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Cultural Awareness:
A critical leadership survival tool

In Matthew 28:18–20, Jesus gave us the specific command to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Today we need not go far to experience the nations. Consider the changing world in which we live. Our schools, parks, community centers, commercial markets, and governmental offices display increasing evidence of richness and diversity. Race, age, economic status, religious belief, personal style, educational experiences, ethnic background, and cultural legacy all represent facets of our contemporary mission field. Diversity is all around us, both as a gift to be celebrated and an opportunity to be developed.

Consider the early church emerging from its encounter with God at Pentecost. People unique in language, background, experience, and heritage but with a common cause began to change the world. The apostle Paul served as one of the first cross-cultural missionaries, becoming “all things to all people.” It’s essential for today’s leaders to work effectively in cross-cultural situations and settings. Leaders must develop the awareness, sensitivity, knowledge, and skills needed to respect different cultural values and beliefs to effectively lead and reach communities with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Often when we think of cultural awareness, we think only of race, gender, or age. Congregations and ministries have been guilty of coming together in superficial ways in the name of diversity. We attempt to craft programs with a “one of each” mentality, handpicking, for instance, someone from an African American context to represent that group, and individuals from a Caucasian context to talk about possibilities from a predominant perspective. After the meeting we sit back and say, “Wow! This is diversity!” But the truth is, we don’t know much more about each other after the meeting than we did before.

Tweetable: “But the truth is, we don’t know much more about each other after the meeting than we did before.” @GailDudley

Our Christian faith intersects with the diverse world around us. If we desire to be faithful, we will ask, “How can I reach people across cultural lines to make an impact with God’s grace and truth?” To reach others for Christ outside of our immediate cultural groups, we must build relationships, learn more about people, acknowledge others’ perspectives, and become transparent about our own cultural groups. It is the same principle we experience in our relationship with God: Spending quality time strengthens familiarity. To understand our neighbors and the nations in our own neighborhoods, no matter their background, we must willingly invest ourselves, our thoughts, our time, and our resources.

A person is not accepted or rejected by God because of her or his race, nationality, or cultural particularity. Why, then, do we feel it necessary to accept or reject someone (both subtly and overtly) based on differences? Social scientists tell us that culture consists of the values, standards, and expectations at work whenever two or more human beings interact. Etiquette, preferences, language, traditions and customs, food, dress, musical tastes, and belief systems all inform and shape culture. Just as culture influences how we view the world and behave, so does it color our interpretation of the behavior of others. Our learned behaviors, prejudices, fears, and stereotypes often negatively interfere with healthy communication and trust. But just as these behaviors are learned, so too can they be unlearned. Our experiences and backgrounds condition us for different responses, different perceptions, and different ways of thinking. Our experiences and our cultural groups determine what we accept as reality and what we simply ignore because it doesn’t register within our view. Because of differences in assumptions and perceptions, we often do not see what does exist and do see what does not exist. Transforming assumptions and perceptions is key to the process of selecting what we choose to believe.

The Bible teaches that we should view others through the eyes of Jesus, not according to appearance, material worth, position, or race. The Bible also teaches that every one of us should continually examine ourselves, our motivations, our perceptions, and our own sinfulness. Christ calls us to the nations for the purpose of building authentic community. This is realized only through the commitment of leaders who are aware and in tune with the wealth and potential of the diverse constituencies we are called to serve. Ultimately, cultural awareness will help us be the catalysts and change agents we are called to be for Christ.

Join the conversation. What can we do to embrace more diversity in our women’s book clubs, small groups, ministry gatherings, in our writing, and in our ministry outreach? Email me and share your thoughts.

This article first appeared in Outcomes Magazine Winter 2010 by Gail Dudley. Join Gail in Dallas, TX, in April 2019 for the CLA Conference. Find out more here: https://outcomesconference.org/

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