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Entering Multiple Cultures

It’s my privilege to speak to you today on “Wearing Different Hats: Becoming Transculturally Effective”. Historically, most missionaries moved from their home culture to their new host culture and engaged in cross-cultural ministry. It was a fairly straightforward process of adapting and adjusting to one new people, language, and worldview in order to be effective.

Our world has changed, and while there will always be a need for bi-cultural or cross-cultural effectiveness, global migration in its various forms have created a need for Christians who desire to share our faith in transcultural contexts. Whether we are reaching out to refugees, immigrants, or international students, we rarely have the luxury of the linear movement from our culture to theirs, from culture A to culture B, and simply engage this one new culture, language, and worldview.

So what do I mean by wearing different hats or becoming transculturally effective as opposed to just being cross-culturally effective? The English idiom “to wear different hats” means to have different jobs or roles. Transcultural effectiveness corresponds to understand and engaging multiple cultures simultaneously. For example — and these are not meant to be stereotypical – on my local campus in California I do international student ministry. I can have a conversation with an agnostic Danish student on Monday, a Chinese atheist on Tuesday, a Japanese Shintoist on Wednesday, a Sri Lankan Buddhist on Thursday, and an Arab Muslim on Friday. So, I need to wear different hats to be effective with diverse students.

Two years ago my wife and I visited Copenhagen to see the first international student who lived in our home. One day he took us across the channel to Malmo, Sweden. We learned a lot on our visit, including this, from a traditional Swedish home from the 18th century. This beam above my wife’s head is called a Welcome Beam. Upon visiting a Swedish home, you did not cross beyond this beam uninvited. The family lived back there, and it was their private domain. You wouldn’t just walk in. So in the next few minutes we want to further equip you in learning the “welcome beams” (or cultural cues) of the diverse international students you are trying to reach, and then how to proceed further into their world with the Good News.

We will look at two areas: Entering New Cultures and Understanding These New Cultures. Despite globalization, social media, shared global culture like the Olympics or the World Cup, popular music and movies, these international student cultures are vastly different from our own. Now, I realize that those of you watching are from different countries, and as a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, the following slides reflect what it looks like for me as a North American to enter other cultures. So, please apply this to your own context. When we enter another culture it looks a lot like this … The square-headed American is entering the round-headed world of these other cultures. So a question to ask is, “How are Americans often perceived in new cultures? If you are from another culture, discuss, for example, how are you often perceived? Discuss both the positive and negative perceptions that other cultures have of you. If you are watching with a group of others, take 5 minutes to discuss this.

The next slide shows how some of us who move from our culture into another – or into multiple cultures – remain “square-headed”. We resist adapting to the new culture to fit in, but also to have greater access to the hearts and minds of those we are trying to reach. Others do fit in, and often have an effective, transcultural ministry. Our goal should be a willingness to jettison negotiable values and become stop-sign headed. We will never become perfectly round-headed like the diverse cultures we are trying to reach, and that’s ok. It’s about being willing to do things that are uncomfortable for the sake of the gospel

Now let’s have a look at Understanding These New Cultures. It all starts by spending time with them. My wife teaches an ESL class and has these Middle Eastern students in it; Naja and Rabar are in the back, and a South Korean girl that lived with us is in the front. The Middle Eastern couple was very excited to come over. I welcomed them and expressed what an honor it was to have them in our home. Rabar said that no, it was his honor to be here, that he was so excited, and that it was his first time in an American home. I asked him how long he had been in the US, and he said, “Ten years.” My heart sank when I heard this and reminded me how important it is to simply invite students into our homes.

Several years ago I was flying up to Vancouver, Canada to help with a cross-cultural training. As I walked toward customs I found myself in a very long line with a boy of about 11, who his Mom was bringing to spend some time with his Dad. Dillon – who happened to be ethnically Jewish – was lugging a duffle bag and it was clanging as he dragged it on the floor. I asked him if he needed a hand, and as him Mom talked incessantly on her cell phone, he said, “Sure, that would be great!” The bag was really heavy so I asked him what was in it. He said, “Egyptian idols and icons.” I thought I might have to perform an exorcism right there in the Vancouver airport! We all sat down because the line was so long, and while his Mom kept talking on her phone, I pulled out a gospel tract for kids and began sharing with Dillon. As it turned out, he thought he was the reincarnation of King Tut, and casually informed me that he was saving his money for two things – a copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead, and for his own mummification. At this point I was pretty hopeless about the potential of the Christian message to get through to him, but something happened. As I was thinking about what to say, the Holy Spirit dropped one word into my mind – and that word was immortality. I immediately knew that Dillon was not that far from the gospel after all, and that his ultimate goal was eternal life. The Egyptian Book of the Dead consists of a number of magic spells intended to assist a dead person’s journey into the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians practiced mummification, believing that when someone died, they needed to be able to find and recognize the body in order to live forever. I returned to the booklet but before I could even get to the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, Dillon excited pointed out to me that in order for someone to live forever, they would have to attain sinless perfection! I said, “Well, guess what Dillon…. I’M IMMORTAL!” His mouth hung open in amazement as I explained that Jesus, not me, was the only person to live without sin, and offered us eternal life. Dillon’s Mom was finally ready to move through the line, so our conversation ended, but I will not be surprised if we see Dillon in heaven.

So whether we are talking to Jewish kids who think they are the reincarnate King Tut, or Middle Eastern students, the onus is upon us to move toward transcultural effectiveness. On the campus in my city I’ve had the opportunity see what this looks like. Over the course of just a short time, I’ve had the chance to have conversations with students from Japan, China, Saudi Arabia and Peru. Moving from one to another in the same day or week requires a certain degree of intellectual flexibility and cultural dexterity, because they all have different values and worldview assumptions. With my Japanese friend we have just had some simple spiritual conversations. I printed out and shared a Chinese-English version of Knowing God Personally with my Chinese friends. I shared the Honor-Restored digital tool with my Arab friend, and I took my Peruvian buddy for an In-N-Out hamburger, shared the bilingual English-Spanish Knowing God Personally with him, and he prayed to receive Christ, and continues to walk with him several months later.

To understand these new cultures better, let’s look at some brief examples of how they operate. There are 3 primary worldviews; Guilt-Innocence, Honor-Shame and Fear-Power

Guilt-Innocence comes from – in part – Pax Romana or Roman Peace – that existed within the nationalities of the Roman Empire. That was sustained by Roman jurisprudence that elevated and applied the law to all of its citizens. That’s why Paul, when he was being stretched out to be flogged in Acts 22, asked if they dared flog a Roman citizen. He was innocent under the law until proven guilty. That would explain why the Book of Romans is often the most popular among American pastors; in parts it reads of a legal transaction telling us about the substitutionary atonement of Jesus – the redemptive act of the innocent for the guilty. So, when Bill and Vonette Bright were explaining “The Four Spiritual Laws” to students at UCLA, most students resonated with the message, because their culture affirmed that we were guilty of sin. Even our American movies, until quite recently, reflect that the Good Guy beats the Bad Guy. We have inherited this Western view of the world from the Romans.

I remember seeing this sign outside of a mosque in Calgary, Canada, which read, “We accept everyone and tell no one that he is a sinner.” And that lead us to the next worldview, that of Honor-Shame. Roland Muller, who lived in the Arab world for 20 years, observed, “Every part of the Muslim world I lived in was based on honor and shame.” The Arab world in its entirety is based on this worldview. Similarly, most of the Asian world is as well. A Korean missiologist observed, “Korean men are taught to act honorably. One of the signs of honor is to hold off speaking until you have something wise to say.” In the West we assume – in a meeting for example – that “silence is consensus.” Well, for Asians in the meeting, their silence may not suggest consensus because they are taught to refrain from speaking too soon, because that would be presumptuous and potentially dishonorable. The former President of South Korea – who was indicted for embezzlement – said this in his last interview, “I have no face to show to the people. I am sorry for disappointing you.” Then he proceeded to jump off a mountain because suicide was the only way he could salvage a vestige of his honor.

Here are a couple of video clips that demonstrate the distinct honor-shame worldview. The first is of the uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers – commonly known as the Boston Marathon Bombers. Listen to the language that their uncle uses in this interview… Four times in just 20 seconds he uses the term “shame” to describe what they brought on – not just themselves or their family – but the entire Chechen community.

The 2nd video is from the 2006 World Cup, where Algerian-born Zinedine Zidane, one of the greatest players in the world and the tournament most valuable player, head-butts Italian defender Matterazi and is ejected from the game. Listen to the Western commentator’s attempt to explain what happened. This was Zidane’s last game; he had already announced that he would retire after this final. Ironically, both Zidane and Materazzi scored in the game, but France ended up losing in a shoot-out.

The Parisien headlined this story: “The Blue Angel Turned Into a Devil”
L’Equipe probed, “Zinedine, the hardest thing this morning is not to try and understand why Les Bleus (the nickname of the blue-shirted French team) lost the World Cup last night. But to explain to millions around the world how you could have let yourself go and head-butt Marco Materazzi. How could that happen to a man like you?” As a Westerner, he’s grasping for an explanation that makes sense, and can’t find one. Well, what is the explanation? Years after the incident both players finally spoke of it. When the defender Materazzi kept tugging at Zidane’s jersey, Zidane said, “If you want my jersey that bad I’ll give it to you after the game.” Materazzi said, “I’d rather have that whore of a sister of yours.” Zidane later said that he would rather die than apologize to Materazzi, because of the great shame of his words.

Tony Karon of Time wrote, “Indeed, Zidane’s mother may have been speaking for more than just her family when she told a British newspaper, “Our whole family is deeply saddened that Zinedine’s career should end with a red card but at least he has his honor. Some things are bigger than football.” He continues, “For many of the same ghetto residents he calls “my people,” Zidane’s head-butt of Marco Materazzi was a source of pride rather than shame. Kids on the streets of France’s banlieue (suburbs) told reporters that defending his honor was more important than the World Cup.”

My Tunisian friend Tibari and I played soccer together every week, and one day we were talking about what happened between Zidane and Matterazi. I gave my feeble explanation to him, and this is what he said, “You are the first person from the West to understand!” I assure you that I was not the first, but I could see how important it was to him that I took the time to understand and engage his worldview. And it led to an opportunity to share the gospel with Tibari.

Lastly, let’s look at the 3rd primary worldview, Fear-Power. Muller says, “Power can be understood in many ways: physical, political, economic, social, and religious. The secular worldview tends to regard all power as originating from within the material world … In contrast, primal worldviews see such powers not only as being real within the empirical world but as having their primary origin outside of the visible world.” To illustrate, let’s watch this news clip describing how Peruvian shamans try to deal with the spiritual fallout from a murder of one of their own.

In a guilt-innocence culture, we would expect the justice system to arrive at a verdict. But in a fear-power culture, they see things differently. One of the 7 shamans said, “We’re punishing him so that all the forces of evil are purged.”

Entering Multiple Cultures


What does it look like to enter other cultures? How can you be effective in ministering to people with vastly different worldviews? Join Denis as he journeys into strange lands and shows us how to navigate the terrain.

What does it look like to enter other cultures? How can you be effective in ministering to people with vastly different worldviews? Join Denis as he journeys into strange lands and shows us how to navigate the terrain.