by David Livermore
It was an e-mail you pray will never be written about you. The message came from an African friend, Zwanda (not his real name). Zwanda and I can be brutally honest with each other.
It was an email you pray will never be written about you. The message came from an African friend, Zwanda (not his real name). Zwanda and I can be brutally honest with each other. He’s quick to tell me when I make an ethnocentric American statement, and I feel free to challenge his assumptions when appropriate. One day he wrote me about an “American expert” who had just trained with him in southern Africa. Zwanda wrote:
I am in recovery at the moment. I have just hosted for a week an American who works for Youth Leadership Dynamics [pseudonym], and it has been a disaster. He presented a workshop. The essence of what he presented was really good, but I have never met anyone more insensitive to a local culture, nor a more proud, pushy and condescending person in my whole life. We clashed over cultural issues from the moment he arrived. I even told him that he is terminally offensive in our culture. He said he is transcultural and that he is not American but biblical in his values. He never once asked to see anything that I had done, as if nothing we have is worth anything.
I wonder if the “prayer update” this American leader sent to his supporters upon his return read like this: “I failed miserably. I couldn’t overcome my American assumptions. It would have been better if I had never trained in the first place.” Somehow, I suspect it was more like this: “God used me in amazing ways. People soaked in the material that here we just take for granted. Because you supported me on this trip, Africa’s church will never be the same. Thank you.”
I’ve spent much time studying Western church leaders’ training initiatives in non-Western contexts. Certainly there’s compelling need to serve the global church with theological and leadership training.
The growth of the church around the world is producing a shortage of theologically equipped pastors and church leaders:
- Approximately 2.2 million evangelical churches are spread around the world;
- 85 percent are led by men and women who have no theological training;
- 7,000 new church leaders are needed daily to care for the growing church;
- If every Christian training institute in the world operated at 120 percent capacity, less than 10 percent of the unequipped leaders would be trained (WEA 1999).
These statistics awaken my passion for offering theological training and equipping for church leaders. But I find great dissonance with my desire to work hard at meeting this need and my fear of perpetuating the subtle but real imperialistic tendencies we bring to these training endeavors.
I did a study comparing North American pastors’ descriptions of their experiences training cross-culturally with how national pastors and leaders described those same experiences. The cross-cultural trainings I studied ranged in length from ten days to two weeks. Listed below are statements often made by those from whom I collected data. Consider the blatant contradictions in how these pastors described their experiences and how the national pastors received the North Americans’ teaching.
American Pastors who conducted training—”They’re so hungry for the training we offer.”
National pastors who sat under the training—“You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.”
Here’s a sampling of what the North American pastors said, either in face-to-face interviews or in journal entries:
- I was surprised at the hunger and thirst.
- The training was outstanding. I think they were hungry, very hungry. I would even say more hungry overseas than they are here because they’re looking for more effective ways and tools.
- They would sit and listen. They wouldn’t get up and go to the bathroom every five minutes or say “I need a break” every couple hours. They were enduring heat, humidity, the small environment. They were spellbound listening to the message, the methodology, the format, the how-tos and the philosophy.
- These are the next generation of leaders. They are hungry for truth. They are zealous for God. They [are] anxious to apply their learning.
- It was fresh and new [like] they had never heard it before. They
really soaked it in.
- They were so thirsty. They just hung on every word.
I asked the trainers how they drew these conclusions. Responses ranged from “I just sensed it from questions they asked and how they intently listened” to “I asked if they were tracking, and they said ‘yes.’” Others drew upon nonverbal feedback, concluding that nodding heads and note-taking implied learning was occurring. A brutally honest recipient of the training, however, said that trainees were simply fascinated with the teacher’s behavior. This national leader was one of many who challenged notions that people were hungry for the training. Other statements the nationals made included:
- It was a nice day but I don’t think what they taught would ever work here. But if it makes them feel like they can help us in ways beyond supporting our ministry financially, we’re willing to listen to their ideas. (My paraphrase—”We endured it for the money!”)
- I’m glad the trainers felt respected. They should. What they need to realize, however, is that we would never think about talking or getting up to leave in the middle of their lecture. It would be repulsive to do that to a teacher in our culture.
- I wish we could have shared more about the real challenges we’re facing in our ministry. How do I lead a church when most of our godly men have lost their lives in battle? How do I help a parent care for their AIDS baby? Those are my pressing issues, not growing my church bigger or starting a second service. I didn’t get that whole discussion.
Any teacher should know that even in one’s own culture, it’s dangerous to assess too quickly whether learning is occurring, especially if that assessment is purely intuitive or based upon a few comments. “They’re so hungry” versus “We were just intrigued by your foreign behavior” was only the first of several discrepancies between teachers’ and students’ descriptions of the training.
North American pastors—”We’ve got to do something. The window of opportunity is NOW!”
National pastors—“You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.”
Several of the North American pastors said, “We’ve got to do something,” before, during and after the training. Of course, the urgency that comes with wanting to seize an opportunity can be a good thing. But might our desire to jump in and do something reflect a human-centered theology of missions rather than a God-centered one?
Indigenous expressions of Christ’s church exist in every geopolitical nation of the world. At the same time, the entrepreneurial drive of American culture seeps into our missions endeavors and cross-cultural leadership development projects. When we hear of the global church’s relentless growth, we’re inspired to bring our value-added contributions. But while the North American pastors talked about urgency, the nationals talked about the importance of process and taking time to grow in relationship before creating a strategy for mutually beneficial exchanges.
North American pastors—“The issues we deal with are pretty much the same.”
National pastors-—“You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.”
Almost every North American remarked on the similarity of church issues addressed cross-culturally. Whether youth ministry, elder boards, church discipline, getting members to buy into vision, or dealing with members’ expectations of the pastor, most North Americans concluded church is church, wherever you go.
Looking for sameness in unfamiliar contexts is natural. Anderson and Ray (2001, 41) wrote,
When we travel to a new country, we feel an almost irresistible impulse to smooth over the strangeness, the distinct particularity of the people we meet. We slip seamlessly into supposing that they are just like ourselves, and we almost forget to marvel at the differences. It’s not until we have dwelt in the new country long enough to be shocked, repeatedly, at the wrongness of our assumptions that we begin to notice the crucial things we have missed.
One North American trainer said, “I wish I had spent less time studying the culture and the differences because I was really more struck by the similiarities.”
While hesitant to be too critical, more than half of the national pastors were frustrated that the North American pastors talked about successful American churches with little awareness of many far bigger churches elsewhere. Defaulting to suburban North American church practices permeated the training. One national pastor in Brazil said:
During our class, I was describing the challenges our church is facing in our Bible study groups. I shared how our adolescents rarely feel free to speak up because of some dominant older members. The trainer immediately started to tell me why this proves our need for a specific program for young people. I told him we were resisting that trend out of a desire to keep the generations together. He laughed and said, “That’s where the American church was forty years ago but you’re going to have to develop a strong youth ministry or you’ll lose those kids.”
May we repent of our imperialistic drive to mold indigenous societies into our own wineskins of what church should be. Instead, may we serve their own discoveries of Christianity.
North American pastors—“Teach biblical principles. Those are always transcultural.”
National pastors—“You describe a different Jesus than the one we know.”
I usually get empathy from sharing what I’ve shared thus far. People respond, “That’s horrible!” with gasps and dismay. But when I move to this one, many furrow their brows. Every North American trainer made some version of the statement, “Teach biblical principles. Those are always transcultural.” “How do you argue with the Bible?” The argument goes, “If the Bible isn’t cross-cultural, then we have a more basic problem. We’ve moved out of the realm of orthodoxy.”
But who decides which principles of the Bible are truly transcultural? How do you extrapolate principles devoid of culture? This is a hermeneutical question more than anything else but it bears weight on a discussion of what it looks like to conduct cross-cultural training.
I’ve spent the last several years working for a ministry that touts, “We teach timeless, transferable principles, therefore our biblical strategy applies worldwide, whatever the context.” One North American pastor in my study who was teaching material from this organization said, “The same plan that Jesus used 2,000 years ago is the same plan we must use today. That’s the beauty of our training philosophy. It works everywhere. Don’t tell me it doesn’t work in your context. You have to make it work.”
This trainer, and most others in the study, appeared to view the Bible as the “Word of God, pure and simple, rather than the Word of God as mediated through the life experiences and cultural settings of the biblical authors” (Noll 1994, 133). Scripture was most often alluded to as a way to validate leadership principles or other concepts being prescribed.
God’s redemptive story is unquestionably applicable to every tribe, nation and tongue. But our understanding of that story is always skewed by our cultural context. At the very least, our cultural biases should be acknowledged up front when teaching from the Word at any time, but especially overseas. My perceptions of Jesus are wrought with twenty-first century Western assumptions. I need to grow in gaining a more accurate first century picture of Jesus.
The other interesting assumption connected to this claim, “Teach biblical principles,” was the corresponding thought, “And don’t use illustrations.” This was rooted in the concern that illustrations aren’t cross-cultural, but biblical principles are. “Just teach the principles,” the trainers said. The concern for not exporting North American stories and programming is commendable, but without illustrations, the national pastors complained they were given purely abstract information with no help in implementation.
North American pastors—“We have so much. They have so little.”
National pastors—“You call us backward for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders. You talk about us to your churches back home in such demeaning ways.”
If I haven’t offended you by now, this one may push you over the edge. As a privileged white male, writing at a cozy Starbucks in the Chicago ‘burbs, how can I take issue with the statement, “We have so much, they have so little”? Let me preface this by saying that I am deeply concerned by the lopsided share of resources in the West and urgently want to be among many church voices calling to change that.
But with a fervor for generosity, I must bear in mind conversations like the one I had with my friend Ashish (pseudonym) at Gino’s Pizzeria in Chicago. While there, we ran into another friend of mine and his youth group. The group had just returned from a missions trip to Central America. Ashish asked them, “What did you learn from your trip?” Student after student obsessed about “those poor people.”
After the youth group left, Ashish said to me, “Why do they assume we want more? What makes them think we’re so poor?” To which I jumped in and said, “Ashish, Give me a break. It’s so hard to get these kids’ minds off of their consumeristic passions. I’m really grateful to hear they saw their relative wealth in a developing nation.” Ashish rebutted, “Well that’s nice and all but I’m so sick of the sympathy of Westerners who think we need more stuff. Why would that have anything to do with our happiness? Please don’t help import the idol of consumerism into our land.”
He told me about the group of American pastors just with him in Punjab. They were concerned about the bicycle Ashish used to get back and forth to his church. They learned how “inexpensively” they could buy a little car. They told him they had decided to pitch in and buy him one. “The last thing I wanted was a car,” Ashish told me. “I had to find a tactful way of telling them that if they really wanted to invest in something, I had several members in my church who could use some help setting up a microenterprise development project. But I think I kind of rained on their parade.”
This youth group was a lot younger than the North American pastors I studied, but the cross-cultural experience “take-away” was similar for both groups. When I asked the trainers about their training trips’ influence on their lives, most talked about the disparity of resources: “We are so blessed and they have so little.” “I’m so encouraged by how much they do with so little.” “I have it so good and I never want to take it for granted after seeing the joy in these people’s faces even though they have so little.”
I’m well aware that many people’s weekly wage is equal to the latté I’m sipping. That’s problematic. But how might our sympathy for fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in developing nations lead us toward treating them in demeaning ways? Our wealth creates all kinds of power issues. As much as we want to talk about two-way relationships between churches from one culture to another, national leaders who feel safe to be honest may confess that they see the need to keep the “partnering” church in the West happy so that funds keep flowing.
So should we abandon all attempts at short-term training? Midway through my study I was tempted to answer with a resounding “YES!” But I have great hope for redeeming the efforts and well-meaning intentions of churches and leaders in the West who want to be involved with their counterparts beyond simply sending money.
Keys for Effective Cross-cultural Training
1. Core values of the trainer and content. The values and ethos of the trainer, his or her ministry, and the content being taught permeates the whole cross-cultural learning experience. For example, if the trainer comes from an organization that teaches a prescriptive model for ministry or a Western-driven leadership model, it’s doomed to fail. The obvious offenders are those who simply take what they’ve developed for a US context, translate it, and expect it to be transformational elsewhere.
But more subtle are those who biblicize their cultural forms of ministry and contend that they’re cross-cultural because they’re biblical. If the training is handled as a way to convey knowledge from trainer to student, it’s not likely to result in learning and empowerment for ministry.
I have great hope for the success of training initiatives led by organizations and trainers that hold conclusions loosely, question assumptions and truly seek to help other leaders create empowering ministry, built on theological and personal principles proper to their own contexts.
2. Selection of trainers. It’s vital to select the right people. The senior or missions pastor in an international church partnership may not be the best one to lead such training. Here’s what they need:
Relational strength. Affinity will communicate. Even when cultural offenses occur, and they will, a relational “bank” goes a long way. When selecting a trainer, consider: How does he or she interact with people stateside? Are they intuitive to the people’s needs? Do they ask questions well and remove attention from themselves? Can they laugh at themselves?
Reflective in praxis. Leaders who question their assumptions based upon what they see in a foreign context are more effective. Do they show insight when describing other cross-cultural experiences? Do they have an unhealthy confidence level? Are they willing to question how they think and act? Does a theoretical framework guide their interactions? Are they lifelong learners?
Cautious in using examples. Illustrations, while rooted in culture, are vital parts of cross-cultural training. Do potential trainers exhibit a knack for showing the application of ideas without giving an illustration as the “right” way to apply the concept? Can they move freely between theory and application?
Secure in their contexts. Sometimes Americans think deprecating our own culture and all it represents is the best way to establish credibility abroad. Grasping that American culture has many weaknesses is good, but devaluing it or acting as if everything is bad in our society is not. How do they view and describe stateside culture? How well do they understand cultural dynamics?
3. Preparation of those who train. Good pre-departure training improved the effectiveness of those who showed the above shortcomings. The best pre-departure training helps trainees glean meaning rather than just giving information about a culture.
4. The duration of the training sojourn. While the Anderson study shows that a person’s first immersion abroad leads him or her to gloss over differences while seeking similarities with one’s own context, that begins to change at six weeks, and even more at three months, six months, a year and so on. But even extended immersion is no guarantee one has acculturated.
More extended cross-cultural immersion is likely to foster better training partnerships than just a two-week training trip. But abandoning the two-week model isn’t the only alternative. These trainings can be part of a broad plan for partnership.
Training is a means to an end. The long-term value of blowing into a place one time, sharing information, and moving to the next stop is questionable at best. But long-term partnerships built on relationships and learning from one another can strengthen Christ’s church on both sides of the globe. Partnership implies learning is truly mutual. The Western church would be well served to sit under the teaching of many of the two-thirds world’s leaders.
As one who does a lot of leadership training overseas, I have more questions than answers about what it takes to effectively serve the church in this regard. But the richest part of my own cross-cultural training has been forging relationships with brothers like Zwanda and Ashish who help me more clearly see who I really am. That, in turn, makes me more effective in learning with God’s people scattered around the globe.
I still want to see theological and leadership training offered to national church leaders around the world. But may we hold our passion to serve with training that’s in tandem with a strong belief in what God is doing among his people everywhere. We need a belief that moves us toward the shared destiny of Revelation 7:9, when more people than we can count from every nation, tribe, people and language will stand before the throne in front of the Lamb.
Anderson, Sherry Ruth and Paul H. Ray. 2001. The Cultural Creatives: How Fifty Million People Are Changing the World. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Livermore, David A. 2002. The Emperor’s New Clothes: Experiences of Stateside Church Leaders Who Train Cross-culturally. Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University.
Noll, Mark. 1994. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
World Evangelical Alliance. October 10-15 1999. “Report on Global Consultation on Evangelical Missiology” Presented at Global Consultation on Evangelical Missiology. Iguassu, Paraña, Brazil.
David Livermore is executive director of the Global Ministry Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and co-founder of Intersect, a ministry that provides leadership training and consulting to emerging leaders around the world. David and Linda Livermore live in Grand Rapids, Mich., with their two daughters.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 458-466. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.