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Intercultural Transformation: Adaptive Congregations

April 23, 2014

Adaptive Congregations

This article is the fourth and final in a series of articles seeking 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 other three articles, which can be found in Gospel Evangel issues from Nov/Dec 2012, Jan/Feb 2013, and Jul/Aug 2013.

By Darin Short, Berkey Avenue Mennonite

We know how to adapt!

Throughout life, there are many situations that nurture our ability to adapt. Whether in our work or our church involvement—whether in our roles as parents, spouses, children, or volunteers—we experience the need to take on different roles and identities, and to adapt to different responsibilities and tasks.

The different roles we fill evoke different behaviors, thoughts, and emotions—­whether subtle or significant. While being our authentic selves, we may experience a need to do things differently, to tap into unique ways of thinking, and to manage conflicting emotions, based on a role we carry in a given moment.

Consider the roles required of an individual who is both a parent of young children and an employee. Imagine participating in an intense meeting at the end of the work day. When you arrive home, your 10-year-old asks to play outside and your 4-year-old wants to color with markers. You are still carrying with you emotions and thoughts from the meeting. But now you need to immediately draw on different emotions, thoughts, words, and actions. Just as important to note is the fact that you may have the same emotion or feeling in both settings, but you express it in different ways. Perhaps the meeting stirs the compassion that you have for the people you work with, yet the compassion you have for your children “feels,” and is expressed, differently.

Those of us in other roles or identities may have experienced this same kind of adaptation. Maybe it involves transitioning between the roles of sister and grandchild, spouse and volunteer, parent and step-parent, worship participant and Sunday school leader, grandparent and neighbor, preacher and conversationalist.

These scenarios provide an insight into the basics of adaptation in a congregational context. Cross-cultural adaptation in the life of a congregation is obviously much more complex than these examples, but they do highlight the essential components of adaptation: feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and motivations. They also highlight the fact that we have the capacity to modify and adjust in various life situations. We learn to adapt in many ways.

The Adaptive Congregation

A congregation in the final stage of intercultural development is one that is learning to adapt. An adaptive congregation possesses a cultural awareness that is accompanied by intercultural competence. What are the characteristics of interculturally competent congregations?

  • They intentionally shift perspective and adopt new behaviors.
  • They use cultural differences as a resource regularly, routinely, and comfortably.
  • They have a shared identity that includes use of multiple traditions and the shared creation of new traditions.
  • They utilize power in an interculturally appropriate manner—neither avoiding nor abusing power, but creating a new approach to power guided by the practices of perspective-taking, adopting new behaviors, using difference as a resource, drawing on different traditions, etc.
  • They are able to incorporate humor that is understood and appreciated across cultures.

What does the adapting congregation actually look like? There are an infinite number of possibilities, but I will provide a few examples found within actual congregations.

I have observed racially diverse congregations that sing African American spirituals as well as traditionally Euro-centric hymns sung in four part harmony. Church members, across racial boundaries, used gestures and body postures traditionally observed in both of these styles of music.

I have observed congregations that utilize multiple languages in every part of the worship service—songs, PowerPoint slides, newsletters, scripture readings, spoken messages, announcements—and they do so on a regular basis. The additional time allotted for this translation is not viewed as an impediment but, rather, is reflective of the prioritized value of diversity. These congregations have individual leaders—pastors, worship leaders, song leaders, etc.—that are multi-lingual and actually speak in multiple languages during the service.

It is fundamentally important to note that what often distinguishes these congregations as adaptive is their ability to retain diversity, in contrast to those who have an occasionally diverse, but transient, attendee population.

We should not expect a congregation will ever “arrive” at a perfected state of adaptation. Rather, adaptation is something that is intentionally and continually pursued. Employing a single adaptive strategy will not make a congregation interculturally competent. Incorporating multiple languages or multiple music styles alone is not a
wholistic approach. Rather, multiple and sustained efforts lead to a deeper and more sustainable adaptation.

I’ve had the opportunity to experience the essence of adaptation at the congregational level. So, when we ask ourselves the question, “Should we as individuals and congregations make an effort to adapt to those around us?” I can’t help but think of Paul—who became like a Jew, who became like one under the law, who became like one not under the law—and answer, yes!

Each congregation will reach this realization or awareness at different points in time, and that’s okay. My hope is that we will each make intentional efforts to develop intercultural capacities, and to make significant strides in cultivating congregational adaptation.