Cross-cultural Ministry

if it’s big in Japan…

Yesterday, I heard a Christian missionary speak about the challenges he’s facing in Japan. One of the big ones is that, apparently, in Japan to become Christian is to become un-Japanese.

It’s seen as a massive betrayal. Giving up on what’s most essential and distinctive to the Japanese culture and way of life.

And from what I hear this is a fairly common theme — especially in non-Western cultures.

But it’s got me thinking…

Why don’t we assume something similar about becoming Christian in Australia?

If it’s big in Japan, why isn’t it so big here?

Or, rather, why don’t we expect it to be so big here? (I’m less interested in a historical or sociological account of how Australian culture and Christian ‘values’ have become intwined. And more interested in why Christians in Australia are likely to find the thought that being Christian means becoming un-Australian in some essential sense.)

Is it perhaps that we’re too engaged — too deeply embedded in and complicit with the Australian way of life? Too uncritically accepting and unable to imagine any other possibility than being here, fitting in, belonging?

Are we too unprepared to own the kind of identity the Apostle Peter hails his readers with: “elect exiles of the dispersion”, “temporary residents”, “strangers”?

And if I’m onto something with these hunches, then I’d want to know what it is that’s got us here. Even if all I’ve got is questions. Questions like:

How helpful is our popular evangelical emphasis on ‘just praying the prayer’ and not standing on ceremony?

Not that calling people to conversion is a bad thing. But I worry about what happened to urging people to count the cost. Or to baptising people into the radical new identity and life-course Jesus launches us on — where we’re summoned to observe everything our Lord teaches…

Please don’t misread me. It’s not that I’m looking to place (or avoid) blame here. But I do think it’s worth trying to tease apart the matted ball of contributing threads.

Otherwise I doubt we’ll never disentangle ourselves from our culture long enough to meaningfully engage it with the gospel.

contextualisation FAIL

Contextualisation is one of the hottest topics in contemporary thinking about mission.

It’s roots lie in wrestling with how to connect with people in cross-cultural situations — that and Paul’s words about becoming all things to all people. But it’s come to be applied much more widely. And sometimes far more controversially.

So I cackled when I read this in Moby-Dick (Ishmael, the narrator, has been invited to join in worshipping the portable idol his new friend Queequeg carries around):

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth — pagans and all included — can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? — to do the will of God — that is worship. And what is the will of God? — to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me — that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our consciences and all the world…


time is a cultural construct

Well, time itself may not be. But the way it impacts on our actions, the way we think about it, interpret it, and respond emotionally to it are.

Check out this fabulous little gem delivered by Professor Philip Zimbardo at the RSA and animated by Cognitive Media:

I’m tempted to reflect on which one of these perspectives is the ‘most Christian’ — Zimbardo certainly suggests that a future-orientation goes with a religious disposition. But the thing is, I read Ecclesiastes and it sounds pretty ‘present hedonistic’ according to Zimbardo’s categorisation. I reckon the bigger challenge is figuring out how to be a Christian within the time perspective in which you’ve been enculturated.

on the way home

Have you ever been asked by a researcher to do a survey, or give an interview, or take a test but been left wondering what on earth they’re researching and where on earth the results have ended up? I have. In fact, I’ve been implicated in research projects that follow that pattern. I want my PhD research to be different!

I have just launched a new blog On The Way Home, that I hope will be an experiment in open-source research. For the next 6-12 months, I’ll be really open about what I’m reading, thinking and what kinds of questions I’m interested in trying to answer about how faith impacts the migration experience.

My hope is that it will provide an opportunity for anyone interested to help shape my project from its inception. Please stop by and help make make sure my research is relevant!

on becoming alien

Recent months have brought us two new alien peoples and two conflicted heroes wrestling with their identity. In Avatar, Jake Sully takes on the body of a Na’vi while in District 9, Wikus van der Merwe is exposed to an alien product that turns him into a ‘prawn’ (a humanoid-arthropod-alien).

District 9 Bus Bench MNU Sign Teaser

District 9 Bus Bench MNU Sign Teaser by district9pics, on Flickr

I suspect that District 9 has more to teach us about the cross-cultural experience than Avatar for the following reasons:

  1. Wikus becomes an alien by accident, while Jake volunteers for the role;
  2. Wikus finds the process painful, while Jake finds it liberating;
  3. Wikus struggles to understand prawn culture, while Jake takes to being Na’vi like a fish to water;
  4. Wikus isn’t warmly welcomed into the prawn community in the way Jake is to the Na’vi;
  5. Similarly, the Na’vi are willing to teach Jake their ways, while Wikus bumbles through without much help;
  6. Wikus is excluded from the people he came from, while Jake finds he bonds even closer to the Scientists due to embracing Na’vi culture; and
  7. Wikus still longs for things (like his wife) from his previous life after becoming a prawn, while Jake happily gives everything away.

And so I have found myself scoffing at how unrealistic the representation of Jake’s experience is compared to Wikus’. However, I’ve begun to wonder if Jake’s experience is actually like that which we are promised as Christians when we become citizens of heaven: we are involved in the decision-making process; it’s liberating; we have the Spirit to help us with a new way of life; we’re welcomed as family; we have the ultimate handbook; we can love people better; and we can joyfully put off our old life…

east west 101

Jami Masjid Mosque- tomb of Sheik Salim Chishti - Fatehpur Sikri - फतेहपूर सिकरी - فتحپور سیکری

Jami Masjid Mosque - tomb of Sheik Salim Chishti - Fatehpur Sikri (by sftrajan, on Flickr)

We’ve been watching series 1 of the Australian series East West 101. It’s a brave attempt to create television that more accurately reflects the diversity and conflict present in Australia. It goes a long way to nuancing the way we imagine Muslim people and communities.

But a couple of things have been bugging me:

  • In the first episode, there is a scene in which a married Muslim makes love. The intimacy expressed goes a long way to rendering the couple sympathetic to non-Muslim viewers. But I can’t help but think that it’s not particularly culturally sensitive to show images of a Muslim woman (I don’t know the actresses religious affiliation, but I think that’s irrelevant) in a state of undress.
  • The repulsively racist detective directs his racism solely towards his Iraqi colleague and not other migrant colleagues from the Pacific or Asia.
  • While I’m happy to be confronted by the representation of a repulsively racist character (I’m convinced they exist in real life), I’m mildly frustrated that there’s never any expression of solidarity with the Iraqi character from other white characters.

cross-cultural connections (5)

Download a pdf of this series of posts HERE.

So, it’s been a while since I posted on Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Connections but we were at a CMS event the other night that has spurred me to finish the series off with one last post. And the reason for the post is this: I struggle with the wisdom of many very experienced brothers and sisters that recommends conformity to the status expectations of another culture, making adjustments where possible to give honour as you can.

Elmer writes (p 168):

Keep in mind that if you insist on imposing your cultural values [e.g., gender equality] and even your biblical values on the rest of the world in a way that others perceive as crude or harsh, you will not get a hearing for the gospel… find a way if possible, where you can uphold the cultural values [of status/respect] while bringing your own biblical values to bear on the situation in a sensitive way.

I find this a hard word. I want to do away with gender inequality, I want to break down the caste system and I want to treat the cleaner with all the respect and dignity I would give to my colleagues. Yet the word from Elmer, and from others I respect with years on the mission field, is that certain concessions need to be made when working within the structures of power and authority in other countries.

I don’t want to be ‘crude and harsh’. I want to act ‘in a sensitive way’. But I struggle to know what that will look like. This is just one of those things I don’t think I’ll figure out until I’m in a country where it matters. But it confounds me and it tears at my left-leaning, bleeding heart.

cross-cultural connections (4)

Download a pdf of this series of posts HERE.

How do you divide up the world? There’s lots of debate about the political correctness of these big labels, but here are some options:

  • First, Second and Third Worlds?
  • ‘East’ and ‘West’?
  • ‘North’ and ‘South’?
  • Developed and Developing?

Duane Elmer refers a lot to Westerners and the Western world, but then refers to the rest of the world as the ‘Two-Thirds World’. Linguistically it kind of bugs me, but I hope you get the gist of what he means…Globe

The latter third of Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Connections discusses a number of key cultural differences between the ‘West’ and the ‘Two-Thirds World’. Like all generalisations, it’s going to grate sometimes, but there was also quite a bit of wisdom. One of the things he said that really struck me was about goal- vs relationally-oriented people.

According to Elmer, Western society is dominated by a goal-focussed mentality. There’s plenty that’s good about this way of operating: goal-oriented people work hard, they are often trustworthy and dedicated. They get a lot done. The relationally-focussed person, on the other hand, dominates the Two-Thirds World. Relationships lay the foundation for activity; goals and schedules are only attended to after sharing in conversation and hospitality. When a friend drops in to visit, they become the relationally-oriented person’s priority — the doctor’s appointment will wait.

Now, there’s no right way to do things — Elmer’s clear this is just a case of difference — but here’s the rub… Elmer’s insight is that goal-oriented people will sacrifice relationships in order to reach the goal while relationally-oriented people will sacrifice the goal in order to maintain the relationship.

In light of this insight, I’ve been wondering what kind of impact discussions like this one will have? I think moving towards realistic goals is definitely a step forward, and generally I’m all for KPIs and SMART goals. But Elmer’s planted a small seed of doubt. What will we be prepared to sacrifice (marriages, friendships, sanity…?) in order to demonstrate we’ve achieved our man-made goals?

cross-cultural connections (3)

Download a pdf of this series of posts HERE.

Openness, acceptance and trust. They sound a bit New Age maybe? Or perhaps they’re the catch-cry of the naive multi-culturalist? They’re actually the three personal characteristics that Elmer identifies in Cross-Cultural Connections that are fundamental to successful cross-cultural adjustment.

Elmer’s really upfront about the fact that in cross-cultural situations you will face frustration, confusion, tension and embarrassment. You will. But he suggests that if you can enter into those situations with openness, acceptance and trust you are more likely to observe closely, listen intently and inquire genuinely about what happened.

In contrast, if you walk into a cross-cutural setting fearful, suspicious and stubbornly holding onto the way you like things done, then he pretty much guarantees that you will be full of criticism for the new culture and will tend to withdraw into yourself (or a community of similar people).


I like the framework. I like the fact that these characteristics don’t necessarily mean having to give up your own culture. Although if you’re acting this way I think you’ll be prone to picking up new ways of doing things, I also think that openness, acceptance and trust are things you can really only do when you have a pretty strong sense of self, of your value and purpose. So, these characteristics aren’t about making you into something else in order to connect with others but help you transcend the barriers between yourself and others from where you already are.

See posts (1) and (2).

cross-cultural connections (2)

Download a pdf of this series of posts HERE.

Culture…sneaks up on us, and we tend to make decisions based on our cultural background rather than trying to understand the cultural background of the other person first.

One of the best things my mother ever taught me was to, as she used to say, “put the best construction on everything”. By that she meant that you should always choose to interpret someone’s comments or actions in the best light possible. But the thing I’ve slowly been realising, and that Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Connections has reinforced, is just how easy it is to assume you know all possible interpretations of a situation. Even if you put (your) best construction on a situation, chances are you’re going to misinterpret it!

Instead of making the best possible judgement from within our cultural frame of reference, Elmer suggests that what’s necessary is the suspension of judgement “until we have made deliberate attempts to understand”. Expect not to understand. Don’t leap to conclusions, but pause, ask questions, listen to the answers you’re given, be genuinely interested in someone else’s story.

This is true not just in cross-cultural situations… it is so easy to feel like I understand exactly what my family means by every facial twitch, yet simultaneously believe that they don’t understand me at all.