Making Cross-Cultural Relationships in a Globalised World

30 Dec 2012

This post has been cross-posted to the Emerging Scholars Network, where you can carry on the conversation.

This weekend, I'm at Urbana, a gathering of 16,000 Christian students interested in the work of the church worldwide. Over the last few days, I have been blogging seminars, in which a speaker gives a talk to around 50-60 participants.

It's easy to develop romantic excitement about a cosmopolitan lifestyle, especially at a vast international gathering like Urbana. What practical steps can Christians take to learn about and meet people from other cultures and places?

Our speaker, Paul Borthwick, teaches missions at Gordon College and has a website which features only one phrase: "listening to the world." His latest book, How to be a world-class Christian, is a practical guide to maintaining a feet-on-the-ground perspective and a global vision. Paul shares eight exercises to keep our vision for the world growing.

Compile Information. Carry out a study of the basics of missions. Read about the great commission, and work out the reasons you have for serving the world. For example, some people have read through the Bible and circled every part where the rest of the world is mentioned.

We need to change how we see others if we're to relate well to people from cultures different than our own. Paul asks us how our relationships would change if we imagined that every person was created in the image of God. When Paul lived in Boston, this thought changed how he treated other drivers. Biblical information like this changes the way we look at the world, he says.

Learn about our world from the news, Paul tells us. When Paul was a seminary student, he was upset that someone had left a newspaper in the prayer room. His professor responded, "the Bible tells us what God wants to do in the world. The newspapers tells us where he wants to do it." Listen to the BBC (World Service, PRI The World) at least once a week, Paul says, and pray about those places. Paul tells us to learn the countries of the world. If you know where someone is from, it opens wonderful doors to talking and making a relationship.

We can and should go beyond news into other media by and about people worldwide. Paul talks to us about William Carey, a shoemaker who went to India and launched what is considered now to be the modern missionary movement. Carey got his first vision for mission by reading the accounts of Captain Cook's travels in the South Pacific. Carey's vision for cross-cultural mission began when he asked himself the question, "who's going to tell them about Jesus?"

Next, Paul asks us to turn down the collar of the person next to us and look at the label. "How many of you have clothing from the USA? From Canada? From Africa, Asia, or Latin America? When you look at your clothes, pray for the country and the people who made your shirt. Paul encourages us to learn something from everywhere and everything about somewhere.

We should pray, and become a globally-minded Christian through our prayers. We can go in our prayers places we may never go in our lives; there's nothing stopping us from praying the world. Paul tells us to go to to find a new country to pray for each day. Our first response to global need should be prayer, because we're not the lord of the world or the masters of the universe. We can't determine the future, but we can bring our requests to God.

We should be involved in the lives of people in other places. Paul says that whenever he meets someone with an accent a little different from his, Paul will ask him where he's from. "I have never met an international student who doesn't like someone being interested in him." He tells us about a church he visited, where the missions committee was afraid to talk to people of other cultures in their neighbourhood.

We should integrate our beliefs with our action . That requires alertness that there's a bigger world than the one we live in. 94% of the world live outside of the US and Canada. Paul encourages us to donate and support humanitarian organisations.

Finally, investigate how your passions connect to international work. GoCorps is a new development in mission, which do work in-between a few months and four to five years. They offer one to two year long opportunities to travel and serve.

"I live seven miles from where I grew up, Paul says, and I have never lived outside of Massachussetts." And yet he has cultivated a cosmopolitan life from where he is, through travel and by getting to know the diverse communities near where he lives. Paul tells us that quite often, people involved in the missions committee of their church are too shy to talk to the diverse people who live in their own neighbourhoods. Especially across the U.S., we are all part of a global village whether we want to be or not.

How can we encourage others to take on a cosmopolitan outlook? Paul advises against calling out other people's parochialism. Instead, say "hey, anyone want some Shwarma?" He also encourages Christians to read Winfried Corduwan's Neighbouring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions.

A Few Notes by Nathan Matias

At the Center for Civic Media, where I am a gradstudent, we think a lot about digital cosmpolitanism. If you want to learn about another culture online, it's often possible to find a connection through something you're already passionate about. Here are some examples:

How do you go about learning about other cultures? Email me at

Sandra Zaragoza writes:

On learning to relate to people from other cultures:

I would recommend a book by Sarah Lanier called From Foreign to Familiar. I read it in 2008-9 and it was a great tool when I was ministering full-time to int'l students. For me, one of the best things about it was that it helped me understand how my own cultural background affects me, which is a really good place to start if you want to build bridges between you and people from other cultures!

If you want to show someone you are interested in their story, who they are, ask questions. Ask good and open questions. And listen well. Let people invite you into their world and don't rush in (dare I say "intrude") with questions that often betray the cultural biases, assumptions and stereotypes your brain was trained to accept by the society around you (i.e, avoid the classic "but you're [nationality] you should like [this or that]).

On being globally-minded in prayer:

A friend of mine who is a missionary mobiliser in the UK wrote a blog post on intercessory prayer. It challenged me to think about this generation and whether or not we've lost or are starting to lose that intercessory mindset... Check it out, it's good food for thought!

One thing my homegroup does is spend a few mins learning about and praying for a different country every week (we call it "focussed prayer"). When it's my turn to contribute I usually go on the Operation World website, pick a country I don't know much about and print out the page. It's a small thing but it's worked so far in keeping us outward-looking. Though I must confess I am not as fervent in praying for the world outside of Christian gatherings, big or small... I'd be interested to hear what other people's advice!