Cultural Competence

This is the fifth and final post discussing a five stage continuum of growing cross-cultural competence that Mark DeYmaz describes in his book, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic ChurchHe calls this destination stage “Cultural Competence”.

We should not confuse Cultural Competence with expertise. DeYmaz describes Culturally Competent people as “individuals who value diversity, conduct self-assessment, manage the dynamics of difference, acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge and are able to adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of the communities they serve.” (105) That’s quite a mouth full.

This definition becomes clearer when we contrast it with the previous stage, Cultural Sensitivity. Sensitivity emphasises asking the right questions. Competence has learned the answers to the question and now does something about it.

Notice the action words in the above definition: Value, conduct, manage, acquire and institutionalize, and adapt. The Culturally Competent person still continues to ask questions and explore different cultures. This person remembers previous lessons, avoids the pitfalls and uses their inquiries to benefit others of that culture.

One personal example of obtaining Cultural Competence involves football. Coming to the United States in 1999 I was aware of “gridiron”, but had zero understanding. Over time I asked questions and listened to sports talk radio. I selected a team to support and participated in conversations with American fans. I still know more about Australian football than American, but I have reached a level of competence so that I can blog about American sports, including NFL.

What areas of church life require us to pursue Cultural Competence? Of course, individual relationships are the most important, but many other areas of congregational life present opportunities for cultural misunderstandings. The worship service can potentially project the values of inclusion and acceptance by the people involved in public responsibilities. A variety of musical styles communicates openness to diverse cultures.

Less obvious ministry opportunities to demonstrate Cultural Competence include church meals and the nursery. If the church fellowship team prepares a menu for each church meal that is monocultural some members and guests will feel overlooked. While chicken and mashed potatoes may be staples in one cultural setting, others long for various beans and even different meats. Drinks also present a challenge not only between coffee and hot tea, but in a variety of cold drink preferences.

Then consider the nursery. As the parent of a 4 year old I’m aware of many different parenting approaches just within my white middle class community. Are Hispanic or Asian parents as willing to drop their children off at the nursery as White or African-American parents? Do different racial groups have different behavioural expectations for their children in the nursery? How can these differences be accommodated? How do these differences impact the scheduling and training of nursery volunteers? These cultural distinctions are not limited to racial differences but could also be relevant between urban and suburban families.

When churches can navigate these potentially troubled waters there’s a great likelihood that they’ve achieved Cultural Competence. At least in those areas of church life.

How Sensitive Are You?

This isthe fourth post discussing a five stage continuum of growing cross-cultural competence that Mark DeYmaz describes in his book, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic ChurchHe calls this fourth stage “Cultural Sensitivity”.

If you’re reading this blog you’re probably already on the path to cultural sensitivity. Not because you’re learning from the most sensitive person in the world. I’m not. But because you’re making the effort to learn more about the subject. Hopefully you’re just as willing to learn more about other cultures you encounter in your church and community.

Many people practice cultural sensitivity when we travel overseas. In 1958 an influential fictional book was published with the title The Ugly American. It described a sensitive and insensitive approaches to interacting with locals in foreign countries. In time the phrase has often been associated with American tourists. However, tourists from all countries run the risk of being “ugly” when insensitive to local customs and values.

Most people I know when preparing for international travel take time to research the culture of their destination. Internet articles and numerous travel guides alert travelers to possible local sensitivities. Other people I know make an effort to speak to friends who’ve already traveled to those places and learn from their experiences.

But surely if I’m attending church with people who grew up in the same city as I did, I don’t need a “travel guide” to understand them!

Phil RobertsonFor several months I attended the church where Phil Robertson is an elder. I respect him, his family and the church. However, his comments in a GQ article regarding African-Americans that he observed prior to desegregation in the South demonstrated a lack of cultural sensitivity. He seems to assume that what he saw reflected the hearts of the people.

Practicing cultural sensitivity requires sitting down with those same people and saying, “I saw this and this on the news. How does it affect you?” Or maybe asking “Do you feel that our laws treat you as a lesser human being?” Without those conversations and efforts to understand those from another culture we’re never going to be sensitive to the thoughts and hearts of others.

Pursuing cultural sensitivity requires that we seek more than the facts regarding a culture, a race, or an historical event. True sensitivity demands that we seek to glimpse the feelings and heart of people with different experiences and values than ours.

Churches can promote the pursuit of sensitivity through organised events where different cultures exchange perspectives on various events. However, this does involve a risk of debating or comparing values. The most effective way for churches to embrace diverse ethnicities is for leaders to model the practice of cultural sensitivity one-on-one. These leaders will find themselves better equipped to lead the congregation along the multi-ethnic journey toward Cultural Competence.

The need for cultural education isn’t limited to when we travel. Too often we assume everyone sees the world the way we do. We need to pursue cultural sensitivity each time we engage people from a different cultural background to ourselves. Since loving our neighbour requires us to express that love in a way that is meaningful to them, we have a responsibility to first learn “what is meaningful to them”.

The Point of No Return

This is my third post discussing a five stage continuum of growing cross-cultural competence that Mark DeYmaz describes in his book, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic ChurchHe calls this third stage “Cultural Awareness”.

Cultural Awareness occurs when a person recognises and accepts cultural distinctives. To reach this point one crosses a tipping point away from the previous stage of Cultural Blindness. Once a person accepts that culture runs much deeper than the skin and actually makes up a large part of a persons identity they can no longer deny that cultural differences exist.

Churches positioned in the stage of Cultural Awareness will find themselves talking about their diversity. They will also take steps to address obvious cultural issues such as providing sign language interpretation for deaf members. Decorations and art around the church building may reflect racial diversity. Signs and announcements may be printed in multiple languages. The church might even provide English as a Second Language classes.

DeYmaz describes how Mosaic church has hung flags in their worship area to “communicate no only our awareness but also our appreciation for the individuals and nations represented in our body at any given time.” (104) This makes a public statement that other nationalities and cultures are wanted and welcome at the church.

My observation of this stage is that churches and individuals willingly make adjustments to accommodate differences they observe with people of another race or culture.

This stage cannot be the final destination on the journey of cultural awareness. Although it has crossed a tipping point it still deals mostly with surface issues and observed needs. At this stage understanding intangible cultural values is not a priority.

Although a church service might be bilingual, the attitude toward time and punctuality may still reflect the values of the majority group. A casual attitude toward punctuality on the part of the minority may be generally regarded as disrespectful and rude.

Cultural Awareness does not necessarily lead one to seek understanding of other cultures. The word “awareness” is key to this definition. People recognise differences, but probably can’t explain the differences or the heart issues and values of the other culture. At this stage a person might acknowledge the fact that racial discrimination occurs, but not sit down with a man or woman of colour and ask them to describe the feelings that come with being discriminated against.

If your church is at a place of Cultural Awareness, celebrate that perspective! This is the starting point for a positive dialogue. From this point growth is possible without requiring a new worldview. But don’t sit back as though this is the destination.

Encourage your church to explore cultural issues. Take the first step yourself. Whether your part of a majority or minority, take some time to sit down with someone and compare cultural notes. Find someone you trust and ask them questions you’re nervous to ask publicly.

Don’t think you’ve arrived because you can list those differences.

Make an effort to understand the reason for differences.

Footprints on the Toilet Seat

This is my second post discussing a five stage continuum of growing cross-cultural competence that Mark DeYmaz describes in his book, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic ChurchHe calls his second stage “Cultural Blindness”.

While stage one actively promotes destruction of other cultures, stage two takes a much more subtle approach. While stage one should never be valued within a church, many churches seem to pursue stage two as a desirable goal.

DeYmaz provides the following definition of cultural blindness:

“[an attitude that] fosters an assumption that people are all basically alike, so what works with members of one culture should work with all other cultures.”

The cunning danger of cultural blindness is that this attitude feeds off words like “equality”. Those who adopt this definition of equality don’t realise that that they actually dehumanise all people. They devalue the unique experiences and values of diverse cultural, ethnic, racial groups and fit them all into a single “human” mold. Strangely that single mold often looks like the person or group making the statement.

I have personally witnessed the pursuit of cultural blindness when I have suggested to churches that they should celebrate the racial diversity among their members. In reply I have heard back statements such as:

  • We don’t want to make a big deal of it, we’re not that different from other churches. (This is a false statement.)
  • When I see people I don’t see colour, I just see people.
  • We’re all Christians, let’s focus on what we have in common.

I’m thankful that the congregation I currently serve does celebrate Harmony Sunday each year.

If we say we see people, but not colour then we’re really not seeing people. If you tell me you know me well and you love me, but you want to ignore the fact that I’m an Australian then you’re ignoring a large part of who I am. You’re ignoring the way I pronounce words, the words I use, the sports that I value most, summers at the beach, a love of lamb meat. Instead, you project on me your likes and dislikes on the basis that we’re both human.

I’m not just being critical of others. I still remember saying to a good friend something like, “I think cultural differences are a crock for people who can’t be bothered to be polite or decent.

Yep, that was me.

Then I lived with some international friends who had several conversations about whether or not they could balance to squat on a raised toilet as they were accustomed to squatting on the lower toilets in their home country.

A person might say they don’t see colour, but there’s a good chance they’ll see footprints on the toilet seat and not be happy about it!

It’s much healthier to recognise and discuss cultural distinctions than pretend they don’t exist while complaining or fighting about them.

Then there’s those Christians who quote verses like 1 Corinthians 12:13 “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” They then use this to argue for a Christian culture subsumes other human cultures.

I was once invited by an African-American family to participate in the funeral of a loved one. I spoke with the minister of the church hosting the funeral and sought clarification on what the various elements of the service were. Some of them were new to me but apparently familiar to this African-American community. Rather than give me an explanation he laughed at my question and said something like, “We’re all Christians so just speak the word.”

That wasn’t very helpful and made me feel a bit stupid.

Yes, Christians have an enormous amount in common with one another. In fact, it’s the presence of the Spirit of God within in us that motivates us to overcome our cultural differences to work together and honour God as a unified body. But the worship at a Chinese church is never going to look like a worship service at a predominantly black church. That difference is culture.

While it’s tempting to pretend that racial and ethnic differences are only skin deep, it’s crucial for church leaders to encourage our members to pursue understanding, not ignorance.