Introductory Note:

Hunter Farrell and Balajiedlang Khyllep say the three foundation stones of mission in the way of Jesus are companionship, cultural humility, and co-development. This excerpt comes from their discussion of the second stone, cultural humility. Farrell and Khyllep encourage us to embrace the awkwardness of intercultural dialogue as an “iron sharpens iron” experience, and to seek out diverse cultural vantage points that expose our blind spots about the gospel. These practical steps will help us follow Jesus more faithfully and live into God’s mission to bless the world.

Renovaré Team

Vantage Points

One day I had an all-day meeting at a mission hospital an hour away from the seminary where my wife, Ruth, and I worked in DR Congo. Ruth decided to visit a sick friend and invited two young Congolese boys to go with her for some fun exploring the hospital grounds. The boys seemed to enjoy the day, and at the end of the hot afternoon they sat, watching some of the hospital personnel playing tennis. One of the employees asked the boys if they would each like to have a tennis ball. The boys’ eyes lit up and they eagerly accepted.

When we returned home, Ruth asked the boys if they wanted her to write their names on the balls so people would know whose they were. They did. Then seven-year-old Mikobi asked if she would write his brother Tshejo’s name on the ball too. She thought how nice that was and wrote Tshejo.” Then, Mikobi asked if she would write his friend Dilunda’s name on the ball. Something stopped her in her tracks — maybe it was a fear that there would be confusion over whose ball it really was. So Ruth paused and said, Mikobi, this is your ball.” He looked at her, confused, and finally said, Mamu, if my friends had gone on the trip wouldn’t they have gotten a ball?”

Mikobi’s words caused us to realize that in years of interactions with Congolese friends, we had never heard from their children the often-repeated protest of American two-year-olds: That’s mine!” Items that, to us, should have been personal possessions were shared with much greater freedom among Congolese families than we were accustomed to. Yet don’t we in North America hear our two-year-olds scream that’s mine!” every day and simply ascribe it to human nature? The that’s mine!” response is, in fact, not a biological response but a culturally conditioned one. It is indeed learned — and we’re the ones who taught them. This is Daddy’s. This is yours.” We teach our children the rigorous rules of private property first; then, we struggle for years to teach them how to share.

For Mikobi, sharing came first. He received a prized possession and naturally wanted to share it. Which of these two cultural understandings seems closer to God’s desire for how we live together as a people — as a global community? Jesus tells the rich young ruler clearly what is lacking in his nearly perfect life: Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Lk 18:22). All cultural perspectives, including our own, are limited and imperfect. But Mikobi’s words — growing out of his Congolese cultural values — held up a mirror to our own deeply held, but invisible, individualistic assumptions and opened our eyes to a more biblical way of understanding our relationship to our possessions and to our neighbor. Suddenly we became aware that our perspective on Scripture was obscured by our own cultural assumptions and needed the light of our Congolese companions’ perspective. Without companions who see from different cultural vantage points, we might lose our way on the road of God’s mission.

A Diverse World

The second foundational stone for our practical vision is often underestimated and sometimes completely overlooked by many US Christians as we venture into local and global communities. In a world of increasing cultural diversity, loving our neighbor who is culturally different from us often requires understanding and communicating effectively with them in terms they can understand. This skill set is especially needed when we consider that cultural difference is present in all of our lives almost all the time: though we will discuss a more precise definition of cultural difference later in the chapter, for now we should bear in mind that cultural difference includes economic status, language background, nationality, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion. Each of these elements of cultural difference shapes the lens through which we see the world.

We live in a context of growing cultural diversity across the United States — Latinx are a growing presence in cities and rural communities from North Carolina to Arkansas to California. Minneapolis is home to more than one hundred thousand Somalis. Small towns across the country have become home to people from around the world as the foreign-born population of the country has grown to 44.5 million — resulting in its largest share of the US population since 1910.1

There was a time when mission suggested that missionaries travel long distances and live in a specific location for decades, learning the language and local ways of thinking. Today, most middle-sized American cities (especially but not limited to cities with a university or industry or increasing construction) have people of dozens of nationalities living and working in them. Larger cities can be home to people of more than a hundred nationalities.

In addition, a large number of new immigrant groups in many cities and towns were evangelized by Catholic and Protestant missionaries many years ago and have come to the States with their faith and a deep sense of identity as missionaries. Sixty-one percent of legal immigrants to the United States in 2012 were Christians; in addition, among the approximately 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country, a 2011 Pew Research Center study estimates 83 percent of them are Christian.2 

Burmese Baptists (the spiritual descendants of American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson), Latin American Catholics and Pentecostals, and Brazilian, Indian, and Nigerian Methodists have migrated to the United States in recent years, strengthening struggling churches, even as they bring a renewed commitment to prayer, evangelism, church planting, and, in many cases, a more holistic view of the gospel that brings together social justice and evangelism. Diversity and opportunities for serving and witnessing across cultural difference are abundant today across the breadth of our country even without leaving the country.

The rapid growth and accessibility of international air travel and the rising levels of disposable income among US Christians have made international short-term mission trips a major and growing component of the mission program of many US congregations, whether small or large. Robert Wuthnow estimates that almost one-third of all US mission funding is used to pay for short-term mission trips.3 Among very large congregations, Robert Priest found that 94% of megachurch (that is, churches with average Sunday attendance of 2000 or more) high school youth programs organize short-term mission trips abroad for their youth, with 78% doing so one or more times per year.”4 Overall, Priest and his coauthors estimate that 1.5 million US Christians annually go on short-term mission trips, many of them beyond national borders.5 

If in years past a congregation’s experience of intercultural mission was often mediated through their” missionary, today local church members in Middle America engage interculturally through short-term missions, outreach to international students from dozens of countries who are studying at a local college, and relationships and financial support of projects with global partners. In addition, within US churches, there is an increasing diversity that calls for leadership with the ability to navigate cultural differences: The percentage of multiracial congregations in the United States nearly doubled from 1998 to 2012, with about one in five American congregants attending a place of worship that is racially mixed.”6

As a result of all these factors, there has never been a time in the history of the American church when the need for skills in cultural proficiency has been greater. Unless congregational mission leaders are able to help their people communicate more effectively across cultural differences, we limit our love — and the effectiveness of our witness — to groups who mirror our same cultural values and patterns. US cultural patterns tend to prioritize values such as efficiency, achievement, and individual freedom, even as we struggle to understand the people of other cultural traditions who tend to prioritize relationship, group harmony, and community. 

Among the greatest challenges to faithful and effective mission is effective intercultural communication — having the cultural proficiency to navigate around the misunderstandings, mistakes, confusion, hurt feelings, and broken relationships that litter the field of our churches’ interaction with local and global companions.… 

A Prayerful Attitude of Cultural Humility

Although ethnocentrism has characterized much of the colonial era of the history of Christian mission, intercultural encounters have the power to open up a space of grace-filled transformation for all who enter with a learner’s heart. If the ethnocentrism resulting from colonial assumptions creates barriers to our loving well, this chapter will argue that cultural humility can serve as a powerful antidote to reduce those barriers. 

How many times have I watched as an American visitor has surprised and delighted a congregation abroad by greeting them in their native language? What a simple but powerful way to communicate, I love and respect you and am here to learn from you.” 

How can we develop this prayerful attitude of cultural humility? First, we must understand the depth of the chasm caused by cultural difference in our diverse world.

Nothing is more frustrating than the feeling of awkward incompetence and confusion we feel in intercultural understandings. Even the local children get it,” but we’re clueless. Yet I am convinced that the confusing and sometimes frustrating cultural differences we stumble over are the learnings that allow us to see ourselves and our world with new eyes. 

New immigrants and international students tend to see the context they live in with more critical eyes — with a broader perspective. The acclaimed Indian-British novelist Sir Salman Rushdie summarized it beautifully: The only people who see the whole picture … are the ones who step out of the frame.”7 

The irritations we feel as we err in intercultural communication are, in fact, the feeling when iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another” (Prov 27:17). Our relationship with a person from a different cultural background, when we act with cultural humility, can be a space of learning and transformation. What began as a formidable perceived barrier to God’s mission has become for us an invitation to adopt a posture of cultural humility to embrace and then to leverage the space of uncertainty (that I have no idea what’s going on right now” moment) to slow our pace, open all our senses, and establish deep and lasting bonds with the very people who can shine new light on our own limited understanding of what it means to live in Christ.

  1. Jason Lange and Yeganeh Torbati, U.S. Foreign-Born Population Swells to Highest in Over a Century,” Reuters, September 13, 2018,‑s-foreign-born-population-swells-to-highest-in-over-a-century-idUSKCN1LT2HZ. ↩︎
  2. Pew Research Center, Religion and Public Life, The Religious Affiliation of U.S. Immigrants: Majority Christian, Rising Share of Other Faiths,” May 17, 2013, ↩︎
  3. Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 180. ↩︎
  4. Robert Priest, U.S. Megachurches and New Patterns of Global Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34, no. 2 (2010): 98. ↩︎
  5. Robert Priest, Introduction to Theme Issue on Short-Term Missions,” Missiology: An International Review 34, no. 4 (2006): 431 – 50. ↩︎
  6. Multiracial Congregations Have Nearly Doubled, but They Still Lag Behind the Makeup of Neighborhoods,” Baylor University, June 20, 2018, ↩︎
  7. Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (New York: Picador, 1999), 43. ↩︎

Taken from Freeing Congregational Mission by B. Hunter Farrell with S. Balajiedlang Khyllep. Copyright © 2022 by Bennett Hunter Farrell. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

Text First Published January 2022 · Last Featured on October 2022