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Intercultural Tensions in the Church
When "no" means "yes" and "yes" means "no."

"Do you want to join us for lunch?" Marie smiled politely and refused. Marie's coworkers left without her. Neither Marie, nor her coworkers, were aware of the intercultural miscommunication that had just occurred. As an immigrant from the Middle East, Marie considered it impolite to immediately accept an invitation. To feel comfortable, Marie would have needed several repetitions of the request and insistence on the part of her coworkers. Unfortunately, her coworkers held cultural "rules" shaped by the North American context and they took her "no" at face value.

What is "normal" in one context will have a different value, or meaning, in another.

The Caucasian chairman was pleased to see his proposal quickly accepted by the members of the church board, composed primarily of Asian members. However, less than two weeks later it was obvious that nothing had changed and support for the idea had not moved from words to actions. He was frustrated to note that the "yes" of the board meeting really meant "no" in terms of making the required adjustments.

Such cultural misunderstandings are becoming common in our churches, particularly for those seeking to adjust to Canada's multicultural setting. What can be done to facilitate healthy intercultural relationships in the church?

1. Understand the culture
Culture is the way a group of people view, experience and interact with their environment. Cultures differ. What is "normal" in one context will have a different value, or meaning, in another. Cultures are like languages in which actions and objects communicate diverse messages depending on the "cultural glasses" people wear.

Elder Hyun Lim was unhappy with his Korean church. In his view, things were changing too rapidly and inappropriately. During the week, the children attending Canadian schools were learning to interact with adults in very informal ways. Now, even at church, they were expressing rudeness by forgetting to bow to their elders!

2. Avoid misattribution
Misattribution occurs when we judge a member of a different ethnic group according to our own cultural norms. Krista had grown up with very little to eat. Although she now lived in abundance, the motto "waste not, want not" was indelibly burned into her psyche. She was miffed with the guests she had invited for dessert. New to Canada, each of them had left part of the cake she made for them on their plates. Didn't they like it? Why didn't they respect the importance of not wasting food?

Misattribution causes hurt, frustration and a cooling of relationships. Walls are built, instead of bridges. If we remember to ask if a cultural reason for a behaviour exists, we can begin to appreciate the values and concerns of those whose norms differ from ours. Exploring cultural meaning generates communication and understanding. For example, Krista would have discovered her guests to be politely affirming their host's generosity by leaving cake on their plates.

3. Identify bridge people
Sadly, Matthew 18:15 has been a source of grief on the mission field. Since direct confrontation is a strong value in the western culture, many cross-cultural workers take Jesus' words as affirming universal "in your face" patterns of communication. However, for many cultures, indirect confrontation is required to show respect and ensure resolution. To uncover alternate cultural values and appropriate means of resolving interpersonal conflicts, the wise cross-cultural worker will seek out "bridge people" for guidance to act as mediators. Bridge people are individuals who have grown up in an ethnic home, in a Canadian setting. They understand both sides and can explain the tensions that arise from a clash of cultures. They are also well situated to mediate resolution when conflict occurs.

4. Recognize and accommodate power distance
Canadians appreciate informal relationships and often eschew titles, even in more formal church and classroom situations. Egalitarian and democratic values are an essential part of interpersonal and family relationships, as well as most church organizations. Canadians value openness and honesty. However, immigrants from hierarchical societies cannot easily adjust to this way of thinking and relating. Not only do they need to give honour and respect through the use of titles and gestures, but they also expect to be addressed in the same way to feel valued. Furthermore, in many cultures, one must never contradict a person in authority, such as a pastor.

Pastor Rob was frustrated. Although his church was multiethnic, no one from the ethnic groups would serve on the church board. Although they were leaders within their own cultural group, they were not willing to be responsible to make decisions on behalf of other ethnic groups. They did not sense the appropriate honour and esteem that would allow them to function adequately. They feared the dishonour and harm that would ensue if people disagreed with their decisions.

Mark Naylor serves as the coordinator for International Leadership Development at Northwest Baptist Seminary, a partnership ministry of the Seminary and FEBInternational. Mark is a contributor to the book by Northwest Baptist Seminary's faculty, Being Church: Explorations in Christian Community. For further information and resources in overcoming cultural tensions in the church, please contact Mark Naylor by e-mail:

Originally published in Evangelical Baptist, Winter 2007.




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