Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility
by Peter Beck
For their first anniversary, Duane Elmer, author of Cross Cultural Servanthood, purchased a set of new snow tires for his wife. At the time, Duane and Muriel were living in the Upper Midwest and she needed the new tires to drive safely during the winter. Duane sacrificed a great deal to purchase the tires. He cared deeply for his wife and she needed the tires. However, his choice of anniversary present did not communicate his love to her in the way he’d intended.
As missionaries, we seek to communicate Christ’s love in a meaningful way to other cultures. We leave our home culture, language, family, and church to share the life-saving message of the gospel. We seek to communicate out of love and concern for others. Yet, sometimes our attempts to demonstrate Christ’s love fall as flat as new snow tires for an anniversary gift.
As part of his research for the book, Elmer asked leaders in other cultures how North American missionaries could become more effective in their ministry. Several leaders responded by saying, “Missionaries could more effectively minister the gospel of Christ if they did not think they were so superior to us” (p. 15).
These are strong words; yet as I reflect on my term serving as a church planter in South America, I see my own attitudes and actions reflected in the words and stories of Elmer’s book. Elmer shows how we, despite our best intentions, can fail to demonstrate Christ’s love in a way that is meaningful to another cultural context. He suggests that we love others through servanthood which is (1) culturally defined, (2) revealed in simple, everyday events, (3) based on relationships, and (4) stems from how we treat people.
In order to serve in another culture, Elmer says that missionaries should intentionally develop four qualities. The first is openness, which is the ability to invite others into your presence. and make them feel welcome. This requires suspending judgment, thinking in terms of grey (rather than black and white), and believing the best about others. The second is acceptance: the ability to communicate worth and value to the other person. Third, we need to intentionally build trust: the belief that both parties in a relationship will not intentionally harm one another. Trust takes time to build, is built differently in each culture, is often fragile, and always requires emotional risk. Finally, we must seek to understand the culture by trying to see things from their perspective.
Understanding another culture is like putting a puzzle together. Often, we don’t see the whole picture and it takes time to find how the pieces fit together. Yet if we are intentional about developing cross-cultural relationships based on openness, acceptance, trust, and understanding, we will be able to serve in a way that is meaningful and important to our brothers and sisters in other cultures.
Cross-Cultural Servanthood is a vital resource to help us know how to demonstrate our love for others by expressing Christ’s love in a culturally meaningful ways rather than by purchasing “snow tires.”