Biblical perspective on multi-cultural teams
By Stephen Nitte La'abes
God’s Word is very clear that all people are created equal and every person can be a child of God, receiving the full inheritance of heaven. The Bible teaches us how to love and serve everyone, no matter their age, ethnicity, gender or nationality.
Multi-cultural teams in Christian missions are not rare; either you live in a multi-cultural environment, belong to a multi-cultural team or attend a multi-cultural congregation Such teams can have constant stress and misunderstanding, or they can be healthy and flourish because of their awareness and ability to accept, understand and respect people from other cultures.
Many Christian scholars and missiologists have written about multi-cultural teams. However, my perspective arises from personal experience working on multi-cultural teams in Malawi, Nigeria and Niger.
Whenever I introduce myself as a Nigerian to people I don’t know, their response is: “Oh, you Nigerians, internet scammers and fraudsters.” Whether or not these scammers really are Nigerian, nobody cares, because people already believe that single story about Nigerians. I have met a few people who respond positively, without tagging me as poor or checking if their wallet is missing. There is a danger in believing a single story about a people, as Chimamanda Adichie puts it in her book, The Danger of a Single Story.
This way of viewing people can break trust and affect relationships and effectiveness in a team. Until we change our theology of people, unlearning the myths and re-learning the concepts of celebrating, accepting and respecting people regardless of where they are from, cross-cultural miscommunication and misunderstanding will remain a concern in a multicultural team.
Let’s look at Apostle Paul in Acts 17:16-34.
Athens was known for its great diversity of culture, ethnicity and religion, so Paul found himself in a genuine melting pot, with the Gospel to deliver to a diverse audience. Verse 17 describes how ‘he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily.’ When invited to share his views at the Areopagus, he focused on an alter he had seen ‘To the Unknown God.’
Paul models how to live in a multi-cultural environment. He engages people, both in the synagogue and in the marketplace every day, listening to them and sharing about himself. He also looks for something in their own context, the altar to an unknown God, to make a bridge between them. This creates common ground – a sense of mutuality between them. It was not possible to ignore their differences, yet he accepted the challenge of the diversity of Athens’ ethnic cultures and devoted his energy to bring the Athenians under one identity of church.
Keeping this biblical design for a church as the benchmark, successful multicultural teams are strengthened by their own diverse membership. The theological, ecclesiological and missiological implications of their daily life can be a powerful witness to the communities they serve.
Peter Rowan, the UK National Director for OMF, warns of the dangers of teams of people from the same cultural backgrounds: “If we allow teams to be made up simply of our kind of people, we’ll end up preaching our kind of gospel and planting our kind of churches. And whilst that might be very comfortable it may not be very biblical. There are three good reasons for multicultural mission teams.”
Peter goes on to share the reasons: 1) Multi-cultural teams bear witness that the Gospel breaks down barriers and is offered to every person from every tribe, tongue and nation; 2) Multi-cultural teams are a place for growth in discipleship, with input from brothers and sisters from very different backgrounds and 3) Multi-cultural teams model the kind of diverse churches we hope to plant.
For these reasons and more, multi-cultural missionary teams, when they are working together well, are the ultimate model for the family of God and the ultimate context for the discipleship.
We all have been given equality of calling, having the same opportunity to say ‘yes’ to the Great Commission. Yet we do not all experience equity. We may have equal opportunities, but certainly, we may not have the same social networks and resources to operate at the same level. But when we live justly and practice equity, then we can leave co-dependency behind and practice inter-dependency on our teams. This attitude will further authenticate the message we believe and proclaim.
Stephen is a missionary from Nigeria serving at Galmi Hospital in Niger. Previously, he served with Partners of Hope in Malawi, southern Africa. His qualifications in medical laboratory science have equipped him for his vocation, but his calling into missions has taken him across borders. Read more of his story in AfriGO Vol 4 Issue 3 on www.afrigo.org. Contact him at email@example.com.