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Blog » Keys to Success in Cross-Cultural Work – Be a Learner

Keys to Success in Cross-Cultural Work – Be a Learner


Working and ministering in a cross-cultural setting is extremely common today.  Yes, people often travel overseas to work in Global South nations where there are different languages, different cultural uniquenesses, and different ways of life.  However, even in our own community and within our own church, we are privileged to do life alongside those from other cultures.  As church leaders, it is imperative that we know how to most effectively and genuinely minister to those whose cultures differ from our own.  It is not an easy task.  It takes time and being an intentional learner.  However, the payoff is a great one as we can see lives transformed for Jesus in new ways that are uncommon in our own home culture.

This new blog series will explore the attitudes and methods by which we as church leaders can thrive in cross-cultural settings.  Finding this kind of success and effectiveness takes effort.  Most times working across cultures does not come naturally.  In this series, we will share a few suggested “keys to success” when working cross-culturally, whether that means overseas or right in our own backyard.

The first key to success?  Be a learner.  The attitude of a learner is highly valued in cross-cultural scenarios.  It is noticed by those in the new culture and is imperative in making lasting connections on an individual and community-wide level.  Those who enter a new culture with the attitude of an expert often see their efforts met with opposition, whether overt or passive.  Being a learner can open doors that were not there previously and expand the base of knowledge for church leaders seeking holistic transformation in the lives of so many.

What does it take to have the attitude of a learner?  Here are four, not always easy, suggestions.

1) Realize you don’t know it all.

When stepping into any kind of cross-cultural situation, we must humbly admit to ourselves (and others) that despite our ministry experience, academic pedigree, or extensive global travel, we do not know the new culture and have so much to learn from its people and society.  This attitude of humility and eagerness to learn more will bridge the relationship gap and endear us to those with whom we are working in the new culture.  Extensive reading, tourist travel, or other research are good and appreciated when learning about a new culture. However, spending time with the people, asking meaningful questions, listening to the answers, learning their histories, and allowing them to educate us go a long way in deepening our ties with the new culture.  In addition to learning new things, we must be ready to suspend our judgment of the ways things are said, done, or implemented in the new culture.  We might be outraged that those in the new culture are wrong.  They don’t do things the way we do them.  But in reality, the old adage, “It’s not wrong; it’s just different,” is the key to finding understanding and the attitude of acceptance.  When we can realize that we truly have many things to learn and that we do not know everything, we can take the first steps forward in closing the culture gap and building relationships.

2) Learn from those God has placed in our lives.

God has immersed us in this cross-cultural situation intentionally and in His divine plan.  Therefore, realize that the best people from whom to learn are those right there in that new culture.  While this obviously applies to general cultural information, it can also apply to life holistically as well.  God has placed us in that culture, now we should learn from the people in that culture spiritually, physically, intellectually, and socially.   We can learn new things about God from that culture that we may not have learned remaining at home.  We can learn about marriage and parenting and how to do church.  We can glean fresh ideas on health and schooling and hospitality.  We can learn what Jesus means to their culture and how He might be present in the same way for us.  As church leaders we are used to teaching and leading.  However, humbly learning from individuals in cross-cultural situations goes a long way toward deeper fellowship and relational strength.

3) Choose to submit.

Often in cross-cultural interactions, those of us from the visiting culture are seen as leaders, experts, or even some kind of spiritual or cultural authority.  However, when seeking true cross-cultural effectiveness, whether at home or when overseas, an intentional decision to submit to the leadership of the new culture can build relationship bridges and develop synergy faster and with more success.  This takes a deliberate effort on our part to yield any real or perceived authority to the host culture.  It takes humility and a desire to follow new leadership, even when we may not fully understand what that leadership is doing or why they make certain decisions.  Submitting to the host culture’s leaders is a sign of respect and esteems them for their own knowledge, expertise, and life learning.  Those who enter the new culture with an attitude of assumed authority and expertise risk losing relationships in the new culture, as well as losing new knowledge, skills, and attitudes that could be crucial in the development of our own church and congregation at home.  Submit in humility and watch your relationships grow and own personal knowledge base expand.

4) Be okay with ambiguity.

We will take a deeper dive into the topic of ambiguity in cross-cultural situations in a future entry in this blog series.  However, initially, church leaders must be able to come to terms with ambiguity, uncertainty, and generally a lack of timely knowledge.  Other cultures value different things.  This means that church leaders working cross-culturally may not always have the information they want in the time frame that makes them comfortable.  To succeed in those situations, we must find some way to manage our emotions and intellect when things are not presented to us  as we would prefer.  In general, there is always a cultural reason for the perceived ambiguity that we may not know and must learn.  The more questions we ask and the stronger our relationships become, the more we will be able to see the reasons for the ambiguity and become more comfortable.  This takes time, effort and patience, as well as a genuine desire to learn and submit to local authority.  Some of us will never feel comfortable in ambiguous circumstances, but if we are able to manage ourselves when this type of environment arises, we will be able to deepen our understanding of and relationship with the new culture.

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