Post 3 of 5 on Principles of Cross-Cultural Servanthood

Learning is the ability to glean relevant information about, from and with other people. When we choose to learn from others, we seek information that will change our attitudes and behaviors.

Learning about people

Learning about people and places helps us check and better adjust our expectations against reality. Reading books about where you are living and the people there will provide a wealth of information. And learning about people should generate questions that will help us probe more deeply into the local culture. A common problem when we begin relationships with people of other cultures is that we become tongue-tied. We end up asking mundane and frivolous questions that are fine early on but which wear thin quickly. A prepared list of questions and issues to probe more deeply will allow you to enter many information-rich conversations and explore the culture from a reliable source. The answers you get will bring a wonderful understanding and appreciation for local realities.

My favorite question to ask new friends is about their name. Naming a child  here is very important and takes a lot of time and reflection. When you ask someone what their name means, they can tell you all about what their parents and grandparents hoped would define them. Then you can ask about how they feel that they measure up to their name.

Learning from people

When we enter into a new culture, no matter how educated we may be, we must take on the role of a learner. Most of us see this learner role as temporary, something from which to escape as soon as possible. Once the language has been sufficiently mastered and the culture sufficiently understood, we again avoid the learner role.   We belittle our relationships when we take this approach. Transient, utilitarian relationships communicate a low view of people. Ongoing dialogue, friendship and solidarity with others requires some interdependence. While independence and dependence have serious downsides, interdependence is nothing more than confessing that we need each other for family, church, and social well-being.

Sometimes, establishing strong relationships with local people hinges on the kind of attitude we have about the local people and ourselves. When we engage in a conversation, are we really listening and speaking in kind? If we engage in relationships out of a sense of duty or necessity, then our conversation will look more like a monologue than a dialogue. We endeavor to get what we want to say out as quickly as possible and have no misgivings about steering the conversation in that direction. To learn from people, we have to first listen to people. Successful people in overseas ministry value people first.

Learning with people

This wonderful form of learning assumes that the best learning happens in a relationship, in mutuality, in a partnership where neither side is above or beneath. Proverbs 27:17 may best express this type of learning: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Respectful interaction between two people benefits both. Each depends on the other. This interdependence produces a kind of life together that represents Christ, each to the other.   By learning from and with each other, we sharpen our vision and practice in ways that could never happen alone. We need each other. Our connected lives and cultures make us better people.

As Christians, we must not overlook the knowledge and experience of our local brothers and sisters as well. Sometimes we may feel more mature than them in our faith. This is often a false understanding based on surface level knowledge. Together we can grow in the knowledge of God and engage the culture united for His glory.

“A friend of mine once said, ‘Things were simple before I went to Africa. I knew what the African’s problem was, and I knew the answer. When I got there and began to know him as a person, things were no longer simple.’” – Elisabeth Elliot

Posts on Cross-Cultural Servanthood:

  1. Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2006.

6 thoughts on “Learning

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