Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships by John Lingenfelter

            The underlying argument of the book is that each person is a unique blending of cultures.  Every person makes decisions that are largely convergent from these cultural biases.  Conflict arises from situations where cultural norms are violated.  The tension that is produced can be lessened or alleviated by being aware of one’s own culture and the presuppositions of other cultures.

Lingenfelter calls for an “incarnational” ministry, which he refers to as “150% persons.”  This demands persons accommodating and adapting to cultural norms of other cultures so that communication might happen between people.  Understanding the expectations of other cultures is essential to relating well.  This can be communicated in a number of ways: language, temporality, territoriality, exploitation, association, subsistence, bisexuality (conduct for males and females), learning, play, and defense.  Grasping these fundamental elements can help one comprehend the values of the culture.

With the exception of Jesus, nobody can fully embody another culture.  We may come very close to being totally acculturated, but we are often so shaped by our own culture that we never fully embrace the foreign culture in which we minister.  Despite this fact, Lingenfelter asserts that we are to adapt to other cultures so that we might be able to communicate the Gospel in ways that will be received.

Much of the miscommunication and tension that is experienced in cross-cultural ministry results from a lack of understanding our own culture and that of the culture we are trying to reach.  For instance, in America we are very time-conscious whereas other parts of the world are event-oriented.  The result can be frustration due to differing value systems at play.

Having personally experienced some of these tensions or seen them in others, I can readily identify with Lingenfelter’s position.  Cross-cultural ministry can be made more difficult when people’s expectations are not the same.  That is typically why the number one rule for mission trips is always: “Be flexible!”  Missionaries and missions team leaders will usually instruct their teams to take their cues from the native people and culture.  We are there to serve, not be served.  This inevitably means that we must adapt.

Lingenfelter incorporates a number of sources in his work.  Primarily, the author uses personal experience to begin the discussion concerning cross-cultural ministry and interpersonal relationships.  This is the testing ground for Lingenfelter’s particular vision for intercultural mission and relationships.  This is a valuable and pertinent way to form and assess the validity of various theories of intercultural ministry.  If the model does not hold up to observable tests, then it is a faulty or incomplete theory.  However, on the negative side, personal experience can also be marred by one’s own shortcomings and biases.  Although I do not feel Lingenfelter is unfair in his assessment of things, it might be the case that my own cultural bias is too similar to his own to not be persuaded by the underlying logic.

Lingenfelter’s other resources included works concerning theology, psychology, and cross-cultural ministry.  The sources were fairly recent material.  However, the material on cross-cultural ministry and psychology are a bit dated.  It would have been appropriate to have more sources to back up the substantial claims that are being made.  For one, psychology and our approach to cross-cultural ministry has drastically changed even within the previous decade!  Citing more contemporary works, especially for psychology, would significantly bolster Lingenfelter’s assertions.

The theology resources were fairly recent and were written by notable names in their field.  This was a positive aspect of Lingenfelter’s used sources.  However, the scarce few resources used suggest that this particular work may be limited in its Biblical scope.  That’s not to say that the author did not reference Scripture a great deal.  He does.  But, that does not necessarily entail that it is a well informed argument and is less likely prone to eisegesis otherwise avoidable.

The first possible cultural conflict revolves around the issue of time.  Some cultures are time-oriented and others are event-oriented.  Time-oriented is concerned with punctuality, efficient use of time, goal-directed activities, and dates and history.  Event-oriented is concerned with details of the event, full consideration of problems until resolved, relaxed on time constraints to complete something, completing an event is the reward, and focused on the present rather than past or future.

Judgment is the second tension point discussed.  Lingenfelter divides “judgment” between dichotomistic thinking and holistic thinking.  Dichotomistic thinkers see things in absolute categories, emphasizes being right, and are concerned with patterns and systematic organization of information and experiences.  Holistic thinkers are more “open-ended”, does not like being confined to one role or category, and information and experiences are disorganized and not necessarily connected.

Crisis orientation and Noncrisis orientation is the next tension described.  Crisis orientation expects crisis, plans accordingly, seeks quick resolution, follows a pre-planned procedure, and looks for experts for solutions.  Noncrisis orientation downplays the possibility of crisis, focuses on actual experience, holds off on making decisions, looks at all of the options, and is wary of “expert” advice.

Tension concerning goals occupies the following chapter.  Task orientation versus person orientation can cause great distress.  Task orientation, which is our typical modus operandi, focuses on task completion.  Person orientation tends to value the people or groups who are working together over the completion of tasks.

Tensions concerning self-worth stem from achievement focus against status focus.  Status is something that is “ascribed,” whereas, achievement is something that is “acquired.”  Status deals with someone’s connection through birth or rank.  Achievement deals with accomplishments attained by a person.

There are two ways to potentially deal with vulnerability: concealment or willingness to expose.  Concealment protects one’s self-image at all costs.  It is difficult for these individuals to receive criticism or risk failure.  Quality of performance is essential for such individuals.  The other side of the spectrum is just the opposite.  They are willing to risk failure, work to complete an event, and are open to alternative points of view and criticism.

The book demonstrates the proposed thesis.  The combination of Lingenfelter’s experiences in the field and the basic argument, supported by his sources, are coherent and seem to be true in my own personal experience with cross-cultural ministry.  Furthermore, it is generally true between people that are working together and experience conflict or tension due to opposing values, even within the same or similar cultures.

I like the book because it provides a simplified way to assess cultural bias and to better understand what makes people “tick.”  In moments of tension or discomfort working with others, it helps highlight the core issue.  The author states that cultures are either moral or immoral.  I would argue a slightly different understanding.  Culture is a “good” thing.  It seeks to create order within the world, which is a Divine imperative for Creation.  Culture becomes “sinful” when there is an improper arrangement of good things.  Conflict of cultures does not necessarily entail either party is “sinful.”



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