In Cross-Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer tells the parable of a monkey who sees a fish swimming against the current of a stream (pp. 27-28). Assuming the fish is struggling to survive, the monkey plucks the fish out of the stream and places it on dry ground. At first, the fish flops around–excited to have been saved, the monkey thinks. When the fish stops moving, the monkey feels satisfied, believing the fish is resting contentedly. Of course, the fish is dead.
In cross-cultural exchanges, we intend to serve others, but our efforts may be perceived as exercises of arrogant power. The remedy is Christlike humility. “Humility is mandated,” Elmer writes, “but”–and this exception is crucial–“its expression is culturally defined” (p. 33). We must both intend to be humble, in other words, and act in ways that people from other cultures perceive as humble.
How do we do this? Cross-Cultural Servanthood examines “the process of becoming a cross-cultural servant” (p. 19). Elmer outlines this process with six steps:
- Openness: “the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe” (p. 39, emphasis in original).
- Acceptance: “the ability to communicate value, worth and esteem to another person” (p. 58)
- Trust: “the ability to build confidence in a relationship so that both parties believe the other will not intentionally hurt them but will act in their best interest” (p. 77).
- Learning: “the ability to glean relevant information about, from and with other people” (p. 93).
- Understanding: “the ability to see patterns of behavior and values that reveal the integrity of a people” (p. 125).
- Serving: “the ability to relate to people in such a way that their dignity as human beings is affirmed and they are more empowered to live God-glorifying lives” (p. 146).
Elmer is G. W. Aldeen Professor of International Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. His book is clear and simply written, mixing theological and sociological analysis in balanced measure, and using illustrations from his life and career, as well as from the lives and careers of others.
I highly recommend this book to Christian missionaries, pastors, and laypeople who work in cross-cultural or multi-cultural settings. It will help them understand how to better communicate the gospel in word and deed. It will also help them examine their own motives to make sure they are serving rather than patronizing others.
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