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, www​.pew​fo​rum​.org/​2013​/​05​/​17​/​t​h​e​-​r​e​l​i​g​i​o​u​s​-​a​f​f​i​l​i​a​t​i​o​n​-​o​f​-​u​s​-​i​m​m​i​g​r​a​n​t​s​/​#​a​f​f​i​l​i​ation. ↩︎
  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, www​.bay​lor​.edu/​m​e​d​i​a​c​o​m​m​u​n​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​n​e​w​s​.​p​h​p​?​a​c​t​i​o​n​=​s​t​o​r​y​&​s​t​o​r​y​=​199850 ↩︎
  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. www​.ivpress​.com

Text First Published January 2022 · Last Featured on October 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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