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Cultural Intelligence and Why it Matters to the Church

Eugene Cho, along with Helen Lee and Soong-Chan Rah, have written recently about the need for cultural sensitivity within society in general, but in the church specifically.  Prompted by the airing of a political campaign ad from Pete Hoelkstra presenting negative stereotypes of Asian-Americans, the trio discussed how this insensitivity permeates popular culture and the church as well.

They provide an example of a sermon illustration gone awry:

We recently witnessed a sermon video in which the pastor of a large, multi-site church in Minnesota brought an Asian man on stage representing a “samurai” and had him sit before the congregation, stone-faced and silent, while the pastor flailed his arms in a cartoonish imitation of karate moves while yelling random Asian-sounding gibberish, then banged a loud gong in an attempt to rattle the “samurai’s focus.”

This type of thoughtless denigration is largely due to ignorance of what would be considered inappropriate, insensitive, or offensive. The example above utilizes stereotypes that reduce a person’s identity to negative images that devalue Asian-American in larger society. The authors continue:

Our nation is moving rapidly towards racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, and American Christianity is bearing witness to these dramatic changes. Workplaces, congregations, conferences, and readerships are all changing to reflect this reality, but Christian leaders are lagging behind in attaining the cultural intelligence they need in order to navigate through this multi-cultural reality.

Cultural intelligence is not merely gaining intellectual knowledge about another culture. Just because you like samurai/ninja culture and have seen Kung Fu movies does not mean that you possess cultural intelligence. Instead, a leader with a high cultural IQ has developed a sensitivity to other cultures and handles those cultural contexts with honor and respect.

Without cultural intelligence, a leader runs the risk of caricaturing other cultures, as in the church’s example above. You cannot appropriately represent a culture that you have not taken the time to know or understand. And when you attempt to do so, you not only dishonor those who are a part of the culture you are diminishing, but you also dishonor the One who has created every tongue, tribe, and nation to begin with.

None of us can claim perfect understanding of the wonderful diversity that exists both around the globe and even within our own country. But Christians are called to be ministers of reconciliation, and Christian leaders are the ones who need to step forward in the hard work of developing cultural intelligence.

What are steps that leaders can take to increase their cultural IQ?

Here are three simple ways to begin:

  • Step out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to new cultural experiences that you have never tried–foods, styles of worship, entertainment, for example. As you normalize the discomfort of new cultural experiences, your sensitivity for those cultures will increase.
  • Examine your personal relationships: how often do you spend time with those from a different cultural background? If your relationships overly homogeneous, how can you expand your relational horizons?
  • Ask someone from a different culture to mentor you. As you meet leaders who speak into your spiritual and emotional life from a different cultural context, your understanding of our changing world will expand.

Cultural change is not a possibility, but an inevitability. The leaders who will have the biggest impact in this shifting cultural landscape are those who possess a teachable spirit, flexibility, and humility.

Read the full article here.

Eugene Cho, a second-generation Korean-American, is the founder and lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle and the executive director of Q Cafe, an innovative nonprofit neighborhood café and music venue. You can follow him at his blog, Twitter or his Facebook page. Eugene and his wife are also the founders of One Day’s Wages, a movement of people, stories and actions to alleviate extreme global poverty. You can follow Helen Lee @helenleeauthor and Soong-Chan Rah @profrah. Helen Lee is a writer, journalist, and author of the book, The Missional Mom: Living with Purpose at Home & in the World. Soong-Chan Rah is a professor at North Park Seminary and the author of The Next Evangelicalism.

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