by Ed Stetzer
The evangelical world has become enamored with the idea of multicultural church planting teams in the last few years. This approach has yielded great promise but also many problems (Roembke 2000, ix), particularly in the area of relationships.
The evangelical world has become enamored with the idea of multicultural church planting teams in the last few years. This approach has yielded great promise but also many problems (Roembke 2000, ix), particularly in the area of relationships. The greatest problem among many mission entities is missionaries not getting along (Elmer 1993, 33). The multicultural element makes the situation even more challenging.
Recently, I made a move from teaching at a predominantly white, southern seminary to serving as the director of a national church planting training program at the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. This new position involved a shift to working in a predominantly multicultural work environment and has encouraged me to pursue the issues contained in this article.
As I work on a multicultural church planting team with a Filipino leader while partnering with an African-American team leader and working with a dozen ethnic national missionaries, I see more clearly my need to function as a multicultural team member. Furthermore, I recently taught on the subject at the request of the Malaysian Baptist Theological Seminary. It is obvious there is a substantial interest in the topic among church planting missionaries around the world. This article is intended to provide some introductory thoughts on this subject.
When working in a multicultural team, the team member must not focus just on adjusting to the host culture, he or she must simultaneously adjust to the multiple cultures represented on the team. This creates some challenging interactions. Conflicts will arise among team members that will hinder the work if these adjustments are not made (Mackin 1992, 134).
There are obvious benefits to the idea of multicultural teams. When God created the world, he pronounced it good. This proclamation allows us to celebrate the diversity of God’s creation in cultures (Elmer 1993, 13). Thus, although there are challenges, there are also great benefits. Here I will analyze the purpose and function, look at the advantages and disadvantages, and address the promise of multicultural teams.
A multicultural team is “a group of missionaries from different cultural backgrounds working together in one location” (Roembke 2000, 3). Teams tend to “work best in and bring a lot of value to fast-moving, uncertain, non-routine environments in which interdependent people must perform at exceptional levels” (MacMillan 2001, 23). Church planting is a strong candidate for teams—particularly multicultural teams.
There is much written on both secular teams and cross-cultural ministry. There is little available on cross-cultural (multicultural) ministry teams. Roembke has written the most thorough treatise on the topic, and recommends a team consisting of a majority of nationals (plus one), a maximum of two expatriate cultures, and of five to eight persons in size (Roembke 2000, 211). A higher number of expatriates from one culture can lead to a concentration of power in the hands of that group (Roembke 2000, 212).
Decreased suspicion. Multicultural church planting teams have the obvious advantage that they are not viewed as cultural imperialists. For example, a group of West African Ashanti missionaries seeking to reach the predominantly Muslim Wala in northwest Ghana will be viewed with suspicion. The Wala would be suspicious since the Ashanti have historically dominated the area. However, if an Ashanti missionary is teamed with a West African Fanti, a Korean, and, even better, a Wala, the team’s reception will tend to be much more positive.
The obvious, but often overstated, parallel is the US missionary. The Western missionary is often saddled with many stereotypes that can be countered in a multicultural team, particularly if that team is led by the nationals or the nonWesterner. It is important to note that this is not strictly a Western phenomenon. A group of Japanese nationals would likely be distrusted in Korea, Russians in Kazakhstan and even a New Yorker in Alabama.
Experience. Another value is the experience of the team members. Persons from different cultures bring different experiences to the task. They also bring different interpretations of their experience to the context—presenting new and unique views of ministry.
My own mission agency seeks to partner with state conventions to plant churches in the US. The majority of these churches are ethnic or African-American. Mark Hobofcovici, our national missionary for European ministries, obviously knows more than I do about planting churches among Romanians. However, in a recent meeting I discovered he has tremendous insights on cross-cultural ministry in other settings as well. His church planting experience is different than mine; he brings different problem solving skills to the task that produce unique insights. His worldview enables him to exercise wisdom that I do not have—and vice versa.
Chalke expresses it well: "The best kind of team is one that represents a diversity of opinion. If you surround yourself with others who are guaranteed always to agree with you, the inevitable result will be mediocrity" (1998, 13).
Modeling. The team needs to exhibit true community from the beginning. Even team training should occur in a multicultural setting (Roembke 2000, 205). Team building exercises must promote unity in the multicul-tural team. The team needs to model the New Testament community and invite the host culture to participate. The ability to function as a harmonious team is more than an idealistic goal—it is a function of biblical theology (Roembke 2000, 234). It must be emphasized at every step.
Most cultures place great value on community. If we cannot model effective community among Christians, there is no human reason for others to be attracted to Christ (Elmer 1993, 32). Jesus taught that our faith would be evidenced by our love for one another (John 13:34-35; 1 John 4:7-8). This is best seen when a team is modeling
Christ-like unity in a multicul-tural setting.
There are some obvious disadvantages to multicultural teams. The challenge of relating to a host culture causes culture shock. Many missionaries are unable to bridge the bicultural divide. A multicultural team inserts an added dimension beyond the host culture. Multicultural teams “add stress to an already stressful situation” (Roembke 2000, 105). These challenges tend to focus on areas of financial inequity, delayed strategizing and cross-cultural conflict.
Financial Inequities. The inequity of finances is always a challenge. This is a high visibility issue and can often be a stumbling block to team formation (Roembke 2000, 105). Missionaries tend to be funded at different levels depending on the country of origin. The standard of living of the country of origin tends to determine the salary of each missionary. Each missionary is sacrificing by his or her own frame of reference. But the income of an Indian missionary still seems astronomical to a Nigerian or Bengali missionary. Financial inequities cannot be ignored. They must be acknowledged and discussed if team-ship is to be engendered.
Delayed strategizing. Moving into a new culture requires a sequence of observing, understanding, assimilating and appreciating (Roembke 2000, 81). This process often involves culture shock or, at the least, cultural fatigue. This is multiplied for each close relationship with a team member from a distinct culture. A team made up of a Tamil, a Westerner and a Malaysian Chinese seeking to reach the indigenous Malaysian tribal Iban would need not one cultural adjustment but four. The Malaysian Chinese may still be adjusting to the autocratic leadership style of the Westerner while not addressing the indigenous dance style of the Iban. All of this adjustment within the team will slow the process of strategizing and relating to the host culture.
If the team does not interact frequently, the issue is less pronounced. The assumption of multicultural teams is that they will function as a team—with group decision-making and team consensus. In the example above, there are four cultural bridges that need simultaneous construction. While learning the culture of the host people group, there is the added burden of adjusting to one’s teammates. This prolongs the process of preparation and strategizing.
Cross-cultural conflict. The most common problem is cross-cultural conflict. Typically this is conflict between the sending culture and the host culture, but in a cross-cultural team the conflicts are between the sending cultures and the host culture.
These conflicts are inevitable, but do not necessarily have to breach trust. Paul and Barnabas, though mature missionaries, had differences so extreme they parted ways (Reombke 2000, 29). As fallen creatures, the natural reaction is to assume a negative motivation on the part of the other person (Elmer 1993, 21). Multicultural teams must be proactive in dealing with conflict. The seemingly inevitable must be intentionally overcome if a multicultural team is to be effective.
When dealing with conflict, the American on the team may expect a clear expression of ideas and identification of points of conflict, while the Asian may value the feelings and reputation of those involved—not wanting anyone to lose face. Asians often do not separate the person from the problem—thus, there is no way to “attack” the problem without attacking the person (Elmer 1993, 49). A more circular approach is needed. Americans tend to view this as duplicitous, not helpful. Even the solutions to conflict are fraught with more conflict.
Cultural values can be seen in four ways: some are clearly right (hospitality, etc.); some are clearly wrong (child sacrifice); some fall into a gray area (alcoholic beverages); and some are neutral (the “personal space” in a culture) (Mackin 1992, 135). In the vast majority of instances, conflicts are not theological (right, wrong or even gray areas) but relational (Elmer 1993, 135). The efficacy of our faith is demonstrated when we can minister within the framework of a New Testament team as we proclaim the hope of that faith to others.
Cross-cultural sensitivity is essential because each represented culture will naturally assume that its rules for conflict management are the best (Elmer 1993, 21). This brief paper cannot address the issue, but a strategy for dealing with cross-cultural conflict must be identified and consistently followed.
One author described the team development process as “forming, storming, norming and performing.” In the forming state, the expectations are not yet clear, and there is a tentative approach to interaction. The storming state tends to be evidenced by conflict, differences and antagonism among group members. The norming state is when group cohesion begins to develop as conflicts are resolved and members accept the team. The performing stage is when relationships are truly established, the team has a clear purpose and its goals are being reached (IMB, CD-ROM).
Each of these stages is challenging and fraught with danger. One key to overcoming obstacles is having common goals. Common goals promote teamship and cooperation. The goals must be clear (We see it), relevant (We want it), significant (It’s worth it), achievable (We believe it) and urgent (We want it… now!) (MacMillan 2001, 48-49). With clear and compelling goals, a multicultural team is motivated to work through the challenges.
Team selection. The first step in team development is team selection. Management theorists believe teams should be selected on the basis of competence, personal attributes and the ability to function on a team (Chalke 1998, 62). Additional attributes to be considered in a multicultural team include national representation, cultural appropriateness, gender and other attributes determined by the host culture.
There is no more important issue in multicultural church planting team development than that of common vision. The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a team concept in the mid-1990s (though not usually a multicultural approach). The approach was sound, but some team members who signed on as theological educators or community developers were not equipped or passionate about the new goal of the team—planting churches. It is not possible to unify a team that is committed to different objectives. The leader can manage conflict and mollify complaints, but a work team cannot be formed. Team unity requires a common vision and purpose. This is not as easy as it may appear.
Because of the nature of teamwork all teams are really made up of volunteers (MacMillan 2001, 29). People can be assigned to teams and can even be fired if they do not perform as desired, but this does not ensure effectiveness. Individuals must be willing to function on teams if teams are to function effectively. An uncooperative team member, placed on a team by a forward thinking denominational agency, is a recipe for disaster. The most important question to ask of a team member is, “Are you deeply committed to the team and its assignment?”
A team needs to hold in common its destination, starting point and route (Chalke 1998, 67). The destination should be clear before the team is formed. The starting point can be defined in early team discussion. The route will be best determined through group decision-making.
To understand the team, one must see its formation as a progression. This process will occur during the time normally reserved for learning and ministering to the host culture. Moreover, the team must see the value of the process or it will become tired of the journey.
Leadership style. A second issue that often arises is the role and function of leadership. There are certain universal biblical truths regarding leadership—obedience to leaders is required at times (Heb.13:17), but also leaders are not to “Lord over” (1 Pet. 5) but to serve those under their influence (Matt. 23:11).
Outside of some general biblical teaching, culture determines much of how leadership is practiced in each cultural setting. As mentioned earlier, my new team leader, Kenneth Tan, is Filipino. If I am to be effective in my role, I must both understand his leadership style and find a way to relate to that style. As an aggressive New Yorker, it is my task to determine how to relate to him—and his task is to learn how to relate to me.
It would be much easier if he were a New Yorker (ironically, he lived in New York for many years but not in my Irish neighborhood of the Yankees and hot dogs). We have to learn how to function as a team. For example, Filipinos sometimes prefer to provide leadership and direction through a third person. New Yorkers (the Irish kind at least) tend to address leadership through clear and impersonal directions. Both are valid, so we must learn to work together to be an effective team operating across cultural boundaries.
When a multicultural team is involved (particularly in an international setting), a common acceptable leadership style must be chosen. The host culture should be the most important determinant in how team leadership functions (Roembke 2000, 153). Perhaps the best expression of identification with the host culture is when the missionary can serve under national leadership (Roembke 2000, 162).
Leadership should maximize communication and motivation. Scripture tells us to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We must learn how to love a team member from another culture and how to present the truth in a way that does not cause offense (Mackin 1992, 136).
Effective leaders put people ahead of projects (Chalke 1998, 21). They recognize that the team must build its foundation before the task can be accomplished. In a multicultural team, if the leader fails to focus on people, the team will cease to function properly and the project will fail.
Non-work relationships. Teams do more than work together. A team can be said to have achieved community when the members want to spend time together outside of the work setting. I once observed a multicultural team meet to plan a strategy. The meeting went well. Each participant went to great lengths to be courteous and respectful of the opinions and cultures of the others. But, when the meeting adjourned, the group broke up for fellowship along cultural lines. The group had not reached a full sense of team. They may have worked hard for cultural tolerance but were not able to experience teamship.
Other issues. There are other issues not mentioned here that are still essential.For example, the role of women on teams (particularly in non-egalitarian cultures), appropriate behavior between the sexes (married and unmarried), appropriate physical contact, concepts of promptness, views of accountability, team language choice, etc. These are thoroughly addressed in other places, so their lack of discussion here does not indicate a lack of importance. These issues will be unique to each cultural expression and can only be addressed in cross-cultural discussion. A helpful resource to begin conversation is When Cultures Collide: Managing Successfully across Cultures. The book is an encyclopedia-type reference of world cultures which provides a resource for discussion in cross-cultural relationships.
The process of developing a multicultural team is difficult. The current emphasis on multicultural teams will experience a predictable backlash in the next few years as agencies begin to realize the difficulties of the process. Many will be encouraged to pursue the endeavor as successful models become more common and available. Currently, most of the literature and training on the subject addresses the problems, but there are few successes to imitate.
Nevertheless, there is great value in multicultural church planting teams. However, they are not a panacea. Sometimes the work is not worth the return. This is particularly true of short-term teams who spend more time adjusting to other sending cultures than ministering to the host culture. Still, for teams willing to dedicate themselves to the process, there is no greater witness than God’s people from every “tongue, tribe, and nation” functioning together to add another tribe to the mosaic that is the Kingdom of God. The sine qua non of a faith that claims to be worldwide is a worldwide (multicultural) expression of that faith and its missionary impulse.
Chalke, Steve. 1998. Making a Team Work. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications.
Elmer, Duane. 1993. Cross-Cultural Conflict. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
International Mission Board. “KS Teams AND Stages of TeamDev” [CD-ROM].
Lewis, Richard D. 2000. When Cultures Collide: Managing Successfully across Cultures. Sonoma, Calif.: Nicholas Brealey.
Mackin, Sandra L. 1992. “Multinational teas: smooth as silk or rough as rawhide?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 28.2:134-40.
MacMillan, Pat. 2001. The Performance Factor. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Roembke, Lianne. 2000. Building Credible Multicultural Teams. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Ed Stetzer, is a former church planter and seminary professor. He works with the North American Mission Board to help schools train church planters. His new book is Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age. Stetzer’s web page is www.newchurches.com.
EMQ, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 498-505. Copyright © 2003 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.