Book Review: “Cross-Cultural Servanthood” by Duane Elmer (2006)

While “Serving the World in Christlike Humility” seems like a fantasy pursuit accomplished only by the earliest church fathers, Duane Elmer writes Cross-Cultural Servanthood for both the missionaries and other cross-cultural ministers of today’s world by stressing the necessity of following the example Jesus set, not as the Lord of all, but as the Servant of all (Elmer, 23, 178). This book review will analyze Elmer’s material first by deciphering from the text the author’s thesis, then by critiquing the author’s principles and by applying those principles to my own specific ministry context. 

In deciphering the author’s thesis, this book review will look closely at each of the three Parts of Servanthood in turn. For example, in Part 1, “Basic Perspectives,” Elmer builds off the concept that cultural sensitivity and faithfulness to Scripture are both necessary for true cross-cultural servanthood (12). Elmer describes the circumstances in which such servanthood can be at once unnatural and therefore highly intentional (19-20), yet also wholly natural in that it evidences who we really are (22; Matthew 25:31-46). Elmer also defines the key to achieving the cultural sensitivity and godliness required of cross-cultural servants as being “humility” (32), for only in this way can the minister build the bridges of cultural equivalents that form the basis for contextualization (34).

In Part 2, “The Process,” Elmer delineates the progression of six skill sets which prove effective for godly servanthood when practiced (50). First is the welcoming attitude of openness (39), which at once extends grace to all, yet also holds to the exclusivity of God’s Word (56). Second is the respectful ability to accept others (58) based on their innate, God-given dignity (63). Third is trust which is built upon mutual confidence in each others’ good intent (77) and perpetually repaired through forgiveness (83). Fourth is learning “about, from, and with other people” (93) in order to destroy the stereotypes, prejudices and racism that lurks within (98). Before moving on to the final two skill sets, Elmer applies the first four to the cross-cultural servant by stating: “Only when we show openness toward everyone in the new culture, demonstrate acceptance, build trust, and learn from others can we hope to portray a Christ who will look more like the local people than us” (109). Fifth is understanding or “the ability to see patterns of behavior and values that reveal the integrity of a people” (125), about which Elmer comments that a servant learns to gain the people’s perspective, while a disciple learns to gain God’s (143). Sixth is serving, which is a lifestyle of word and deed that affirms a people’s dignity and empowers them to live God-glorifying lives (145-146).

In Part 3, “The Challenges,” Elmer first describes how both humility in leadership and biblical power mirror the Servant life of Christ (168, 178). Then he discusses the “fog” of mystery that hangs over all ministers who wonder “Why in the world did God call me here to do this and where are the results?” In response to such mystery, Elmer writes: “Sooner or later…the fog slowly lifts. Things begin to make sense…Hope returns. God was there all along, working actively…Fog obscures his presence and his purposes, but when it finally clears, we realize that God has kept all his promises” (185; Joshua 21:45). Elmer concludes his book by way of example by examining Joseph’s life in Genesis, and by the end of his book, the reader can fully understand the author’s thesis: one does not become a servant-leader by calling himself such (156), but rather by practicing openness toward people of all cultures, accepting them as they are, building trust with them, and learning from, about, and with them in order to understand them fully and to serve them effectively (197-198).
In order to critique the author’s principles and to apply these principles to my own specific ministry context, I would like to focus on three key topics that run throughout Servanthood, the topics of speech, mentality, and behavior. Each of these three topics became evident to me as I read this book, not as a student, but as a missionary seeking to enhance the effectiveness of my own cross-cultural ministry in the villages of a foreign nation.

The topic of speech became clear to me as Elmer wrote about humility in his earliest chapters, for it is often through conversation that pride makes its prominence known (31). Elmer later develops this concept of conversation as a tool for learning, for the cross-cultural servant can use his responses to his own learning advantage by minimizing his evaluative responses and capitalizing on responses that probe deeper, that interpret through repetition, that support the emotions of the speaker, and that seek understanding through questions and details (123). By implementing these conversational practices, I will be able to evidence to the people whom I desire to serve that this ministry is not about me, that I care about their needs and their experiences, and that I want to be a part of their culture and their lives. Elmer also comments on the importance of language learning. My goal in learning the people’s language is not only to be heard (by learning the vocabulary and grammar), but also to be understood (by learning the culture) (129). When ministering to people from my host culture, I must finally recognize that the claim to service (or the claim of being a “servant-leader,” 156) is not service, and that my “good intentions are not enough” (28). Instead I must do more and speak less (James 1:19), and I must take Elmer’s suggestion: “Postpone naming ourselves ‘servants’ until the local people begin to use words about us that suggest they see servant attitudes and behaviors in us” (37).

The topic of mentality may have been more subtle in Servanthood than those of speech and behavior, but clearly one’s mentality is the basis for both how he speaks and how he behaves. Conviction for me first came as I read Elmer’s list of superiority goals thinly disguised as virtues, for example “I need to correct [your] error,” “I am here to help you,” and “Let me disciple you, equip you, train you” (17). This familiar list shocked me into discovering that many of my goals in ministry have been nothing more than “superiority cloaked in the desire to serve” (17). While I believe that God has burdened me for individuals in my target culture and shown me dire needs in the area of leadership development, I must also be wary of my own ethnocentrism (52) and ego-centrism (131) and align myself with Elmer’s wariness when he writes: “I cringe whenever I hear a new missionary talk about training the nationals for leadership. Does anyone else see this as presumptuous and arrogant?” When I first read this comment, it deflated me, though not entirely and not permanently. It momentarily emptied me of all my wishful thinking built on superiority and arrogance, leaving only the true burden God had long ago placed within my heart for these people. I know there is a need, and I know that God has called me to help fill that need, but I also now recognize that there are hurdles I must cross before I do, mental hurdles like superiority that would otherwise prevent me from having maximum impact in the lives of those within my host culture.

The topic of behavior was most clear in Servanthood, for behaving like Jesus the Servant is the ultimate goal of cross-cultural servanthood. Although Elmer comments that “servanthood is not only what we do but what we are” (22), he also writes that “others can’t see our motives, only our actions, which become the basis for their impression of us” (28). When dealing with cross-cultural servanthood, it is important to recognize that we Americans cannot view servanthood only through the lens of American (or even Western) culture. For this reason, I count myself blessed by the Lord to have been paired in marriage with my wife who is from the culture to which we have given our lives. The education she has given me in our five years of marriage has greatly enhanced not only my understanding of her culture, but also my proper behavior within it. Missionaries and other cross-cultural servants must forfeit the behaviors that they naturally believe to be best in order to adapt themselves into the acceptable behaviors of their host cultures. Failure to do so will result in misinterpretations, both minor and major, that could ultimately result in closed doors and hardened hearts (see for example the adaptability required in openness, 40).

While I believe God has gifted me with openness toward people from other cultures, I will always need to purposefully work on being fully accepting of them, learning from and with them, earning mutual trust with them, and finally building an understanding with them that allows me to serve them with the Christlike effectiveness of a man like Barnabas. Elmer’s description of this missionary-servant of God was enlightening, for he shows Barnabas to be “a better model for the contemporary missionary situation” than even Paul, for throughout his ministry, Barnabas held a supportive role and “was more versatile, helping out as the situation required” (166-167). As I seek to heighten my abilities as a cross-cultural servant by lowering my superiority complex and by weakening both my ethno- and my ego-centrism, I will do well to follow the example of Barnabas, a hero who faithfully modeled the servanthood of Christ.

Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Servanthood has impacted my ministry greatly, for it has demonstrated clearly to me what the foundation of my ministry had been about: superiority. Throughout my past eight years of ministry to the people God has burdened me to target, I had been imprisoned in thinking that, because of my upbringing and my education, I had the corner on proper doctrine and leadership and that foreign churches would need my expertise and my teaching in order to grow properly. Such misguided thinking breeds not only deathly slow progress in ministry on the field, but also disrespect of the host culture, the people, and the Holy Spirit who works within them. May God forgive me for my failures, and may He use this book to help other missionaries and cross-cultural workers see the error in their approaches to ministry and their host cultures. I would recommend this book to missionaries specifically, but also to all ministers and Christian workers in general, for the lessons taught here are as useful in one’s own culture as they are in the foreign cultures God brings across our paths every day.

©2013 E.T.

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