Ministering Cross-Culturally Book Review

Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships (2nd edition), by Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003. 128 pages. Reviewed by John Carmichael.

This book was chosen for review because it is written to help cross-cultural workers adapt their methods to fit the culture of those they minister. It is a valid resource on this subject because of its focus on God’s metaphor of the incarnation of Christ, its use of the model of basic values, and the experience of its authors. The book has two authors. The primary author is Sherwood Lingenfelter (9). He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. He is provost and senior vice president at Fuller Theological Seminary. Lingenfelter has extensive experience in the Pacific Islands (10). He also used the model of basic values in his teaching at Biola University and churches in Southern California. Marvin Mayers developed the model of basic values, which serves as a foundation for this book. He is listed as the coauthor because Lingenfelter relied heavily on the model he created and his input on the manuscript (10). Mayers was a missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Guatemala. He also was an educator at Wheaton College and Biola University. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

The book’s thesis is to identify the cultural tension and provide strategies in ministering the Gospel to people of different cultures utilizing the model of basic values. The book also relies on the incarnation of Jesus Christ as a model for cross-cultural ministry. Missionaries are challenged to become more like the people they intend to evangelize.

There are straightforward and distinct sections of the book. The first chapter defines and explains the Incarnation as God’s example of how ministry should look in a cross-cultural setting. In this chapter, readers get introduced to Jesus Christ as being a 200-percent person (17). Lingenfelter sums up the point by saying, “He was 100 percent God and 100 percent Jew – a 200-percent person (17).”

The next chapter defines the model of basic values and includes a self-evaluation questionnaire. The model was first proposed in 1974 (29). It contains twelve elements that form six pairs of contrasting traits: 1. Time (Time vs. Event), 2. Judgment (Dichotomistic vs. Holistic Thinking), 3. Handling Crises (Crisis Orientation vs. Noncrisis Orientation), 4. Goals (Person Orientation vs. Task Orientation), 5. Self-Worth (Status Focus vs. Achievement Focus), 6. Vulnerability (Concealment of Vulnerability vs. Willingness to Expose Vulnerability).

Chapters three through eight explore in-depth the tensions associated with six pairs of contrasting traits. It is within these chapters that the application of the model is demonstrated. There are stories of how the model helped the missionaries minister to the Yapese.

The final chapter concludes with exhorting would-be ministers to pursue the acclimation process into whatever culture they find ministering. Lingenfelter encourages the missionaries to become 150-percent persons. This is accomplished by the cross-cultural worker entering “a culture as if they were children – helpless, dependent, and ignorant. . . in the spirit of Christ (117).”

Lingenfelter accomplishes the goal of identifying the issues involved in cross-cultural ministry. One of the great features of this book is that it’s a very focused book. The authors seem resolute in preparing missionaries to be successful while in other cultures. Every chapter is plainly tied, with sub-headings no less, to the model and the Biblical perspective of the Incarnation. The reader will plainly see how each chapter is connected to the thesis of the book.

The book has an obvious bias toward the model of basic values. The authors believe that the model will help one understand the motivations that affect a person’s actions (35). Lingenfelter is speedy to point out that the model itself can produce “an oversimplification of reality” (29). The model does seem to cover the major elements of cultural differences that could help missionaries acclimate to the culture they are sent to minister.

Lingenfelter uses obvious examples of how the model was used in the Yapese culture. The stories of how the tensions appeared between the missionaries and the Yapese are both entertaining and enlightening. The stories provide support for the thesis. Lingenfelter tells a story about going to watch a film in chapter three. The film was to begin at 8:30 PM, and many were gathering to watch the film. The movie finally starts around 10 PM because it would have been rude to start it before everyone had gathered. Once the film was to start, it took over thirty minutes to get the generator fixed. The workers were socializing the whole time while they were supposed to be loading the film. Each time the generator broke during the film, the attendees would socialize. Eventually, everyone drifted home and considered it a successful social event (45). This story illustrates the Yapese attitude toward time. It also exposes how an event-oriented person would be frustrated.

As a reviewer, the question kept coming about whether these principles would apply in cultural settings that were not so monogamous. Stories of the applications of the model in other cultures such as those in Europe or the West would have bolstered the thesis. That is not to say that one could not use the basic application of the model from a monogamous culture to a more complex one. To use a math example, when students learn simple division, they learn the steps that will enable them to go on too long. Lingenfelter might argue that when the missionary learns to use the model in a simple culture, they will also learn lessons applied in more complex and diverse cultures.

This book is unique in its use of the model in the Yapese culture. This provides specific situations that will produce specific tools the missionary can apply to their ministry. This book helps the missionary step out of their own culture to connect people to the Gospel.

The logic of the book is clear. The authors’ message is that missionaries need to understand that their motivations can alienate others with differing motivations. Missionaries who learn the language must take the next step of learning the culture. Lingenfelter points out that Jesus wrapped Himself in the culture of His people for thirty years (16). Jesus became fully God and fully human, a “200-percent person” (122).

The logic is also real. The book points out that no missionary will ever become completely wrapped in another culture (119). Lingenfelter says the best missionaries can become “150-percent persons” (119). This is a figurative way of saying that missionaries can only partially adopt another culture and mix it with their origin.

Another strength of the book is its absolute commitment to providing the Biblical perspective. It would seem some books on this subject stay focused only on the anthropological aspects of the issues. Lingenfelter presents the Biblical precedents that would prove the central points. It never felt like he was proof-texting in the negative connotations of the word.

Any missionary would benefit from reading this book. That would include those who minister in foreign or domestic fields. Every minister would be able to employ the practical applications in the book readily. Lingenfelter has written a book to help ministers in all types of churches bring the Gospel to all the cultures of humankind.

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