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”.