On Being a Servant Across Cultures

In 2001, our daughter introduced me to a book entitled Cross-Cultural Servanthood, by Duane Elmer.  This book has been very formative for me, as I developed my views of what it means to be open to those of another culture.  A second book that was influential to me is Exclusion & Embrace, by Mirolsav Volf. The following thoughts have been taken, in large part, from these two authors.

Here is a summary of Elmer’s teaching on Servanthood across cultures:

The Process of Cross Cultural Servant-hood

[The list begins with the end goal, serving, and works backward to the beginning step, openness]

* Serving: You cannot serve someone you do not understand. [At best, you can only be a benevolent oppressor]

  • Even though cross-cultural workers may understand much about their host culture, they may be surprised by how often those that they intend to serve, resist the service, because they feel patronized or viewed as inferior.
  • Superiority often appears in disguise that pretends to be virtues and may be difficult to recognize.

* Understanding: You cannot understand others until you have learned about, from, and with them.

  • Understanding is the ability to see patterns of behavior & values that reveal the integrity of a people.
  • Ethnocentrism (my cultural beliefs and traditions are superior) and egocentrism (my personal beliefs and practices are superior) are hindrances to understanding. Stop comparing!
  • Look for good, beauty, and common grace
    • What do you find attractive in the other culture?
    • Where do you find characteristics of God in the other culture?
  • Form the habit of asking “why?” when encountering the other culture

* Learning: You cannot learn important information from someone until there is trust in the relationship.

  • Learning is the ability to glean information about, from, and with others.  It is seeking information that changes you
  • Learning about others yields facts that help us adjust our expectations and generate fruitful avenues for deeper learning after engaging the culture
  • Learning from others yields understanding that moves us into strong, enduring, and trusting relationships
  • Learning with others yields authentic partnerships where each probes deeply into the mind and heart of the other, bringing interdependent growth and culturally sensitive ministry
  • The more educated a person is [or thinks she is], the more challenging it will be for her to learn from another culture

* Trust: To build trust, others must know that you accept and value them as people.

  • Trust is the ability to build confidence in a relationship so that both parties believe the other will not intentionally hurt them, but will act in their best interest.
  • It takes time to build trust
  • Requires risk [especially emotional risk]
  • Forgiveness is the only way to rebuild broken trust
  • Trust can be misplaced.  Sometimes it requires guidance from someone within the other culture to help us develop wise boundaries, which prevent us from getting hurt.

* Acceptance: Before you can communicate acceptance, people must experience your openness

  • Acceptance is the ability to communicate worth, value, and esteem to another person.
  • Factors that hinder acceptance of others
    • The use of labels or acceptance of stereotypes
    • Impatience
    • Ethnocentrism
    • Dogmatism / narrow-mindedness. [The degree of rigidness, with which one hold’s personal beliefs, convictions, or cultural values]
    • Evaluation
      • The most frequent response Americans make to a situation is to evaluate what they just saw or heard as right or wrong, good or bad.

* Openness: Openness with people different from yourself requires that you are willing to step out of your comfort zone to initiate and sustain relationships in a world of cultural differences.

  • Openness is the ability to welcome others into your presence and make them feel safe.
  • Upon meeting an individual, most persons make a judgment about the person and the desirability or potential for friendship within 2.4 to 4.5 seconds. Openness requires that we consciously counter this reflex.
  • Showing openness and extending hospitality is not a one-way street. Being a gracious receiver may be equally important, even though those extending generosity may have much less.

Miroslav Volf notes: “The will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying with them in their humanity.” (italics added),

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