Do your Church Chairs Speak in Other Tongues?

When Church Growth Crosses Cultural Boundaries

Ray Wheeler, DMin. When Philip called and asked me to address his congregation about the challenges of mission I was intrigued. Philip (not his real name) grew up on the mission field. He led a congregation in an area of Western Washington that was growing in cultural diversity and growing in population. His congregation’s location placed them at ground zero of a neighborhood shift. Philip saw the potential for reaching literally around the globe by looking out from his office window. Every Sunday the people that sat in his church chairs spoke English, Spanish and Korean. However many of the people in Philip’s congregation saw a threat rather than an opportunity.

Philip understood part of the challenge his congregation faced, his experience growing up in a strange country and having to learn a new language had prepared him for part of what leading a multicultural congregation entailed. We met at a local restaurant for dinner prior to his evening service. Over dinner we talked about how to lead change and what to expect as his congregation faced the challenges of engaging cross-culturally in their own backyard.

We left the restaurant and headed for the church facilities. Philip asked me to wait a moment on the front porch of the building while he took a deep breath, opened the door ran for a storage cabinet pulled out an aerosol can of air freshener and proceeded to saturate the foyer with a sweet citrus smell. I will never forget the picture of Philip holding his breath, running from side to side in the foyer followed by a growing citrus mist and then exploding out the front doors exhaling as though his lungs were about to explode. He caught his breath and then exclaimed, “I hate the smell of kimchi. Why do the Koreans think they have to eat to worship?”

I stood there stunned for a moment with several thoughts running through my head, “What is wrong with the smell of kimchi I rather enjoy it…is that my German heritage talking…after all I love sauerkraut…does Philip hate sauerkraut? And wait a minute, he grew up in Latin America he always has food with worship…for that matter I grew up in a Lutheran church where the words ‘worship’ and ‘potluck’ were nearly synonymous.”

I witnessed the conflict Philip described at dinner – only now I witnessed it in Philip’s behavior. The three congregations that shared his facility (English, Spanish and Korean) all had different definitions of hospitality, cleanliness, responsibility and what constituted proper behavior for children. They all had different expectations for how the building should be used, when it should be used and how the other congregations should relate to them. Philip’s frustration with the conflicts grew by the week.

The Church was Born in Cultural Diversity

Conflict in the midst of cultural diversity is not new in the church. I remember laughing in relief one day as I read Acts 6 and noted a familiar challenge, “1In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1 NIV) Notice that all the components of a good cross-cultural story are present namely different language groups (Hebrew and Greek), different customs, different ways of relating, food and a complaint. If these components exist in your congregation you are on the way to seeing something powerful.

I find it interesting that Luke goes to very specific effort in Acts to point out that the Church was born in cultural diversity. Consider Acts 2 and the description of how the Church was born,

4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.  5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:4-12 NIV)

The significance of this description of Pentecost is that people understood the good news of God’s wondrous works because they heard in their own language. What a wonderful beginning yet even in the promise of being a new people of God the Church still has to work out the challenges that exist when different cultures attempt to communicate and relate.

Diversity Presents Unique Challenges and Opportunities

So, by looking at Acts I came to accept that conflict was not unusual in cross-cultural communication. Instead I came to understand that conflict indicated a growing movement toward a new view of the church. In intercultural studies we call this progression a development of intercultural sensitivity. Look at Figure 1. The second stage in developing intercultural sensitivity is “defense.” Defense is characterized by growing polarization and is frequently accompanied by conflict.

As in the book of Acts modern congregations also face the need to develop intercultural sensitivity that reflects the nature of the Church. In other words, God summons us to work out in behavior something already started in the promise of transformation that comes by knowing Christ. It is one thing to think that the church globally is one body when I imagine that body of people all speak English and use the same social assumptions I possess. It becomes much more challenging to face the reality that my worldview is not universal, that the Church around the world does not speak English and that I have to change to understand and experience this entity we call the Church.

Figure 1: Model of Intercultural Sensitivity [1]

Help Your Congregation See

Philip’s congregation was stuck in the third stage of intercultural development. They had worked through their initial conflicts and thought that the momentary equilibrium brought about by dictating how and when the building could be used by the Spanish and Korean congregations was intercultural sensitivity. However they had come to a false sense of cultural sensitivity assuming that their rules and customs were the norms to which the other congregations should adjust. Further, although they did not admit this openly or even consciously, they assumed that their culture was the foundational cultural view of Christianity. This tendency to mix one’s culture with the meaning of true Christianity is normal even if it is not biblically sound.

Philip’s congregation now had to take another look at their own cultural assumptions and recognize how their assumptions differed from others. In taking an honest look at how they were different from their sister congregations they began to move to the next stage of development called acceptance.

In order to understand Figure 1 it is important to define the words “ethnocentric” and “ethnorelative”. Ethnocentric describes the assumption that one’s own cultural worldviews equate with reality and as a result a person judges other cultures using the categories, assumptions and values of their own culture – often characterized by or based on the attitude that one’s own group is superior. This is the position Philip’s congregation found themselves when they faced their first cross-cultural conflict.

A person possessing an ethnorelative perspective is aware that one’s own cultural view is only one of many ways of seeing and being in the world. The awareness that different cultural norms, values and behaviors exist leads an ethnorelative individual to develop an ability to shift their perspectives to more successfully view the world through other culture’s perceptual lenses. It is important to know that ethnorelative does not mean compromising one’s own convictions. The development of a true ethnorelative perspective can only occur to the degree that a person identifies and owns their core values.

I used Hofstede’s five dimensions of dominate values systems to help Philip’s congregation define the cultural differences they experienced. These values affect human thinking, feeling and acting in predictable ways.[2] Hofstede’s five dimensions help define how cultural values differ from each other. Hofstede’s dimensions include:

Power distance: the extent to which the less powerful in a culture accept or expect that power is distributed unequally. The difference involved is the degree of human inequality that underlies the function of each particular society.

Uncertainty avoidance: the extent to which a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, or different from usual. The basic problem involved is the degree to which a society tries to control the uncontrollable.

Individualism/collectivism: the degree to which individuals are supposed to look after themselves or remain integrated into groups, usually around the family. Positioning itself between these poles is a very basic problem all societies face.

Masculinity/femininity: refers to the distribution of emotional roles between the genders, which is another fundamental problem for any society to which a range of solutions are found; it opposes “tough” masculine to “tender” feminine societies.

Long-term/short-term orientation:
refers to the extent to which a culture programs its members to accept delayed gratification of their material, social, and emotional needs.

Some will be tempted to ask, which view is the biblical one? A more useful question is how does the work of God alter the vales of a culture or individual who encounter God? This question avoids the ethnocentrism that defines God’s work by that which is closest to the values of the one asking the question. Remember the promise of transformation applies to all of us. The admonition, “do not be conformed to this world,” applies to all of us regardless of our cultural heritage. (Romans 12:1-2)

Look Three Generations Ahead

When working in a multi-cultural context I encourage congregations to look three generations ahead. Getting through the initial relationships with other cultures is the first of the challenges. Philip’s congregation made it through their conflicts much like the church in Acts 6. However, a decade later they faced new challenges as the sons and daughters of the Korean and Spanish congregations grew up in America and began to question the cultural values of their parents and began to loose their language skills. This set up new tensions with grandparents and newer members of these congregations. They feared that the “Americanized” members somehow compromised their faith. In other cases English speaking congregations find themselves dwarfed by the Spanish, Chinese, Persian, Korean, or Nigerian congregation they helped start. These congregations face the fear of being marginalized in their own neighborhood. It is like Acts 6 all over again.

When congregations anticipate these changes and challenges they are (a) better prepared to address them and (b) able to see the ways that the Bible talks about them – like the passage in Acts 6. I find that when congregations think at least three generations ahead their vision and their faith grow.

It is sometimes easy to forget that challenges also present opportunity. James gave us a great insight when he wrote,

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. (James 1:2-6 NIV)

The trials that James wrote about are not primarily temptations to violate moral standards. The trials James talks about are things that cause a loss of confidence. They are events, situations, contexts that feel threatening like engaging a different culture or seeing the impact of culture on our children. Panic in such situations only leads to reactive rigidity that fails to see what God is doing. Instead of panic ask for wisdom.

I look back on that evening I saw Philip exploding from the foyer in a cloud of citrus smelling haze with humor. His initial trauma gave way to new perspectives and new insights. Today he moves from one culture to the next with much less angst and much greater grace and as far as I know he gave up the citrus air freshener.

[1] Janet M. Bennett. “Transformative Training: Designing Programs for Culture Learning” in Contemporary Leadership and Intercultural Competence: Exploring the Cross-Cultural Dynamics within Organizations Michael A. Moodian ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2009), 100.

[2] Geert Hofstede. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2001), xix, 4.

Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in cross-cultural leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.