13 Tips for Leading an Intercultural Church

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In my previous post, I described what an intercultural church is and what it is not. An intercultural congregation is a community of believers centered on Jesus who intentionally celebrate God’s creativity by empathetically listening to one another. Their oneness in fellowship is a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit, and their love is a witness to the world.  So how does a church live out this reality?

1) Think about the group as a whole as well as the needs of individuals.

Leading an intercultural church uses a mixture of asking questions about what is good for the group as a whole—minority groups as well as individuals. This is not always easy, but it is an essential tension that needs to be held.

2) Avoid framing things in terms of winners and losers.

Many people may come from cultures that are not used to dichotomies and being labeled as a loser may have a face losing effect on some. In actuality, everyone in an intercultural congregation is a winner because every person is blessed to know different types of people.

3) Be careful that one group does not end up dominating everything.

This could shut down the contributions from the smaller groups or different individuals. Some cultures value assertiveness while others may be deferential to something like age or position in society. Leaders need to be sensitive to these variables.

4) Find multiple ways to listen to one another.

 
Not only is this important for making decisions, it is also essential for the spiritual nurture of the community. Some of the gold may be found when different people read the Bible together or serve in a mission project side by side. As I facilitate a Bible study, I know that some, by virtue of their cultural background, will voluntarily share their thoughts while others will wait to be asked their perspectives.

5) Collectively talk about time.

 
How do you accommodate time conscious individuals as well as event oriented ones? The way our church has worked that out is that we start the services on time, but we make plenty of space for event oriented fellowship time afterwards so people can linger around and enjoy the company of others.

6) Talk about how you will deal with conflict.

 
It is so tempting to assume the way one resolves problems in one culture is the right and best way, only later to recognize that someone else would be assaulted by the bluntness from one culture or the face saving in another. Some cultures are much more at peace with separating the person from the idea while others may see ideas and conflicts more intrinsically connected to a person. Some may see conflict as differences between individuals while others may see it as a cancer in the community. The aim should be strengthening community and not breaking fellowship.

7) Come to an understanding about how decisions are made.

 
Of course, the congregation may have a church polity that has been imposed from a denomination, but what is also helpful is that people who need to be heard and consulted are heard and consulted. In some cultures, that may be someone based on seniority, in others, it may be the person with the fresh ideas, while others may value the expert opinion. Those from consensus cultures will not be at peace with a bare majority vote on a significant decision. Make sure the church is on board with the decision making process.

8) Work to make your worship style intercultural.

 
This takes intentionality. Without intentionality, the style will reflect the personality and culture of the pastor or worship leader or the majority of the church. For both traditional and contemporary expressions, it is important that the liturgy, worship order and length, and forms both represent the current reality of the church and the ideal it may be working toward. Think about how communion is served, the offering is taken up, the types of songs that are sung, the ways you pray, and the atmosphere of the worship space. Consider switching elements in the service regularly.

9) Make fellowship a priority, and do things that people would want to do with their brothers and sisters in Christ.

 
Eat meals together. What communicates relationship like interacting over food? Intercultural potlucks can do so much to teach about everyone’s background. For such events, if you represent multiple different cultures, you may want to consider having people dress in traditional attire for those events. Try to incorporate different means of fellowship.

10) Be engaged in mission.

Often, when you reflect the demographic realities of your community, you will develop greater awareness for the needs and priorities around you because of your interaction with your brothers and sisters. It may also help with empathy for those close at home and even far away. Those beyond the church will notice the love and grace that people from different backgrounds have from Jesus, and this will be a witness in and of itself.

11) Be flexible and willing to change.

 
After all, the church is a living organism. It goes through change and needs to adapt to different seasons. The community will evolve over time and so will the forms.

12) Avoid becoming judgmental.

 
It is so easy to see things in terms of right and wrong when we interpret things through our cultural lenses. When someone does something that you may think needs a rebuke, take that as an opportunity to listen to her or him share how she or he came to a different conclusion. Perhaps both parties may need to have the Holy Spirit speak into their lives to discover what a Christ-centered response should be. After all, it could make for a grace encounter.

13) Keep Jesus at the center of all things.

 
Above everything, we gather to worship and serve Jesus. A diversity of people worshipping Jesus is our eschatological hope.

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” Rev. 7:9 NRSV

Image attribution: Digital Vision / Thinkstock

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