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Intercultural Journeys, Part 2

July 30, 2013

By Darin Short, Berkey Avenue

This article is the third in a series of articles, the purpose of which is to provide a beginning understanding of what it means to be “intercultural” in a congregational context. This article will have the most meaning if you have read the first two articles, which can be found in the Nov/Dec 2012 and Jan/Feb 2013 issues of Gospel Evangel.

My Journey

It happened about seven years ago. It was a revelation I could not deny: the cultural identities of people different than myself were as central to their ways of being as my identity was to me. I realized that we shared something in common: an identity. My identity, my essence, and the other’s identity, their essence, were core to us as individuals and cultural beings. But the commonality stopped there. Our identities were clearly different.

I felt a tremendous sense of relief. While my values and identity would not change, the stress of trying to change the other’s ways was lifted. I discovered a passion to better understand myself and the other as cultural beings. I desired to invite the other, as different as she or he was, into my space. I still faced a dilemma, though, of how to incorporate our differences into the space that we shared. This challenge launched the beginning of a long period in an intercultural “desert.” Which direction was I to go? How could I be me while authentically valuing the other?

This personal experience is not unlike the story of some congregations.

The Congregational Journey

In the Jan/Feb issue, we looked at both the necessity and the short-comings of focusing on commonalities within a culturally and racially diverse congregation. A primary short-coming is that it often prevents differences essential to church members’ identities from being incorporated into the shared spaces within the congregation. The cultural identities of individuals and groups, as manifest in the gifts and behaviors of various church members, need to be recognized and viewed as valid.

When this begins to happen, the following characteristics will emerge within a congregation:

  • An awareness that congregational life is both an expression of faith and a manifestation of identity and culture.
  • A widely shared acceptance of the reality of the worldview/identity of the culturally different other (note: this does not necessarily mean agreement with the other).
  • Authentic and regular invitations to interact with different cultures, especially those that are part of the congregation’s community.
  • A renewed sense of appreciation and deeper understanding of the congregation’s traditions which often results from exploring the cultural traditions of others.

Additionally, unlike the congregation that focuses on commonality and only modifies its traditions, a congregation seeking to enhance its intercultural competence will intentionally experiment with entirely different ways of doing and being. For example, a predominantly African American congregation, while utilizing the gifts found in its own traditions, might regularly, but not exclusively, incorporate forms of music from other cultural traditions. The same can be said about predominantly Euro-centric, Latin/Hispanic, Asian, or Native American churches. In any case, all of these efforts and experimentations should be celebrated as these mark further progression along the congregation’s intercultural journey.

The Challenge of Growth

Like the intercultural “desert” of my own story, a congregation at this point in its journey might also find itself in the desert. Why? A particular challenge for congregations is determining how they should exercise power in the context of difference. We should not over simplify the challenge or assume that power is the only substantive variable. Nonetheless, it is important.

To address this challenge, it will be tremendously helpful if power becomes truly equally shared. By this I mean that a congregation should not allocate power (i.e., leadership) based on the proportion of the cultural and racial make up of the congregation. This approach only sustains an unequal voice. If, for example, a congregation has six elders (or board members, deacons, etc.), and there are three identifiable racial/cultural groups, then every effort should be made to ensure that two individuals from each group are part of the elder team. An arrangement like this helps minority groups feel that they have an equal voice.

It is also important to involve cultural minorities in developing congregational policies and practices. When congregations utilize practices that were created without the input of cultural minorities, they end up sustaining the cultural norms established by the majority. Truly equal power will not result in leaders shaping the congregation, rather it will result in leaders being shaped by the members.

In the next and final article in this series, we will explore full adaptation and developing a new congregational identity.