Cross-cultural missional partnership is “The Fellowship of the Bent Knees” (Phil 1:10–11). Partners meet because they mutually submit to King Jesus and then rise together to join in his mission to the nations. Mutual submission and striving form the foundation for healthy relationships among cross-cultural partners (Phil 1:6, 27).
Based on previous posts about the theological basis for partnership and my definition of cross-cultural missional partnership, I now want to offer several principles and practices of healthy partnership.
1. Intentionally and regularly spend time in prayer and Scripture together.
We all know we should change the oil in our car, but how many of us do this on time? Our tendency is to neglect the obvious and rush to the “real work.” Sadly, I have seen ministry objectives and agendas proceed without adequate time spent acknowledging the Lord of the mission. Healthy cross-cultural relationships built for kingdom purposes must regularly bow the knee together to King Jesus.
Bowing the knee in prayer and reading Scripture together remind partners of their higher, common authority. Praying together is a unifying experience that builds trust and intimacy in cross-cultural relationships that are prone to misunderstanding and miscommunication. Cultural and contextual diversity tend to encourage division and strife. Prayer reminds us of who we have in common and that we are mutually committed to the same thing.
2. Intentionally listen and learn from your partner by asking questions and requesting feedback.
Americans are a people known for their confidence, ingenuity, and problem-solving skills. Unfortunately, our solution-oriented approach to problems and relationships may be controlling and therefore unwelcome by ministry partners. Partnerships are not built on inactivity, but sometimes the best thing we can do is stop and listen.
“Praying together is a unifying experience that builds trust and intimacy in cross-cultural relationships that are prone to misunderstanding and miscommunication.”
Humility and deference are biblical values that we can practically utilize by asking questions and genuinely listening. Many cross-cultural partners will not be as assertive or direct as we may expect in our culture. Your subtle suggestion, solution, or ministry strategy may not be best, but may be implemented by nationals in order to avoid conflict or shame. We can serve our ministry partners well by observing and understanding before drawing conclusions or responses.
3. Intentionally work on building trust in your relationships, but according to your partner’s way of building trust.
I remember being frustrated at some of my Zambian partners’ indirect methods of communication and responding by saying, “Please just go ahead and be direct and tell me the point so I can understand.” In my zeal to communicate clearly, I demanded they adapt to my communication preferences instead of me adapting to their patterns.
Sometimes what we think builds trust actually erodes our partner’s trust in our relationship. Direct confrontation may work in a Western business environment but will likely damage relationships and cause shame in other cultures. Effectively building trust in some cultures may look like utilizing an intermediary when there is tension in the relationship. The point is we must build trust according to the preferences and expectations of our cross-cultural partner. As cross-cultural witnesses and cultural outsiders, we bear the greater weight of responsibility to adapt to local norms.
4. Intentionally ensure that the local partners who are the primary stakeholders exercise ownership of the vision and task.
The principle of subsidiarity states that smaller, local authorities should make social and political decisions rather than distant, centralized authorities. In the church and missions world, this principle looks like planting churches that are self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting. Foreigners or outside bodies should not control or decide what local groups of believers or churches should do.
Likewise, partners should ensure that vision for ministry comes from Scripture and that local believers own the vision. By listening (step two above), partners can learn the needs of the community and local ways of meeting those needs that are faithful to Scripture and contextually impactful.
“Missions does not need Lone Ranger missionaries or those with a ‘savior’ mentality. We are humble ambassadors of the one true God and we carry a precious message.”
Pride and control by cultural outsiders (often by using foreign funds) is the enemy of genuine partnership and local ownership of the missionary task. Looking to Scripture, listening to your partner, and building trust in the relationship ensure that the vision is biblical, locally owned, and inclusive of cross-cultural partnership in the task.
5. Intentionally work on your own cultural awareness and make use of a cultural broker.
Bowed knees and humble hearts do not automatically or inevitably lead to understanding and harmony in every cross-cultural interaction. Diversity is a blessing but can often look and feel like a curse. We often attribute negative judgments to what is different or unknown. When our own cultural background serves as our moral compass, then frustration and anger often result.
We don’t know what we don’t know, which is why we need a cultural coach/broker. This person may be a missionary who can serve as a bridge between the two cultures and provide insight from both perspectives. A local believer who has interacted frequently with foreigners will be invaluable in explaining the thoughts and beliefs of the local people.
This step helps us see that we need help from others to succeed in cross-cultural partnerships and our larger mission. Missions does not need Lone Ranger missionaries or those with an arrogant “savior” mentality. We are humble ambassadors of the one true God and we carry a precious message. Admittedly, we are merely jars of clay (2 Cor 4:7–12). We go to the nations with much to give, but also with an awareness of our need for others within the body of Christ.
Finally, just as we must set intentional reminders to change the oil in our car, we must also intentionally practice these important principles of cross-cultural missional partnership. These simple principles are not grandiose or innovative, but they will certainly encourage health and longevity in our cross-cultural partnerships.
Joshua Bowman holds a PhD in Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is Assistant Professor of Missions and Theology at Cedarville University. He served with his wife Amy and their four children in Zambia and South Asia with the International Mission Board for seventeen years as a church planter, church strengthening strategist, and team leader.
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