6 practical ways to improve cross-cultural engagement in pastoral leadership

Pastors who belong to the majority culture must become more competent in their cultural intelligence (CQ) – where CQ is defined as one’s ability “to function effectively across various cultural contexts.” (1)  Pastors must grow in their CQ for at least two reasons: First, there is a seismic demographic shift occurring. By 2040, today’s majority culture will be the minority culture. (2)  Second, and perhaps more importantly, pastors and all Christians must grow in their CQ because the gospel “has within it an inherent boundary-breaking impulse that contradicts the tribalistic tendency of [our] cultures.” (3) Implied in the gospel itself is the divine mandate to cross cultural boundaries and engage with others of different cultures and assist in their flourishing communities.

How culture shapes us

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines culture as “the arts, beliefs, customs, institutions, and other products of human work and thought considered as a unit, especially with regard to a particular time or social group.” (4)  Every human being lives within a culture, which affects their way of life. As encultured humans, our unique cultures shape what we know, value, and how we see. (5) In other words, we have been culturally programmed. What or who shapes our cultural programming, and what practical steps can we take to grow our CQ?

Who shapes our cultural programming

There are several shapers of our cultural programming, including our family of origin. From our family context — our first schoolhouse — we develop habits and behaviors. However, it is worth noting that what one learns from his or her family culture is not universal. The values a person develops and lives by in Idaho will differ from the values a person holds and lives by in Florida. Beyond our immediate family cultures, we also change through “the broader cultural context of our upbringing.” (6) For example, a child raised in the city will behave and think differently than someone raised in the suburbs, or a child raised in the midwest might behave and think differently than someone raised on the east coast, overseas, or in the Bible Belt.

The generation you were raised in also impacts your cultural programming. Builders (born before 1946), baby boomers (born after World War II and before the mid-1960s), generation Xers (born between the mid-1960s and the 1970s), and millennials (1980s) will think and behave differently because of the values of each unique generation.  (7)

Cultural programming influences numerous aspects of our lives — our food preferences, our choice of spouse (marry inside or outside our tribe?), our parenting style, our denominational and political party affiliations, our chosen residential location (city or suburb), our language, our musical tastes (jazz or country), our wardrobe preferences, and our architectural likes and dislikes, among other things.

I had a seminary professor who was fond of saying, “don’t hear what I am not saying.”  Please hear me when I say there is nothing inherently wrong with our cultural programming as each culture holds elements that are both beautiful and not so beautiful.  However, when our cultural programming is only shaped by those factors delineated above, we are limited in our ability to maneuver effectively and seamlessly across different cultural contexts.  In other words, all Christians must grow in their CQ. What are some practical steps to grow or expand our CQ?

6 practical steps to grow in CQ

1. Be self-aware.  Be aware that each of us has a cultural makeup, which can produce bias. That bias often leads to what authors of Resilient Ministry calls “negative attribution.” Instead of seeking to understand someone of a different cultural bent, our cultural programming drives us to automatically attribute negative characteristics to things that are new, different, and not well understood. One way to help us with this default position is to befriend someone of a different culture and give this person permission to gently correct us when we default to doing this negative attribution. Otherwise, without this correction, stereotypical thinking and behavior ensues.

2. Assume a humble posture. Boosting our CQ demands humility. We must assume the role of student to learn about other people and cultures. Learning about other people and cultures means sequestering or withholding judgement and jettisoning our assumptions.  When I teach apologetics, I encourage my students to first find what is beautiful and good about someone’s culture and not rush to condemn it because of differences. For many students, this is a difficult exercise. Different does not mean immoral or wrong. Learn about other cultures by reading literature, listening to music, visiting places of worship, and eating food from these different places.

3. Break out of an echo chamber. The old adage is true, “birds of a feather flock together,” and this is true too: “birds of a feather” like to stay together.  We are comfortable with people who look like us, think like us, reason like us, vote like us, and have a similar educational background as us. We love homogeneity. We like the safety of our echo chambers because they are predictable. As Christena Cleveland explains, “we…conserve our valuable and limited cognitive energy by spending time with people who are like us and whose behavior we can easily predict.” Yet, we must fight this tendency and congregate with others who are of a different culture. We can also fight this tendency by reading broadly — read your favorite theologians, but also read Asian, African, African-American, Native American, and Hispanic theologians.

4. Practice hospitality. The word “hospitality” means to “love a stranger.” Intentionally reach across cultural boundaries and invite a stranger of a different culture over for meal or out for morning coffee. Listen well and assume a posture of curiosity. Invite the person to tell you their story. Invite others of a different culture to share in Bible study together. Our theology is impoverished without the input and contribution of other believers who are from a different culture.  Before you invite someone over, do your homework and make sure you are serving food that will not inadvertently offend your new friend. But also remember that gaffes are inevitable. Above all, remember the Golden Rule: Treat others like you want to be treated. All of us want others to honor our culture — our customs, rituals, food preferences, etc., so do similarly for your neighbor and your flourishing communities.

5. Secure accountability partners.  Allow others in the body of Christ to gently and winsomely challenge your thinking and behavior toward someone of a different culture.  This is one of the many benefits of Christian community.

6. Commit to deep spiritual formation.  The goal (telos) of spiritual formation is to be like Christ at the end of history.  This means that we must be committed to spiritual formation.  As such, we must ask God to reveal our sinful biases or blind spots that often come as a result of our cultural lenses. We must ask God to expose our idols. Many Christians, for example, have bowed the knee to the idol of personal comfort. And we must ask God to cure us of our tendency to jump to judgement before understanding. As God reveals our sin and idolatry, we are called to confess that sin and our gracious Father promises to forgive us (1 John 1:9).

At the end of history, we are told something quite remarkable in Revelation 21:24-27: All the fruit of human cultures and civilizations will be brought into the city of God. (8) Imagine that. We will enjoy a diverse array of cultural expressions from many people groups in the new heavens and new earth. Doesn’t it make sense to take advantage of experiencing these cultural expressions now? In other words, as one of my seminary professors put it, “live life now from the end of the story.” Expand your CQ by following the practical steps outlined above and, as a perk, you will get a running start on experiencing these cultural expressions now.

Suggested resources

  1. Luke Bobo, Working with International Students in Field Education in Preparing For Ministry: A Practical Guide to Theological Field Education. George Hillman, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008.
  2. Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013.
  3. Brooks Peterson, Cultural Intelligence. A Guide to Working With People from Other Cultures. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural, 2004.

(1) Resilient Ministry, 146.
(2) Resilient Ministry, 131-132.
(3) Dale T. Irvin, The Gift of Mission, Christianity Today, December 6, 1999, 58-59.
(4) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fifth Ed.). Boston: Houghton, 2011, 443.
(5) If you don’t believe you have been shaped by your culture, take an Implicit Association Test (IAT).  See https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.
(6) Resilient Ministry, 135.
(7) Resilient Ministry, 137.
(8) Christopher J. H. Wright. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, 228.

Topics: Christianity & Culture, Personal Wholeness, Race

About the Author

Luke Bobo serves as director of strategic partnerships at Made to Flourish. He worked for 15 years in the marketplace as an engineer before earning his M.Div. and Ph.D., eventually serving as the executive director of the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary.