Create a free account to view our video lessons.

EveryInternational provides FREE video training to help you befriend and share your faith with international students and immigrants.

It’s my privilege to speak to you today on “The Non-Negotiables of Transcultural Ministry” [1]

The heart of what I’ll be sharing with you are the findings of my recent doctoral research. I interviewed 6 missionaries to international students on the topic, “Wearing Different Hats: The Attitudes, Behaviors, and Experiences of 6 Transcultural Workers. [2]


These missionaries were nominated as the best transcultural workers in one particular organization. They distinguished themselves as highly effective not only in cross-cultural ministry, but in transcultural contexts – in other words – while engaging internationals from multiple cultures and worldviews simultaneously. For some of us this will be a bit of a shift in our perspective – not simply from single to plural cultural engagement, or the serial crossing of cultures from one to another — but the capacity to relate to multiple cultures simultaneously and perpetually. Maybe this American Express commercial can help us out. [3]


This past NBA season there were 108 international players from a record-tying 42 countries and territories on opening-night rosters. [4] This marks the fifth consecutive season that opening-night rosters feature at least 100 international players and that all 30 teams have at least one international player. That’s illustrative of our ministries in North America – whether to immigrants and refugees or international students. And maybe it’s fitting that right here in Toronto the Raptors will be the first non-American franchise to win the NBA title.


In my previous talk called “Wearing Different Hats: Becoming Transculturally Effective”, I noted that 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. Normative today is that we befriend and minister to students, migrants and refugees from several cultures at the same time. This requires a new type of dexterousness in order to be most effective with everyone we welcome, befriend, and engage with the gospel. Take a minute where you are and think about how many people groups are in your ministry purview. If you are with others, share about those groups.


So, what constitutes a missionary who is effective in transcultural contexts? First, I’m cognizant of the limitations of my research, and don’t want to overstate my findings. Although my extensive interviews were with only 6 people from one organization, I think that you will find that the attributes and competencies they demonstrate are worthy of consideration as we seek to be as fruitful as possible in ministry to as many peoples as possible.


I discovered that the subjects shared 15 core competencies that constituted their effectiveness. They are evident in 3 particular areas: Attitudes, behaviors, and experiences. The 3 attitudes of learning, postponing judgment and inquisitiveness are foundational for effective transcultural workers, and without them the other competencies would be non-existent or underdeveloped. [5]

Let’s take a brief look at them:

  1. Learning – This refers to ongoing, lifelong learning. Maddie, one of my interviewees, would go to the library as a grade schooler and sit herself down in the languages section to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s an intentional attitude to learn what you can to make you more effective.


  1. Postponing Judgment – postponing or suspending judgment; it’s resisting the temptation to criticize another countries’ people, culture, food, or even government policies, for the sake of the gospel. You may be correct and justified in being critical the other culture, just as they may be with ours. But if it doesn’t help you to gain a hearing, build trust, or demonstrate the love of Jesus, it’s probably best left unsaid.


  1. Inquisitiveness – This is closely related to learning, but with specific focus on the details and nuances of the particularities of the language, culture, worldview, or people. We don’t want to be so inquisitive that we become off-putting with our questions, but the best transcultural workers have an insatiable interest in other cultures. And remember that some people from the non-Western world do not disclose information about themselves by answering questions. Sometimes it just takes time for them to trust you enough to voluntarily share more about themselves, their culture, or their religion.


These are the 9 behaviors that effective transcultural workers practice in their daily ministry. [51]

They are adapting, welcoming, loving, advocating, eating, listening, sharing, playing, and practicing. Some of these behaviors are self-evident and self-explanatory, so I won’t say much or anything about them. Others, like welcoming, are very important, and reflect a significant biblical principle. [6]


Another behavior worth mentioning is advocating. Blayne, one of my interviewees, tells the story of a Middle Eastern student who conducted himself “horribly” at an international student party. Blayne gently debriefed his Middle Eastern friend, which helped to restore his honor and provide some necessary discipleship in the area of social maturity. Or Mitchell’s ability to bring two Indian and Pakistani students – historic enemies – into friendship on his campus. Or I think of my own experience with this Korean student – Daeryong (Big Dragon) who became a follower of Jesus after I shared the gospel with him over coffee. [7] He has an American roommate who ate his food, smoked marijuana, and brought his girlfriend to spend the night in their dorm room. He didn’t want to shame his friend, but his education was suffering as a result of this roommate. I offered to advocate, and after 2-3 visits to the housing department, they released him from his lease. On our way out he looked at me and asked, “Can I live with you?” I said, “Sure! What a better way to disciple you!”


Another important characteristic of effective transcultural workers is that they’re adventuresome eaters, expanding their tastes by experimenting with exotic foods. The day that Big Dragon arrived at home, he sent us this video before enjoying his favorite food, raw squid. [8] Would you eat raw squid?


Sharing here refers to not only sharing your life, your space, your possessions, your time, but especially your faith. Effective transcultural workers are generous with everything they have, including the things they value most.


Playing was a bit of a surprise, but it was an essential component to this admixture of effective competencies. It refers to our willingness to play the games of your host cultures. This is a really fun part of working with internationals. We’ve played a lot of new games over the years, including the Korean game Yut Nori, also known as Yunnori, Nyout, and Yoot. [9]


Of course, as a Canadian I didn’t grow up playing soccer, but it is a sure way to gain access to our new international friends – whether you host a game for them, play with them, take them to a college or professional game, or watch their favorite team on TV. During the last men’s World Cup a Saudi friend would text me to see if he could come over and watch games. The games were early so I’d put on some coffee and we would eat breakfast together.



The 3 essential experiences shared by effective transcultural workers are developing cross-cultural friendships, discovering, and knowing. [10] To use an American idiom, discovering is similar to learning and inquisitiveness, but “on steroids” – or at another level. I liken it to the qualities of an astronaut, with a fearless quest to learn new worlds. [11]


Lastly, knowing refers to knowledge, wielded humbly and demonstrated selectively. These workers are not know-it-all windbags who like to hear themselves talk, but utilize knowledge to gain further access to the hearts and minds of their international friends. This could be the acquisition of a few phrases in a new language, learning more about their national soccer team, or something about their customs.


The biggest surprise that surfaced from my research was the emerging realization that these workers create what I call “heterotopic space.” Yale’s Walter Russell Mead, an expert in international diplomacy, says “Utopia is a place where everything is good; dystopia is a place where everything is bad; heterotopia is where things are different — that is, a collection whose members have few or no intelligible connections with one another.” [12] Internationals may not have many obvious connections with one another, but creating this other space is germane to effective ministry among multiple groups simultaneously. [13]


Remember how Mitchell brought together an Indian and Pakistani student, and they became friends? He wasn’t creating hegemonic or dominant “American” space – he was creating another space that allowed the Indian and Pakistani to be themselves and explore the possibility of an alternative. [14]


These transcultural workers created non-hegemonic, heterotopic spaces that provided the context and environment for relationships with international students to flourish, and enable these workers to practice their craft with effectiveness. [15]


Unlike “safe space” on our campuses, which denotes the attempt to mitigate anyone’s unease – even with ideas, I am using heterotopic to describe the new spaces (whether physical or emotional) created by transcultural workers, characterized by a sense of neutrality, acceptance, and the freedom for everyone – regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, language or race – to be themselves. [16] This is important because if they can’t be themselves, they won’t come back to our events or Bible studies or want to be part of our communities.


Another word for this is cosmopolitan localism; coined by Gideon Kossoff of Carnegie Melon University. Your ministry should be cosmopolitan with a local flair, like this group in New York City [17] They are serving a whole roasted lamb, but also had several Indian options like veggie masala curry, games, and an emphasis on inviting all their international student friends. Or, some of the soccer games I hosted had over 10 countries represented, and I wouldn’t allow Americans to play because they would take over and it would lose its cosmopolitan heterotopia. [18]




The good news is that if you develop this admixture of qualities – you can create or co-create heterotopic spaces that allow internationals – immigrants, refugees or students – to be themselves and engage in meaningful, reciprocal relationships with you and others on their turf. [20]


Becoming Transcultural


What traits have you noticed in effective ministers? Are you living out those traits in your personal ministry? Denis shares 15 traits that effective transcultural ministry workers possess. Learn what they are and how you can develop them! 

What traits have you noticed in effective ministers? Are you living out those traits in your personal ministry? Denis shares 15 traits that effective transcultural ministry workers possess. Learn what they are and how you can develop them!