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Navigating the Power Gap

Navigating the Power Gap

As Mitch stood before his small group composed of 5 American and 4 Chinese university students, he gave a sincere invitation for everyone to share openly.  To his frustration, the Chinese remained silent as the Americans happily carried the entire conversation.  Mitch experienced the same results as he asked for volunteers to read aloud.  He thought the issue might be the Chinese students’ hesitancy to speak in English.  He was wrong; they were all enrolled in English-language undergrad and graduate programs.

Similar stories can be told of conversations between American and immigrant ministry leaders.  Because Americans are typically generous to their immigrant friends, providing free or inexpensive facility usage and other resources, it’s in the best interest of the immigrant partners to not rock the boat by mentioning any offensive words and actions by their American friends.  When Americans sincerely seek their honest feedback, there is a strong incentive to not provide it.

Learning to navigate the power gap is the 6th of our 7 keys to cultivating healthy relationships between American and immigrant churches.  You can read about all 7 keys in this blog.

Having lived in both America and China and successfully led small group discussions that include both, let me help you understand the underlying dynamics causing this reality.  Let’s start with the difference between an American and a Chinese first-grade teacher:

American first-grade teacher: Speak up!  Make your voice heard.  You have something important to say that only you can say.  Learn how to express yourself with confidence.  And learn how to listen to your classmates, taking interest in their different perspectives.

Chinese first-grade teacher: Sit down.  Be quiet.  Take notes on what I say.  Never challenge your teachers, because they are always right.  Memorize what they say and repeat it on tests.  The one who memorizes and repeats the most gets a high test score, attends a prestigious university and earns a high income.

I attended a guest lecture by an American law professor at a Beijing university.  He shared how his students bring their cell phones to class, and when he makes factual errors during his presentation, his students immediately Google the facts and call out his mistakes.  During the lunch break I asked a Chinese professor at one of Beijing’s top universities if her students would ever similarly fact-check her.  She said it would never happen.  During break times, students might gather in the hallways to confirm with each other that the teacher is wrong, but in the classroom and on the test her word is unquestionable.

Now do you understand the difference in mindset between American and Chinese university students?  If you hold a small group discussion composed of Americans and Chinese where all are equally encouraged to speak up, you should expect silence from the Chinese.  Why?  Because both groups are doing what they have been trained to do since first grade!  Americans can unfairly stereotype Chinese as withdrawn, unengaged and lacking in leadership potential.  Chinese can unfairly stereotype Americans as loudmouthed, opinionated and arrogant.  Can you understand why?

With that said, I have successfully drawn out Chinese students in small groups with Americans present.  How do I do it?  By explaining to the Americans what I just explained to you.  Then I ask them to do something very difficult: to unlearn what their first-grade teacher taught them.  It isn’t so important that they speak up and make their voices heard.  In deference to quieter voices in the Body of Christ, it’s helpful for them to remain silent so that others may be heard.  I instruct everyone that I will ask some questions.  I ask the Americans present to quietly count to 30 in their heads before responding.  That gives more hesitant students the opportunity to speak up. 

When I do this, the Americans are amazed at the results.  Whether they can continue to draw out Chinese students in future discussions depends on how much each American present is willing to take an informal “oath of silence” so others can be heard.

The dynamics aren’t exactly the same in discussions with a 40-year-old Latino pastor or a 65-year-old Kenyan elder.  But many of the underlying principles still apply.  If you’re an American church leader who wants to draw out the deeply heartfelt perspectives of your global partner, you will need to learn to ask great questions. Here are 2 questions I recommend you use often:

  • If there is one thing our church might change to serve you better, what would it be?
  • If there is something one of us said last month that may have offended one of your congregation, what might it be?

Once you have asked your carefully-worded question, make it clear you expect an answer by giving your partner at least 30 seconds to begin responding.

There’s much more to navigating the power gap between American and immigrant ministry leaders, but freely flowing communication is the first step.  Let me close by briefly mentioning the last of our 7 keys to cultivating healthy relationships between American and immigrant churches: Obtaining cross-cultural coaching.  In most cases, American church leaders are beginners at cross-cultural relationships.  It can be an invaluable asset to engage a missionary or other person with strong cross-cultural experience to coach your relationship.  They will be able to identify problem areas you can’t see.

I hope these 7 keys have been profitable to you.  May God richly bless all the cross-cultural relationships with which He has entrusted you!

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