by Victor Hugo Cuartas
A broad look at ethnic and cultural diversity, principles in relation to diversity, and challenges for those in global settings today.
God’s love for humankind is astonishing, and he has a heart for all kinds of people. Diversity is a gift from God, and the Body of Christ needs to learn how to improve in celebrating differences. Ethnic, gender, generational, doctrinal, and theological diversity need to be recognized more intentionally if believers want to advance God’s kingdom. This article will focus on ethnic and cultural diversity, addressing principles in relation to diversity. I will conclude with some challenges of ethnic diversity in global missions today.
Principles in Relation to Diversity
God is the one who established diversity. It is remarkable that God, the creator of the universe, enjoys diversity. “In the quest to recognize and to appreciate diversity of ethnic groups, care must be taken to avoid ethnic labeling and stereotyping” (Breckenridge and Breckenridge 1995, 89). “There is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free. We are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, emphasis added). The following elements are needed if we are to work together for the expansion of God’s kingdom.
First, focus on Christ. He is our inspiration and example. He died on the cross for all our iniquities. His ministry was powerful and his compassion and love for different kinds of people was evident. In the Gospel of John, we find the account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Jesus did not reject her because of her nationality; instead, he spoke with her and met her specific need. Jesus revealed himself as Messiah to the Samaritan woman and everything changed (John 4:1-26). When we focus on Christ, we can complete the task regardless of the obstacles and challenges. It is not about us, but it is about working together to bless people who still need to hear the message of salvation.
I remember the extreme difficulties we experienced in Colombia (South America) during the 1990s. In the middle of chaos and turbulence, God showed his mercy and love. When pastors and missionaries began to work together in unity and love, seeing the city as a whole, we began to experience spiritual transformation in the city. Repentance and forgiveness were crucial in the process.
Second, develop a sense of interdependent work. To work with people from other cultures requires developing a sense of community. We need each other, and everything each person on the team does affects everybody else. Thus, values are important when it comes to teamwork. It is paramount to share a common set of principles with others. The substitute to mistrust and paternalism in the relationship between people from different cultures is not independence and self-sufficiency—it is interdependence. And interdependence “comes with a deeper understanding of unity in Christ” (Nissen 1997, 140).
Why are we working together? What is the main reason? These questions are essential for us because they help us to learn from each other. Denominations, churches, and missionary agencies need to develop an interdependent spirit among their staff and team members.
For example, there is an increasing effort among missionary agencies and churches to send missionaries from different backgrounds and ethnicities. These multi-cultural teams are generally very well received, and add a dimension that is very powerful in gospel witness.
Third, engage in mutual submission. Jesus gave us his example by submitting himself to the will of his Father. Paul also exhorts us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Submission requires us to be humble and respect each other. This kind of submission is based upon our love for God and for each other. Unbelievers will notice when we are exercising mutual submission and accountability. This is for the benefit of the growth of the kingdom.
Mutual submission is paramount in global missions. Despite the fact that many Hispanic missionaries have experienced challenges in this regard, I have noticed a growth in the area of mutual submission. Something that is helping many missionaries is to share openly their expectations and to maintain constant communication with the leadership. This is a continuous area of growth for all of us. The challenge is to learn to celebrate and value the gifts and talents God has given to others. This spirit of celebration and recognition will help us to experience the joy in serving and helping others.
Fourth, focus on the kingdom. Challenges and friction that come in dealing with diverse people on our teams can be alleviated by the fact that everything we do together will advance God’s kingdom. One of the challenges that we may face is to be driven by personal interest rather than kingdom principles. We are part of God’s kingdom and God has entrusted to us a marvelous commission. We can strengthen each other knowing that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Rom. 8:37).
One missionary couple in North Africa learned this lesson recently. They began with a project helping the community, but realized that the project was not advancing well. They decided to involve people from their community and realized that they were missing important aspects in the project. By listening to the people among whom they were serving, they were able to make the necessary adjustments to improve their service.
Last, be flexible. Every person involved in missions knows the importance of flexibility. This is a crucial aspect to be considered if we want to work with multiple ethnic people groups. Frustration and resistance arise when team members are not often willing to be flexible. There needs to be common ground that facilitates the communication and dynamics within the group. Working on a multi-cultural team requires being flexible. For instance, the sense of time is different in every culture. We cannot assume that everybody will react in the same manner that we do.
Let me share a specific example. Juan realized that he had to learn a new skill on the field. He was very frustrated in the beginning with the idea of having to spend time preparing lessons. He never thought that one day God would use his teaching to minister to children in Morocco. He and his wife are very happy today serving these needy children.
The bottom line is we need to be flexible when something new or different is required. The attitude of the heart reflects our willingness to serve others. Change is something we cannot avoid or ignore. How we respond in the midst of frustration is essential.
Challenges of Working with Diverse Ethnic Groups
There are a number of challenges we may face when working with diverse ethnic groups.
First, diversity can decrease efficiency on the field. Ethnic diversity can have both a positive and a negative impact on the productivity of the people working together. The challenge has to do with managing a diverse team. Typically, working with people from different ethnicities takes more time. Planning and determining specific goals are just part of the process of developing a healthy approach for managing diverse teams. This reality can produce frustration among the leadership. Thus, leaders and missionaries involved in managing must be prepared to effectively deal with the tension of lowering productivity on some projects on the field. What are the expectations from the agencies and churches? Are we going to focus on the task, or the people? Are we willing to adjust and be flexible?
For instance, we sent one couple to serve in South Asia. The sending church provided all the necessary help. The Hispanic couple began the process of adaptation in the new country. When they began to work with other couples, they realized something was missing. At the beginning, they were told they would become the lead couple of the missionary team. However, the nationals suggested some changes as they began to work with other missionaries. The couple ended up accepting their new role for the benefit of the team. This new process took more time than was initially expected. However, we had a positive outcome. The attitude of the Hispanic couple made the difference. The support of the other team members was also crucial.
Second, ethnic and cultural diversity often cause conflicts. Conflict is never easy, and it is very common when we are working with different people. Frequent causes of cross-cultural conflict include miscommunication, misattribution, incorrect information, and differing expectations, values, and behaviors.
According to Patty Lane, misattribution is a major cause of conflict. Misattribution is ascribing meaning or motive to behavior based upon one’s own culture. “Even different speech and voice can trigger responses that are unrelated to the reality of the situation. Being aware of misattribution is a big step in reducing conflict” (Lane 2002, 125). Consequences of unresolved conflicts include walls built between the people involved (Prov. 18:19), other walls are destroyed (Gal. 5:12), and confusion and sinful actions can result (James 3:16). It is important to appeal to the person who has the conflict with you (Matt. 18:15-17).
Third, there is a great need on the mission field for worship. Manuel, young and talented Hispanic missionary, joined a missionary team several years ago to help with a church-planting initiative in North Africa. Due to the urgent need, the leader decided to give Manuel the opportunity to lead worship. His talent was obvious, but he began to have problems with the rest of the team. He had the tendency to overreact when he was under pressure. The leader soon realized that Manuel was not prepared to deal with different issues in a new country. The need was urgent and the leader thought Manuel was the right person to lead worship because of his talents. Unfortunately, Manuel did not face the situation wisely, but instead decided to leave the team. Delegation requires wisdom and discernment, particularly when we are working with people from different ethnicities.
It is about God’s kingdom and his heart for creation. We have everything necessary to accomplish God’s vision. Unity is not optional among churches and missionary organizations. Consequently, through the power of the Holy Spirit we can work together to bless the people who have never heard the gospel (Matt. 28:18-20).
Breckenridge, James and Lillian Breckenridge. 1995. What Color Is Your God? Multicultural Education in the Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Lane, Patty. 2002. A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a Multicultural World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Nissen, Johannes. 1997. “Unity and Diversity: Biblical Models for Partnership.” Mission Studies 14: 121-146.
Victor Hugo Cuartas, DMin, has been involved in pastoral ministry and church planting for twenty years. Victor is assistant professor of practical ministry and intercultural studies at Regent University in Virginia. He serves as director of research for COMHINA, a missionary movement that mobilizes Hispanics in the United States and Canada for ministry to unreached people groups.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 448-452. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.