Elmer_BookDr. Duane Elmer, a self-described “Cross Cultural Trainer” offers decades of experience in helping people (especially Christians engaged in ministry enterprises) interact in truly helpful ways in cross-cultural contexts. (IVP, 2002 about 200 pages)

His field-tested conclusion is that without adequate training – especially as it pertains to understanding people and cultures different from our own, we may set out to help, and end up hurting people – and even harm the cause of Christ.

Having considered Elmer’s primary ideas, the following material identifies and elaborates on five things that I personally found most helpful in my own reading of the book.

Idea 1: Much of the world is “Christian,” but most of it is not.

Elmer’s religious demographic analysis of the 1,000-member global village is an eye-opening piece (p. 20).  On one hand it might be encouraging to see that 330 out of every 1,000 people claim to be Christians.  On the other hand, it is staggering that 2 out of every three people in the world are not.

Added to this, I think that growing up in America, and especially in a part of the country that was pretty religious with all the trappings of church, my own upbringing brought with it an assumption that it was normal to be both Christian and American.

If I add my own local cultural norms to that, it becomes less easy for me to relate to people who are not middle-American, middle class, predominantly white, English-speaking Christians (or at least Christian-ish).

I have travelled to several other countries (Mexico, Japan, Ukraine, England, France, and Belgium) during my tenure in the U.S. Navy, on mission trips with churches, and as an adoptive parent, so I have had to adjust in those scenarios and circumstances to cultural differences on many levels.  In some cases (such as when I was younger and in the Navy) there was a very strong American presence in the countries where I worked, and one could retreat to the Americanized culture of the Military base.  In those circumstances, my tendency was to see myself (still) as the Majority, firmly surrounded by military buildings, uniformed service members, and the implements of war branded with American flags.  It was easier to see the other guys (even when on their soil) as the strangers or the under-dogs.

In cases where I went on mission trips or for international adoption, I always felt like the stranger who was dependent on everyone around me to help me navigate through the unfamiliarity I experienced.In both cases (missions and adoption) I was there to help, but my help was dependent on the help I received from those within the culture.  I realized on those trips that most people in the world do not think, believe, or feel like I do about more things than I can imagine.  How will I “help” them?  If I don’t understand them and relate to them on the basis of who they are, I doubt I will.

Idea 2: Some things are right, some are wrong, and some are different.

This insight was very important (and is hard for most cultures to swallow) because we tend to see our way as the right way (why else would we embrace it?), and others as the wrong way.

The third category of “different” (next to right and wrong) is helpful when considering cultural differences that cannot easily be categorized.  This section reminded me of the movie “The Mission” starring Robert DeNiro, in which mission work was not only seen as helping people come to faith in Jesus, but also eradicating their cultural distinctives, and replacing them with those of the missionaries.  It also reminded me of an international worship leader who, when travelling to many parts of the world to churches that had been impacted by Western/American worship music, simply changed the lyrics to the songs to their own language, and kept all the musical styles styles exactly the same.  This worship leader shared that part of his ministry was to help indigenous churches re-claim their own musical styles and write worship music that sounded like their music using their lyrics and approach to lyrical development!

Right? Wrong? Different?

It will be important in cross-cultural ministry to always ask “which one is this?”

Idea 3: When in doubt ask the locals.

I struggled with this one a bit because it is possible that a local Christian leader might have fallen prey to syncretism and the sway of pervasive cultural practices that are both “perfectly normal ‘round here,” and completely wrong at the same time (this is certainly a visible phenomena within a Christian congregation when one reads the issues described 1 Corinthians).

A local leader might actually be the one who is the problem with respect to “wrong” (locally normative) things transfusing into the life of the churches (cf. also Rev. 2:14-15, 1 Tim. 1:3, Titus 1:9-10, all of which point to local leaders being the ones through whom the deception was working and to whom messages and messengers needed to be sent in order to correct the doctrine and related praxis).

I need more help with this issue.

To give a real and somewhat contemporary example, how would we interpret Jim Reid’s ministry in the 1970s in Las Vegas (he called himself “The Chaplain to the Las Vegas Strip”) where he tells of hosting Bible studies and prayer meetings back stage with strippers between shows?  On one hand, there is “Jesus friend of sinners,” and there is Jesus, prophet to an adulteress exhorting her (without condemnation) to “go and sin no more.”

Elmer assures that “there is such a thing as wrong,” but how does he help his cross-cultural workers to know when something fits that category?  If you ask the locals (like Reid in Las Vegas), he will tell you or show you (by example) that when in Vegas, it is sometimes appropriate to head back stage between topless shows to hold prayer and bible devotions with the strippers.

Three questions for Dr. Elmer:

  1. When do you not ask the locals?
  2. Could a local conviction actually be a problem?
  3. Finally, how would one lead a cross-cultural encounter to the Las Vegas strip that targets those who work in the casino, entertainment, prostitution, and club industry?

Idea 4: Relationship First (and maybe even second and third)

To begin with a quote from Chapter 14,

“Without some sincere effort at establishing a relationship first, your words are likely to come across as a “clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1)” (p. 131).

From my perspective much of cross-cultural evangelism has emphasized the task of “getting people saved.”  Missionaries return home on furloughs or to itinerate for fund-raising purposes, and report on how many “decisions for Christ” happened as a result of their work.  There are certainly reports of mass salvations in Acts.  But I am helped by the author’s encouragement to remember how important relationship is.

For me, the emphasis on the good news itself as a call into relationship (with God and his people) is important.  With this in mind, the pursuit of a “decision for Christ” sounds less and less like what we’re after.  Perhaps “She became of follower of Jesus, and joined his people” is better.

If I am not engaging people relationally, I am not modeling what they will experience on the other side of their conversion.  “Lost and going to hell” has been the motivation, I think, for a non-relational decision-based approach to evangelism.

When I lived in Japan, this approach did not work.  Japan has been called a missionary graveyard because this approach to evangelism has not worked well.  Japanese people will not listen to someone who does not care about relationship with them.  It can take years to forge a relationship based on trust.  If a short-term missionary wants to go to Japan to lead the masses to Jesus with non-relational task-oriented evangelism, the missionary report will be bleak.  It takes time!

Idea 5: My life is my message.

This insight, as illustrated in the quote by Gandhi (p. 145) was striking to me.In many of the workshops and training environments that I have attended, evangelism tends to emphasize “how to say things” when you’re talking to an unbeliever.  How shall we address objections? How can we use apologetics to win the argument? How can we prove the Bible is true?

Again, in this approach relationship is either taken for granted or minimized as secondary.  What is most important is “responses to objections to faith” and “how to share the gospel” (which emphasizes words and terminology).

Life as message seems to be what Jesus had in mind in Mat. 5:16. The challenge here for me (and probably for most of my American Christian friends) is to let our lives be our message. We talk a great deal about message and medium. But if my LIFE is the medium for the message, then I never have to change mediums. I never have to separate them based on changing times!

Again, this takes lots of time, consistency, and willingness to be relational in our ministry work and evangelism.If the “life as message” is the better way to measure evangelistic priorities, then “I shared the gospel” with an emphasis on what words were shared apart from either relationship or modeling might be pretty inaccurate.

I encourage you to give this book a read if you’re involved in short or long-term missions, engaged in cross cultural ministry, living in a place where there is much cultural diversity, experiencing or wanting to experience cultural change within your local church, or you want to lead a group into a cross-cultural ministry enterprise. This book is mandatory reading!

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I’d really love to hear your own perspective on ministry and life in a cross-cultural context in the comments section below. I look forward to more dialogue about it.