Basic etiquette for cross-cultural ministry

Andrew Lim

I have been surprised to discover that many Sydney Anglicans are not aware of the basic rules when relating to people of other languages and cultures. Our best attempts to reach out cross-culturally can be undermined by not appreciating and understanding these.

1. "They" are not deaf.

When someone from a non-English-speaking background is trying to understand what you are saying, raising the volume of your voice does not help. People of cultures other than your's are not cursed with deaf ears. You may just need to be aware that the Aussie accent can make it challenging to understand your English. Even friends who have studied English overseas before coming to Australia can struggle, as they may have learned English taught in an American or British or other accent.

Even Christian ministers can be guilty of this. I was shocked to observe a fellow minister attempt to engage a Thai university student in conversation, and after repeating himself twice (the second time at higher volume), roll his eyes, huff and walk off in disgust when the young man failed to fully comprehend him.

2. "They" are not dumb.

In fact, "they" may be smarter and more qualified than you.  I'm constantly amused (and dismayed too) that Anglo-Australians talk down to people from a different cultural background as though "they" are little children. It can come across in the patronising tone right from the initial contact, and continue in a stream of unsolicited advice and instruction.

Give "them" the benefit of the doubt, and speak as you would normally. If you need to adjust the speed or intonation to help someone with an ESL (English as a Second Language) background, then do so after they have replied or indicated their comprehension level. We may choose simpler English words to explain concepts, but don't let this fool you into thinking that difficult concepts are beyond them. You just don't have the language to engage with their minds.

3. "They" are the same as "you".

There is common ground, despite cultural and linguistic differences, in the human experience. Seek out points of commonality - be that interests, studies, food, whatever! One of the things I try to do is to ask what they are studying or working as, and then to immediately match them with a member of my congregation who is studying or working in the same area, and introduce them to that member.

They are just as precious in God's sight as us. There's a sense, often felt but never expressed, in some Christian circles that the conversion of one of "us" is more valuable and more to be celebrated than the conversion of one of "them".

Andrew is the founding pastor of Asian Bible Church (ABC) at St Andrew's Cathedral, and the convenor for the Queen's Birthday Convention