Cross-cultural ministry requires an extra level of skill, in addition to the skills which we use for local ministry. We call this ‘cultural intelligence.’
A former Singaporean missionary ‘Raj,’ is from an Indian background. We shared a common experience, both of us having served in India for some time. As I interviewed him, he recounted his early learning experiences in the culture to me. Raj had a gift of telling a good story and as he described scenario after scenario to me, I fully understood the pictures he was painting and we both roared with knowing laughter. At one stage, Raj tried to help his local partner develop some better systems. Raj prided himself on the skills which he had picked up in the corporate world in this area and he energetically worked to develop some new, efficient ways of streamlining the organisation, along with all the documentation. “It was a thick document,” laughed Raj, with a lot of playful self-depreciation. As he presented his ideas to the senior leader, Raj was anticipating an enthusiastic response. “He looked at it and he said it will not work. I can laugh now, but at the time, I was so disappointed.” The good news is that his errors that became his cultural learning experiences and over the years, Raj came to be a very effective missionary.
The Necessity for CQ
The acquisition of cultural intelligence—sometimes referred to as CQ—is important because when we cross cultural boundaries, the cultural rules, beliefs, worldview and associated behaviours change. CQ is the acquired understanding of how to work appropriately in other cultures. When we go into another culture, the rules change: what humility looks like in one culture is different in another culture. The same can be said for servanthood, teachability, love and friendship. This can be disorientating. Our natural intuition can let us down.
Cultural re-calibration requires us to be immersed in the culture, much like how we gained practical relational know-how in our home culture. Only this time we are starting as adults, with no parents to guide us, and with a background that we tend to want to fall back on. Clearly, immersion takes a lot longer than we realize.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he popularised the idea that in order for us to become proficient in something, we need to do it for 10,000 hours. Expertise in almost any field takes about 10,000 hours – about 10 years – of deliberate practice to develop mastery.
Others are skeptical about the specific quantitative specifics of the theory and we may probably conclude that there is probably no absolute magical number of hours that is the same for each person. Some people may take less than 10,000 hours to gain proficiency and others may take more.
Additionally, it is not just the number of hours of practice, but also the quality of the practice that counts. Regardless of the specifics, the principle rings true: we have to go deep, give focus and show long-term commitment in order to become proficient at something. This is very true for cross-cultural ministry and CQ.
When it comes to CQ, both the length of time in the culture and the number of meaningful interactions lead to the acquisition of local know-how. CQ does not develop quickly, because every experience in our life to that point in time has helped to build our framework of thinking, values and beliefs that helps us interpret and give meaning to what we observe. When we go into a new culture, this all has to be recalibrated with new experiences and lessons.
Raj learned this. Raj concluded, “Even though we were Indians, we were Singaporean Indians. And Singapore and Indians are completely different mindset altogether. And the environment was completely different.” He went on to speak of the learning curve he had to go through over a number of years in order to work effectively in India. And even though he made some mistakes, the advantage Raj had was a cultural mentor who was willing to give him honest feed-back. Not all long-term and short-term missionaries are that fortunate. Sometimes, our indigenous partners fear to tell us when we are making mistakes. They fear the loss of support from their foreign patron or embarrassing an honoured foreign guest.
Amateurs vs Professionals
This presents us with a dilemma. More and more of our mission strategies are being reduced to short time frames. The convenience and affordability of modern travel has given our congregations accessibility to the field for short periods of time. Generational trends have also been recognised, which see people less inclined to make long term commitments.
The short-term mission phenomena has allowed Christians to do missions in ways which previous generations could not. However, shorter length terms often do not allow missionaries to hit their cultural “sweet spot” or grow adequately in their local knowledge.
In an article on the Evangelical Missiological Society site, Ralph Winter pointed to a phenomena that is seeing poorly skilled people engaging in missions work. What he was observing in the late 1990s was what he called a “re-amateurization” happening in global missions – movements characterized by the involvement of people that are often ill-prepared and who sometimes do “more harm than good.”
Winter defines the “amateurization” phenomena by looking to the history of missions. He points to how the global missions movement begin as a movement of “amateurs.” In this case, Winter was referring to an amateur as someone who does not have much skill in what they do, not a person who does not receiving money for a job.
However, as the modern missions movement grew and developed, we developed a body of knowledge that became accepted practice which helped to undergird effective work. He was pointing to the importance of the accumulation of cultural know-how which allows for appropriate contextualization of ministry.
There are certainly many positive things which come from short-term approaches, but he goes on to quote one leader who rues the fact that missions seem to have “become any Christian volunteering to be sent anywhere in the world at any expense to do anything for any time period.” (1)
Those who travel in to a new cross-cultural situation for one or two weeks may gain some awareness of the issues, but will never start to enculturate. Those who stay for two or three years start to grow in their cultural competence, but they never gain sufficient momentum. Consistent feed-back from long-term missionaries indicates that a missionary’s most fruitful years are likely to be after being in the culture for years five, six and seven years. Cultural intelligence and competence takes time to grow. But one wonders if the current environment can ever go back to the long-term mindset. Most likely not. So then it becomes a matter of proper training and assistance. But can the churches provide that?
Cross-Cultural Work—Not for the Casual Tourists
The involvement of the whole church is missions is an exciting and scriptural vision, full of opportunity if it can fulfill its full potential. However, it also presents us with a challenge: how do we ensure that it is infused with cultural intelligence and appropriate contextualisation?
John Lambert discusses Ralph Winter’s ideas of the dangers of amateurism in his article on the website Frontier Venture more specifically Winter’s comment, “Mission is a very special kind of evangelism. Amateurs do not really succeed.” Lambert concludes: “Tourist missionaries can't do the job. Either long term missionaries or bi-culturals are necessary whenever we face a truly cross cultural situation as we always do with Unreached Peoples.” (2)
Lambert supports his contention with the example seen in the early church’s early attempts to bring the gospel to another culture. When the church in Jerusalem heard about the need of Greek-speaking people in Antioch (Acts 11:22), they did not send an untested layman. They chose to send Barnabas–a man who grew up in Cyprus. Barnabas was bi-lingual and bi-cultural. He was able to deal effectively in the cross-cultural situation. This seems to indicate that they understood the cross cultural issues.
Cross-cultural missions is different, and it requires an additional layer of skills to be added to our local ministry skills.
I would not want this talk of the amateurization of missions to sound like we are advocating for going back to the days when missions was the sole purview of an elite group of specialists (the “select of the elect”). Far from it. Just as the Lausanne Covenant has articulated, world evangelization requires “the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.”
I would, however, like to suggest that we need to extend this catch cry to say that the goal is this: To effectively mobilise the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world. What we see is a growing body of leaders, missiologists and practitioners who are warning against haphazard efforts which can cause more damage than good.
In my next blog post, I will address how we can facilitate the infusion of cultural intelligence in our missions work. The end goal being a balance of what people willing to serve missions can supply and how we can best facilitate their success.
(1) Winter, Ralph. (1996, Spring). “The Re-Amateurization of Missions.” Retrieved from http://www.dake.com/EMS/bulletins/winter.htm
(2) Lambert, John. (2015, June 5). “Winter on Amateurism of Frontier Mission.” Retrieved from https://www.frontierventures.org/blog/winter-on-amateurism-in-frontier-mission