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What held us together: diverse yet unified

By AfriGO Team


More than ten years ago, God led Africa Inland Mission to mobilize a multicultural team to work among unreached rural people groups in Tanzania. Committed to the Lord and to their common vision, the team launched into ministry. The challenges of working in a rural setting with Muslims were many, but the team soon faced another hurdle: their many different cultural backgrounds. AfriGO interviewed the team about their story. It is both instructive and inspirational.

Cultural Misunderstandings

Opportunities for misunderstanding first came during weekly team meetings before they knew each other well. In some African cultures, married women remain silent when their husbands are present, trusting them to speak for the couple. A married woman from the UK, however, shared her opinion freely. The Western women thought the married African women were quiet and shy, but discovered in one-on-one meetings that their sisters were animated and talkative.

African teammates wanted to discuss personally areas of conflict on the agenda in order to reach consensus before the meeting. To the Westerners, the meeting was the right place for those discussions, but the Africans saw this as confrontational. Sharing one-on-one their feelings about the meetings, itself a process of gaining trust and understanding personal backgrounds, identified this source of conflict.

Sometimes, a Western woman might begin to cry from deep emotion or frustration over a subject being discussed, or from feeling overwhelmed by life on the mission field. For the Africans, crying over such things was inappropriate, so they felt bewildered, wondering if anger lay behind the emotion. One African team member told us he learned to apologize for his part, opening the way to discover the reason for the outburst and creating a warmth of understanding in the group.

The team’s strongest advice was: “Get to know your teammates.” How do you do this? The most obvious way was to spend time together eating, talking and praying. By walking in another’s shoes outside the meetings, and seeing from their viewpoint, mutual understanding and cooperation began to grow.

“We really resolved everything between ourselves,” said Susan, from the UK. “We would usually see one another outside of a team meeting. There was no real mechanism to do that – we just did it.”

The leader is key

The importance of an experienced team leader cannot be overstated. The team in Tanzania benefitted from the leader’s prior experience of multi-cultural teams as a member and leader. His organization had also sent him for leadership training with a multi-cultural component.

His insistence on creating consensus meant hours spent in team meetings discussing ministry direction, but it also meant team members could express their opinions and hear the hearts of others. In rare instances when they could not agree, even after months of discussion, the leader would decide. “I didn’t always agree,” said one American, “but I always found out later he had been right.”

Each Westerner expressed thankfulness for their African team leader. He provided invaluable insights into local practices and guided them through government interactions. His strong leadership and emphasis on unity encouraged everyone to strive diligently to understand each other and keep going. “The sense of loving and being committed to one another and a common call to reach the W.* people really held us together,” said Susan.


Diversity is strength

Typical cross-cultural issues often came up, such as disagreements about management of money and time. In one example, traveling together became a source of conflict. The Westerners grew frustrated when others were not ready to depart even hours after the arranged time, and Africans felt uncomfortable when the team wanted to travel on Sundays. It took some problem-solving (like leaving early in the morning before African members could be waylaid by neighbours) and compromise (like the Westerners avoiding Sunday travel whenever possible) to arrange life to the satisfaction of all.

Religious backgrounds can create tension when deciding on ministry practices. In particular, this church-planting team differed on what the new church should look like. It needed to be contextualized for local believers, but each team member also brought their opinions. They believe they eventually created the right mix, but what church should entail remains the biggest question they strive to resolve. Eventually the locals themselves will decide.

But culture is not the only difference – even those who share a culture may have major personality differences – another reason to patiently get to know one’s teammates.

Pastor Daniel advises, “Learn things about your teammates, like their food, their beliefs, whether they are from direct or indirect cultures and their style of communication.”

Each teammate brought different skills: some excelled at language learning, others were sought out by locals for advice. As they built on their strengths, they helped the village in various ways.

The team recommends the book “When Helping Hurts.” Reading it together helped them learn more about each other and plan how the team would respond in practice. Elizabeth from the USA said, “The most important thing is to say, ‘I might be the one who is wrong.’”

Over and over, team members said, “Be flexible. Be willing to compromise.” We were told how important it is to expect cultural differences and be ready to die to yourself and your agenda.

The team reported that being multi-cultural was a strength, not a drawback. “You don’t have to be from one people group or race to follow Jesus,” said Susan. The team also modelled Biblical behaviours, especially in Christian parenting and marriage. Locals observed that Tanzanian Pastor Daniel and Steve from the UK treated their wives similarly, though their cultures differed vastly.

Today, churches are growing among this people because the team answered God’s call and persevered through misunderstandings, not only from the local people, but also from each other. Their sacrifices for the unity of the team are a beautiful fragrance to God and to the local community. “It was worth it,” the team members continuing this work today told us without hesitation.

Pray for this multi-cultural team as they continue to share the gospel with this Muslim people group.

Submitted by the AfriGO editorial team.

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