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Navigating Cultural Differences

Navigating Cultural Differences

Successful connections between American and immigrant churches view cultural differences not as problems to be fixed but as realities to be understood and navigated.  In cultural differences there is no right or wrong; there is simply differentness. 

Navigating cultural differences is the 5th of our 7 keys to cultivating healthy relationships between American and immigrant churches.  You can read about all 7 keys in this blog.

One of the most common areas of tension between Western and non-Western cultures is their perception of time.  Because both sides have spent their entire lives immersed in their own cultural perception of time, they will naturally intuit that paradigm to be superior.

To Westerners, time is a scarce commodity that moves quickly and must be managed by clocks and calendars for maximum productivity.  Never to be wasted, time must be segmented into manageable chunks exclusively dedicated to one task.  The value of people can be measured by their hourly wages. While there are variables in the future that cannot be controlled, Western culture must reduce the number of unknowns to maximize the output of each unit of time.  Punctuality and efficiency are values to be as unquestionably treasured as honesty and integrity.

Non-Westerners believe that when God made time, He made a lot of it.  Relationships and tasks are more highly valued than individual segments of time, which can be dynamically adjusted regardless of what the clock says.  The highest priority is to give oneself to the relationships and tasks of the present moment.  If that requires longer than the clock permits, it is the clock and not the relationship that must yield.  The best decisions, relationships and accomplishments cannot be scheduled or rushed.     

Let’s ask how these differences might be reflected between the worship services of an American host church and its Latino guest church.  The American service likely begins promptly at 9:00 and ends at 9:59, with a sermon not to exceed 25 minutes.  59 seconds will be given to prayer.  Those who arrive late must understand that their tardiness should not penalize those who were disciplined enough to show up on time. 

The Latino guest congregation may marvel that American Christians who claim to passionately love God will only give Him 59 minutes of worship and 59 seconds of prayer.  Their sermons alone are often longer than 59 minutes!  And since this is the one time of the week for believers to gather, it would be inconceivable to start the lesson or fellowship time until Maria and Jorge arrive.  Because it can’t be known in advance what vital discussions will arise after the last song, the time members will leave the building can’t be predetermined.

Can you see how easily these two cultures might collide?  Each might hold that the other is wrong.  From a biblical perspective, neither is wrong.  An Anglo might unkindly state, “Those Latinos are always late!”  An equally unkind Latino might retort, “Those Americans love their clocks more than God or people!”  There is an element of truth to both statements, but both are stated in ungracious language that assumes one’s own cultural preferences are best.  For Christians to love one another across cultures, both sides must follow Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2:3, “In humility count others more highly than yourselves.”  What if Americans and Latinos both began with the assumption that the other’s cultural preferences are better than their own?  We might give each other much more grace.

This is why it is so essential for both churches to follow our recommendation in Key #2: designate Connectors as lead point persons who will meet regularly.  The majority of the people in both churches will continue to function within their own cultural preferences.  What is vital is that the Connectors understand and value each other’s perspectives, and be able to explain those perspectives to others in their congregations.  They can serve as peacemakers when someone becomes upset that people showed up late for an activity, or that the activity began before important people arrived. 

Another area of cultural difference to which we will give brief attention is communication methods. American ministry leaders typically handle most of their daily communications via email.  While some immigrant ministry leaders faithfully check their email, many rarely or never use it.  Texting is their preferred method of communication.  This means that handling multiple details in one communication isn’t their preference either. 

One of the major responsibilities of the American Connector might be to “translate” email communications into phone calls, texts or face-to-face conversations. 

Some American churches use an app-based approach to volunteer recruitment and scheduling.  Most of your immigrant friends won’t participate.  They are more likely to respond positively to a text from a trusted friend than to a more impersonal app.

This brief article barely scratches the surface of cultural differences between Western and non-Western cultures.  Just as deep relationships between family members and friends develop gradually over time, meaningful relationships between cross-cultural ministry leaders thrive as all parties get to know each other better.  May God bless all the relationships He has entrusted to you!

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