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.

Are Churches Destroying Cultures?

In Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, Mark DeYmaz describes a five stage continuum of growing cross-cultural competence. Over the next month I’m going to spend some time discussing each of these stages. Here’s DeYmaz’s introduction:

So how can those of us committed to Christ and to the local church pursue cross-cultural competence and avoid ethnocentrism? Although there are a variety of ways to go about it, we should first understand that it will be an ongoing developmental process. We see a cultural continuum moving from destructiveness to blindness to awareness to sensitivity to competence. (p103)

Cultural Destructiveness

I hope that this first stage is never present in a church. DeYmaz includes  a quote that at this level “the emphasis is on using differences as barriers.” People with this mindset acknowledge only one way of being and intentionally seek to subdue and eradicate other cultures.

Examples given of this stage of cultural competence include the ethnic atrocities arising in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur. Attempts to “reform” native cultures in the United States by forcing Native Americans to Westernise and the tragedy of the Stolen Generation in Australia also fall under this heading.

The goal of multi-ethnic churches is to respect all cultures, not force all cultures to dissolve into the dominant culture of the church.

So while Cultural Destructiveness is never (should never be) a goal of the church, it remains a great fear that hangs over race relations within the church.

Here’s an example from my personal experience.

Australian’s love to watch American movies and TV shows. There’s a lot of them. Some of them are great. Some connect with niche audiences. They generally have high production values and talented writers and actors. What’s not to like?

This movie raises some of the issues in the Australia – US relationship. I thought it was very well done.

In contrast films made in Australia telling Australian stories have much smaller budgets. The writers and actors do a terrific job, but the movies always seem to lack the Hollywood glitz. Australia doesn’t have super spy agencies. Australia doesn’t have the super glamourous rich and famous segment of society. Basically, Australia just lacks the same “cool factor” that American movies seem to ooze. As a result less people watch them.

That’s simply the market realities. There is no secret US plot to take over Australia and suppress Australian stories and destroy the Aussie culture. (or is there???) But when kids who need the police in an emergency dial 911 instead of the Australian emergency number 000, the influence is undeniable. Aussies then become defensive toward Americans as a way of protecting their cultural identity and independence.

Can you picture this same process taking place in a church setting?

While teaching English to immigrants can provide a valuable service to that community, if immigrants are expected to always speak in English in the church they will always be outsiders. If the church doesn’t support the learning of the parent languages among 2nd generations, it may appear that the church is on a mission to Anglicise and Westernise all immigrants as much as it is to worship God.

If US churches make a big deal of Independence Day celebrations, but fail to acknowledge Martin Luther King Day, or Chinese New Year they silently make the statement that only one culture is important. Sometimes churches feel good because their Chinese members celebrate the Lunar New Year together and it’s on the church calendar, but no one really expects the whole church to attend. Yet for the Labor Day picnic the entire church body is expected to be in attendance (including the Chinese members).

While an initial survey of this continuum may tempt us to disregard the first stage, it really needs to be considered. While only in rare and extreme situations would a church actually say “we don’t want a particular racial group or culture to enter our church”, the fear of cultural destruction is very real for minority groups within a church. “Do we have to give up our racial and cultural identity to become part of this church family?”

Churches and individual Christians need to make the conscious decision that we will not only love and embrace people from other races and cultures, we we will also do our best to welcome their culture. One way we will demonstrate our love is by expressing interest and value in the customs of cultures we don’t know well.