This article is an adaptation of a Plenary Presentation the author gave at for the Council of International Anabaptist Ministries in Columbus Ohio, January 2016.

Lessons from Multi-Cultural Missions Collaboration

For about two centuries, Western missions operated on a paradigm that can be described as “from the West to the rest.” In this paradigm, I and others from the global South were considered the object of missions. Western missionaries were sent to us “unreached peoples.”

In today’s globalized diverse world, however, a new paradigm has emerged. It is now missions “from anywhere to everywhere.” This shift bears major implications—including the emergence of multicultural churches, diverse structures and organizations which can enhance or complicate effective partnerships. This new order of church life requires respect and open dialogue among other considerations.

Culture, Diversity and Shared Understandings/Commitments

A loose definition of culture is “what everybody within a group assumes everyone else in the group knows.” It is a lens through which people view the world, and it includes beliefs, values, behavior, and the like.

When one lives in a mono-culture, cultural assumptions do not need to be stated, questioned or even defended because the group retains a core set of assumptions and views. Because all people see the world through culturally-tainted lenses, we are usually unaware of our own cultural assumptions and ideals, on which we often base our decisions

Working cross-culturally has its advantages, but these our cultural assumptions and ideals can have a profound effect on collaboration. Although some cultural differences may be apparent, cultural assumptions are often unknown or unrecognized, providing the potential to significantly wound those we are attempting to collaborate with in God’s mission without even realizing it.

I witnessed this kind of woundedness while growing up in Kenya and continue to see it in American churches as well as others around the globe. While listening to mission stories or reading mission reports, I frequently wonder how the partners “on the other side” might describe the same realities, especially those in conflict situations. These unexpressed assumptions can lead to ongoing, long-term conflicts and eventual ineffective collaboration in mission work. Church conflict is a frequent cause of ineffectiveness even in monoculture churches; how much more challenging is working cross-culturally?

Effective missional churches can be built cross-culturally when there is intentional cultural learning, adapting and understanding. The goal of learning is not to make us all think or function in the same way or determine who is right and who is wrong. Instead, the first goal is simply to understand our own assumptions and those of others. And second, we need to understand the nature of diversity.

On a superficial level, people are different, which is easy enough to see. But diversity also includes the idea of inclusion—that differences are somehow bonded together. Cedric Herring and Loren Henderson define diversity as “the equal inclusion of people from varied backgrounds, especially those who were considered to be different from the traditional members because of exclusionary practices.”1

When Diversity in Creation is Hijacked by Human Brokenness

Our biblical starting point for thinking about diversity is the story of creation. As the people of God, we must first be inspired and shaped by the story of our God who, from the very beginning, declared the whole work of creation in all its diversity as very good! (Gen. 1:31)

There is little doubt in my mind that God’s vision of the goodness of diversity has been hijacked by our human brokenness, which creates mistaken beliefs of racial superiority, structural injustices, misuse of power and the unjust allocation of resources. The church is not immune to this brokenness since “all have sinned and come short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).Regardless of our brokenness, I believe the church can be a compelling demonstration that announces God’s new creation for God has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17-18).²

In other words, God’s presence is in the diversity.

This might sound good, but living it requires a commitment to discipleship. My friend and member at Capital Christian Fellowship (my former congregation that I pastored for about 6 years in Maryland) Harry Pereira used to remind us that, “To live with the saints above, oh that will be glory; but to dwell with the saints below, that is another story.”

Reconciliation happens when diversity is celebrated, and God’s presence is seen more completely in the whole (including the different parts) rather than the “melting away” of our differences. So in this multicultural world, I am calling us to a “reconciled diversity.”

And in order for us to achieve reconciled diversity, we must first look deep in our own hearts in order to expose our own assumptions. Without first opening myself up and being critical about my own biases, healthy multi-cultural teamwork and effective multi-cultural mission work is nearly impossible.

Lastly, as leaders, we also must work toward reconciled diversity systematically and organizationally. This requires concerted, deliberate effort to:

  • name and address structural injustices and inequity,
  • conduct intercultural training, and
  • develop authentic cross-cultural relationships.

In order to accomplish this, we must create a sense of community and shared vision inside the diversity. And rather than assume that this reconciled diversity will happen automatically (because it will not), I suggest we work at this by creating a shared understanding.

We must be willing to develop some essential commitments with one another. These might include the following: what we intend to accomplish, how members will operate in decision-making, how conflicts are to be handled, project timeline and exit strategy, etc. These commitments should be clearly written, documented and agreed upon by all parties after careful reading and prayer. They should be referred to frequently and, if needed, be updated accordingly.

In conclusion, an effective multicultural, diverse team demonstrates the Creator’s transformational power in relationships. This is achieved by agreeing together to work at reconciled diversity in multicultural missional communities.

Nelson Okanya is president of Eastern Mennonite Missions.

1)  Herring, C. & Henderson, L, Diversity in Organizations: A Critical Examination (New York: Routledge, 2015).

2)  Katongole Emmanuel & Rice Chris, Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press,  2008).

The following references are also recommended by the author for further reading:

Boesak, Audrey  & DeYoung, Curtis Paul, Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2012).

Borthwick B Paul, Western Christians in Global Mission: What’s the Role of the north American church? (Downers Grove: InterVersity Press, 2012).

Hoke Steve and Taylor Bill, Global Mission Handbook: A Guide for Cross Cultural Service (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

Lingenfelter Sherwood G, Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

Sunquist W. Scott, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).