A young man from a West African country asked me, “How can I be a missionary? Missionaries do not come from my place.” The only missionaries he had ever known had come from Western countries like the United States or the United Kingdom. He had never met a missionary that looked like him. However, the global missionary force is becoming more African, Asian, and South American and less European and North American. As the global missionary force becomes more multinational, we need to consider the benefits and challenges of building multinational teams around the world.
The Benefits of Multinational Teams
Establishing healthy multinational teams is a major challenge. However, missionaries can genuinely benefit from establishing healthy multinational teams. First, the concept of multinational, cross-cultural partnership is biblical. The first recorded church to intentionally send missionaries was a multinational church. Luke records in Acts 13 that the leaders of the church in Antioch consisted of “Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucian of Cyrene, Manaen, a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul” (Acts 13:1). Barnabas was a Greek-speaking Jew from Cyprus. Simeon may have been a dark-skinned African. Lucius was from Cyrene in North Africa. Manaen was a Jewish noble who may have had a Greek education and held a prominent position in the court of Herod Antipas. Paul was a multicultural Jewish scholar from the Roman education center of Tarsus who, in addition to Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, may also have spoken Latin. This multinational team of church leaders was already engaged in the missionary task in one of the largest and most ethnically diverse cities in the Roman Empire. While the Lord was calling out Paul and Barnabas, the local church was providing a place of preparation for cross-cultural ministry and modeling multinational teams within their own context.
As the global missionary force becomes more multinational, we need to consider the benefits and challenges of building multinational teams around the world.
Second, utilizing workers from different cultures brings different strengths to missionary work. A Korean or Filipino missionary may better navigate the subtle complexities of hierarchical contexts than an American missionary. A task-oriented American may provide a helpful reminder for a team to maintain urgency, while a relationship-oriented Ugandan can remind the team about the importance of healthy team dynamics. Knowing that each team member has been gifted in different ways helps bring unity to the team as each one seeks to work to build one another up for the sake of the mission (1 Cor 12:6; Eph 4:15). As each team member brings their own cultural perspectives, they can strengthen the whole team as they engage in the missionary task.
The Challenges of Multinational Teams
The benefits of building multinational mission teams may be clear, but doing so is not easy. Numerous challenges can lead to major conflict within multinational teams. Even the way different cultures handle conflict can be a challenge. These challenges can be overcome, but they need to be identified and openly discussed in the context of a loving commitment to partnership.
As each team member brings their own cultural perspectives, they can strengthen the whole team as they engage in the missionary task.
Everyone on a multinational team may be genuinely committed to partnership, but different cultures hold different understandings of what partnership is. The nature of the partnership itself needs to be discussed, otherwise members will become frustrated as their own assumptions are unfulfilled. Western definitions of partnership are often centered on equality among partners. That is, each member is expected to make an equal contribution of work, finances, and time towards achieving the team’s goals. In contrast, the patron-client partnership model is much more common in many parts of the Majority World. This model sees one party in the partnership as the patron who provides finances and support for the client that includes, but is not limited to, the work of the team. The patron is often expected to help the client meet personal needs such as school fees for children and medicine for extended family members. Conflict is inevitable when team members approach partnership with different expectations and without the nature of partnership being discussed.
Limitations within partnership exist even when there is agreement on gospel essentials. Individuals from different denominations will struggle to find agreement on significant matters of church structure and leadership. Even partners within the same or similar denominations can experience challenges related to ecclesiology. One of the main issues that can arise is a cultural understanding of social distance. Social distance refers to the perceived distance between individuals or groups based on some social dimension (e.g., ethnicity, economic class, age, title and position, etc.). This becomes an ecclesiological issue for multinational mission teams, especially related to the nature of church leadership. Are pastors (and sometimes missionaries) perceived as having a higher social position that creates a barrier between laity and clergy, or is he a “first among equals”? Cultural perceptions of social distance will play a factor in how mission teams carry out every step of the missionary task, especially leadership development. Scripture must form the basis for a conversation within the multinational mission team, and we should expect Scripture to challenge all of our cultural presuppositions.
Major theological differences can create conflict within multinational teams. Certainly, differences in fundamental Christian doctrines will make partnership nearly impossible. However, there will be some disagreements that arise from a different theological emphasis that may not mean any party is unorthodox. Each person is likely to have different emphases and applications from Scripture because of a variety of culturally influenced factors. The South African missiologist Andrew Walls observed, “The very universality of the Gospel, the fact that it is for everyone, leads to a variety of perceptions and applications of it. Responsive hearers of the Gospel respond in terms of their own lives.” The objective truth of Scripture will be received and applied in different cultures in different ways because Scripture will uniquely challenge each culture. The solution to this challenge in multinational teams is a lot of grace and communication.
We should expect Scripture to challenge all of our cultural presuppositions.
From Forming to Flourishing
Building multinational teams is hard, but multinational teams can be a powerful testimony in a world that is divided in countless ways. Each member of the multinational team must learn to trust each other, and this can only happen with time together, love for one another, and much more communication than anyone may expect initially. Everyone will need to learn how to communicate in different ways to make sure that they are being heard and understood as they intend. Every member will need to be an active learner of other team members’ cultures to help them understand each other better. Building healthy multinational teams will not happen quickly, but it may be one of the most powerful ways to engage in the missionary task in this era of Christian missions.
 Eckhard Schnabel, Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 554.
 Matthew Hirt, Peoples and Places: How Geography Impacts Missions Strategy (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2022), 94–95.
 Elaine A. Phillipa, “The Geographic Importance of Antioch on Orontes,” in Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 276.
 See Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1993).
 Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Marknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 46.
Matthew Hirt (PhD in International Missions from SEBTS) has served in both pastoral ministry and international missions. He currently serves as missions faculty at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, where he trains aspiring pastors and missionaries to be obedient to Christ in fulfilling the Great Commission. He is a contributing author and co-editor of the book Generational Disciple-Making: How Ordinary Followers of Jesus Are Transformed into Extraordinary Fishers of Men. He is also the author of Peoples and Places: How Geography Impacts Missions Strategy. You can follow him on Twitter.