a willingness to place ourselves in the other person's shoes.

The authenticity and extent of one's growth in Christ is seen most graphically in how we treat others (Matt. 25:34-40). The arena of intercultural relationship is the one in which, perhaps above all others, the "Golden Rule" applies (Matt. 7:12). Here we are to treat others in the way we would like to be treated.

As God took the initiative in Christ when He reconciled the world unto Himself, He asks us to do the same, giving us the "message of reconciliation," making "his appeal through us" (2 Cor. 5:20). It is important to apply the powerful reality of this principle in our intercultural and interracial relating. We can literally learn how others want us to treat them. If we do not understand something, we can ask in a respectful manner. Such questions, awkward as they may feel to begin with, can become a way of avoiding misunderstandings and conflict.

When conflicts do come up, we can take up the well-known though infrequently practiced principle of Matthew 18:15. The process Jesus provided us here is a redemptive process designed to re store misunderstandings and mend strained or broken relationships. Much suffering and hurt can be avoided by communication between the parties involved as soon as a problem is discovered. We can let people know how we want to be treated. Sometimes a person may of fend another and not realize it. A simple discussion with genuine sensitivity will help the other understand without be coming defensive. "You who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness" and "bear one another's burdens" (Gal. 6:1,2).

Reaching basic needs

People of all groups need to care for one another. Every culture group functions with different frames of reference and traditions. Different world views will frame reality and solve problems differently. Dynamic Christian leadership involves open collaboration seeking to learn from one another.

Successful missionaries recognize the principle of identification—even in such ordinary things as food, clothes, language, music, and lifestyle. The sooner a missionary truly identifies with the people he or she serves, the sooner he or she will be trusted and taken seriously. Identification means eating their food with them, talking their language, and respecting them for who they are.

Missiologists speak of contextualization as essential for success in ministry. Contextualization is simply the attempt to think and live within the con text, language, and symbols familiar to a given culture. It calls for discernment and common sense. It is this that Paul had in mind when he said that he had, "become all things to all men ... for the gospel's sake"(l Cor. 9:22,23). These principles certainly apply, and perhaps especially apply in our basic attempts to relate with each other inter-culturally.

Our ministry is one of reconciliation. Just as Jesus' crowning act of reconciliation was the act of dying, we cannot be reconcilers unless we die to that in which we have illegitimate pride—to that which therefore divides us from other human beings. Our petty, egocentric and ethnocentric attitudes must die! They must be "crucified with Christ!" This is the love of self which spoon-feeds the idea that my way of thinking, my culture, my people are superior to yours. Ethnocentrism must be crucified with Christ for the heart to be truly converted!

* Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture passages in this article are from the New King James Version Bible.

1 Del Jones, "Hot asset in corporate: Anthropology degrees," USA Today, February 18, 1999.

2 Ellen G. White, Mind, Character, and Personality (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Pub. Assn., 1977), 377.

3 ————, Steps to Christ (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn.), 17.

4 ————, Mind, Character, and Personality, 54.

5 ————, The Ministry of Healing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn.,1942), 143.

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Richard A. Marker, J.D., Ph.D., is the executive secretary of the Southern New England Conference

September 2000

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