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Book Review: Ministering Cross-Culturally

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Photo Credit: Dru! via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Dru! via Compfight cc

There are few books that seem to continually crop up on recommended reading lists for cross-cultural workers. This book is one of them.

Ministering Cross-Culturally: An incarnational model for personal relationships
By Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers
Originally published in 1986, 124 pages

After seeing the title listed a few times I picked it up and read it before moving overseas. To be honest, at the time I wondered why it’s so popular!

Ministering Cross-Culturally is a sweeping view of how cultures approach different areas of life, forcing the reader to self-evaluate and get ready to be flexible. When I first read this book I’d already had the benefit of learning from mentors and reading on this topic. I was expecting some further “how-to” tips – some practical suggestions to apply. If you’re looking for practical, applied detail, this book isn’t for you.

But having re-read the book recently, I realize how helpful its content actually is. The goal of the book isn’t to compile a list of helpful suggestions, but to prepare and transform the person reading it. In this regard, it’s an excellent read.

150 percent personMinistering Cross Culturally

The book is bookended by the concept of becoming a “150 percent person” – and this was the main idea I took away from the book. Lingenfelter starts with Jesus’ example.

Jesus left the culture of heaven to come to earth, and became a 200% person – 100% man, 100% God. Jesus is our model for incarnational ministry because he did it perfectly: 100% Son of man, carpenter, Jewish Galilean, and 100% Son of God, fulfilling his Father’s will.

Lingenfelter argues that while we will never be completely 100% a member of our new culture (only possible by being born into that culture), “Our goal should be to become more than we are; for me it was to become at least part Yapese [his host culture], even if that meant being less than 100 percent American” (p24). Perhaps an attainable goal is to aim for 75%

He goes on to say:

We must love the people to whom we minister so much that we are willing to enter their culture as children, to learn how to speak as they speak, play as they play, eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep, study what they study, and thus earn their respect and admiration.

While we work to dive deeply into a new culture, taking on new skills and thought patterns, there are also losses. Moving towards a new culture in some ways separates us from our previous life. In Lingenfelter’s experience, for example, instead of being 100% American he identified as something like 75% American after living overseas for years.

This isn’t necessarily bad – it’s transformation! We’re learning to think in a new way. These losses are actually the way we make room in our thinking and our identities to embrace a new context. All this results in a new “150% person” – someone who can be a bridge between cultures. We end with more than we were before – cultural experiences shaping and adding to us.

Where do cultural tensions come from?

The bulk of the book hangs on the premise that the culture-stress we feel as we enter another culture primarily stems from a clash of deeply-held cultural values. And we many not even be aware of many of these values. We can be quick to assign wrong motives to someone, when the real issue is a fundamentally different approach.

Chapter 2 begins with a questionnaire. (Some people find these kind of self-inventories annoying – I love them!) The questionnaire’s goal is to help the reader think about his/her own personal values, and where they fit into the larger world culture picture. Lingenfelter pairs 12 values, creating 6 different spectrum, and then spends a chapter exploring each tension:

  • Time (Time vs. Event)
  • Judgment (Dichotomistic vs. Holistic thinking, or “Right vs. Left brain”)
  • Handling Crises
  • Goals (Person vs. Task orientation)
  • Self-Worth (Status vs. Achievement focus)
  • Vulnerability (Concealment vs. Willingness to show vulnerability)

Each chapter explores the values at different ends of the spectrum, how the Bible speaks to that tension, and finally a section on implications for cross-cultural ministry.

The chapter on tensions about time, for example, pits the values of Time orientation and Event orientation against each other. The idea is that you would have already taken the self-quiz to reveal where you fit on the spectrum, rating yourself against statements like, “I plan my daily and weekly activities. I am annoyed when my schedule or routine gets interrupted” or “I get annoyed at people who want to stop discussion and push the group to make a decision, especially when everybody has not had an opportunity to express their opinions” (p 31).

Lingenfelter recounts a common experience of going out to watch a film on his Micronesian island in the Time/Event chapter. A crowd starts to gather at 8:30pm in anticipation of watching a film. An hour later mostly everyone is there, and the movie finally starts around 10pm, because it would have been discourteous to start before everyone had arrived. Starting the movie includes getting the generator running, which could include about 30 minutes of taking the whole thing apart and making adjustments. Then the workers load the film into the projector slowly, socializing all the while. Often the generator breaks during the movie, which becomes a socializing break with drinks and snacks while it is repaired. If the generator could not be restarted, everyone gradually drifts home, considering the evening a successful social event.

How did this anecdote effect you? If you’re from a western culture (notoriously time-oriented), how long did it take for your anxiety level to rise? “I just wanted to watch a film! An entire evening to see the first 20 minutes? What a waste of my time!” Err… yes. If watching the movie was the goal. But if spending time with people was your goal, the time was well-spent! This is exactly what Clare was getting at when she said she’s learning to relate more with the people in front of her, rather than focusing merely on the task at hand.

Unearthing this kind of angst is exactly what Lingenfelter was aiming for. Not just a checklist – “Note to self: Try to focus more on the event and people than the end goal” – but priming yourself to recognize the points of stress as you enter a new culture. And more than recognizing them, to transform until you incorporate some of this new culture into your 150% identity.

Looking back, I can see why I read this and thought, “Yeah, yeah… heard this before.” If you’ve had any kind of cross-cultural training, this is familiar ground. But It’s said the longest trip a man must take is the 18 inches from his head to his heart. Internalizing this kind of thinking doesn’t happen overnight.

Becoming a 150% person takes time and loss and commitment. It’s not simply “learning new things” – it’s becoming a new person. Hopefully the next time you find yourself at a Micronesian film, instead of moaning over all the inefficiencies, assigning blame and bad motives, hopefully you’ll be one of the people chatting it up with a drink in hand. Because in the end you’ll have transformed to better relate with those you hope to serve – becoming, in the process, more than you were before.

The bottom line

Book in a nutshell: This book explores value tensions in world cultures, to enable people ministering cross-culturally to transform into a 150% person.

You should read this book if: You’re getting ready to move into a new culture, or want a general overview to help you relate to various cultures where you live. Also a great reminder for those who have been living cross-culturally.


Profile - GraceGrace is relieved that her childhood dreams didn’t come true – happy to be on God’s far better adventure with her family in the MidEast. She’s been told her writing makes people cry, and hopes that’s a good thing. Connect with her on Twitter: @ToWinSome

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