Tag Archives: cross-cultural

Quick Review: The Myth of Equality

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been able to go through Ken Wytsma’s The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege and want to pass on highest recommendation if you are in the Northern American context.

Last year I read Wytsma’s book Pursuing Justice and it was a good complement to this book. But The Myth of Equality is a needed book that seeks to lay out theological, historical, sociological context for both historical racism as well as contemporary racism in its various forms. I won’t give a comprehensive summary but will hit the highlights.

First, he did good Biblical and theological work, building on some of his work in Pursuing Justice. It informs the reader, especially if there’s not much Biblical or theological background, on the spiritual backdrop of the discussion.  He’s working to give the average lay church member, especially white lay church member, a context for the discussion outside of attacks and emotions. Most important to this is the question of who God is and what does God care about.

Second, he does a great job unpacking a “history of racism” that is very insightful and informative in terms of political and social develops several hundred years ago.  However, the unpacking and analysis of racism in the U.S. including slavery and then through the various post-Civil War legislation and government efforts through the 20th century is downright piercing. Even for someone who has read or studied much of what was covered in other places, to go through this history is deeply disturbing and generates a flood of emotions. But the reader is brought into the sacred space of just how much suffering has been driven by the systematic oppression and marginalization of ethnic minority groups in the U.S.

My heart started pumping midway through in an excited way because Wytsma goes into Walter Brueggeman’s work in The Prophetic Imagination to discuss the dynamics of power, leadership, change, and theology.  This book was one of the fundamental influences on me in terms of how I view leadership overall and the church’s role in the world.  To get a chapter about the “royal consciousness” was a delight. However, to do a deep analysis today on themes of racism and privilege through that lens continues to be sobering.

One of my big takeaways related to the discussion on privilege was a section where he discussed “creation stories” as a metaphor for each person’s story. Many are “birthed” into stories where they only know possibilities and freedom. Others are birthed into stories that have origins in shame, invisibility, closed doors, and a host of other atrocities. While it’s true that God can redeem every story, this was a helpful new window into understanding how people come at these discussions from very different lenses and perspectives. It’s simply very hard to connect and form relationships of equality and dignity without an awareness into how these starting points in a society impact identity.

I personally liked Wytsma’s approach to the language.  I think there is more to write on terms like privilege and white supremacy and other core terms of the modern discussion. I think Wytsma handled them well without resorting to a single story approach.  My struggles with these words over the years have primarily involved a pragmatic struggle with how hard it is to explain them to people prior to being able to have a meaningful conversation when there are so many landmines of meaning and interpretation around them that escalate emotion in often unhelpful ways. But Wytsma I think does a really good job explaining how these terms fit in the contemporary discussion and why they are appropriate even though there are all sorts of semantic and meaning issues connected to them in the journey of common understanding.

This is an important book for the church because more and more in the church want to be a part of a different story, but so many do not know the history and the reality that is often hidden from them if they’ve not leaned into cross-cultural relationships and issues of social injustice.

This is a 2017 book so it might be new to you, but I’d encourage you to go through it with some people you do life with.


Quick Review: The Skin You Live In


A book that I wanted to offer a brief review of that I’ve read recently is Dr. David D. Ireland’s The Skin You Live In: Building Friendship Across Cultural Lines.

The author hides his own ethnicity until the end of the book to avoid any potential reader bias, which I found interesting. I did not know the author’s background until the end and at many points I found myself wondering.  But that choice does allow one to engage the content of the book without any potential bias against the content and where it’s coming from.

Diversity efforts are occurring everywhere. This is a helpful and somewhat brief treatment on how to take steps from cultural isolation towards cross-race relationships.  There’s a lot of helpful insights throughout the book – particularly related to ethnicity and identity. There are prophetic challenges to both majority culture folks as well as ethnic minority folks who can find their identity in their ethnicity or their political-social situation. From a Christian perspective – both sides of this divide are challenged related to fundamental identity and to live out a God-given identity to reconcile and bridge difference through meaningful relationships.

A part of the purpose of this book is trying to help provide a roadmap to what he calls being “racially attractive.” By that term, he means someone who can form meaningful relationships across racial or ethnic difference.  From the author’s own doctoral research he asked people who were consistently living life with these types of relationships about what makes them “racially attractive.” Here are the responses:

  1. Offer hospitality.
  2. Be free to laugh and joke.
  3. Go on social outings.
  4. Engage in vulnerable conversations.
  5. Have cross-race friends.
  6. Seek mutually rewarding outcomes.
  7. Demonstrate comfort in the friendship.
  8. Practice honesty in the relationship.     (pg. 71)

This list was interesting to me and links to several other models, but noticeably Andy Crouch’s matrix in Strong and Weak.  I’m currently reading and researching a lot related to multi-ethnic negotiation and there are some connection points here as well.

This book is written primarily with the U.S. ethnic context in mind, but it was interesting to read this through the international lens as well as much of the suggestions about building relationships are just as relevant here in Asia as elsewhere, maybe they are even more crucial here because of the weight of relationship and community in collectivist cultures.

Many people today, despite increased political polarization, do want to experience diversity and cross-cultural relationships even if there is systemic racism and hidden personal racism that prevents those desires to be realized. It always starts with identity and relationships and this is a helpful resource for people on the journey. There’s other helpful sections related to cross-cultural forgiveness, advocacy and other aspects of diverse community so it’s definitely worth reading if this is an area of development for you.

Butt Friction

Matako ghawi ghaleka cha ku kwenthana

(Two buttocks cannot avoid friction)

—Malawian Proverb

Niyi Gbade and John Becker start off their article “Buttocks, Bridges, and Kola Nuts”with this Malawian proverb in the most recent Missio Nexus Anthology (Vol 4 No 2 October 2016) on Conflict.

It is now my favorite African proverb.

My first take on this was that the proverb is prophetically or tongue in cheek using the metaphor of butt cheeks to connote how people in conflict can be, pardon my language, asses. But that is not the emphasis of this saying. Gbade and Becker reinforce that this speaks to the dynamics that proximity leads to inevitable conflict. Closeness leads to tension, to friction.

I’ve never thought about this reality through the metaphor of friction producing buttocks, but it’s hard for me to imagine a more memorable metaphor that normalizes conflict in relationships.

The article also includes the following Nigerian proverb as well:

In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges
and the foolish build dams.

In my PhD cohort I have the privilege to study with a couple others from Nigeria and there’s an abundance of storytelling and these types of sayings that provide such a grounded way of thinking about social wisdom.

If you have access to Missio Nexus I recommend checking out the latest Anthology on Conflict as there are great cross-cultural and north-south intercultural insights for conflict resolution and partnership.

But what’s most important now is that as you go about your day taking stride after stride, you now can reflect deeply about conflict through the gentle reminder of your own butt friction.

Quick Review: Blink

In the last week, my quality time in the car battling jeepneys and tricycles on the streets of Manila allowed me to listen to the entirety of Malcom Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Because of the popularity of Gladwell’s books, detailed summaries can be googled and found easily, but here’s a few of my thoughts on the book.

First, again I immensely enjoyed the book because Gladwell’s books are as easily consumed as audiobooks as anything because it is so story driven and there are so many things that are utterly fascinating.  Second, the book popularizes some of the things in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow which I’ll post on at some point because I read it a few months ago.

Gladwell is  unpacking the positives and negatives of rapid cognition, the way the brain “thin slices” decisions in situations.  Thin slicing is when our minds make decisions or draw conclusions based on a small sample of knowledge available. He cites the example of how experts, who get so familiar with their areas of expertise that they can make accurate decisions instinctively even when tons of data or analysis goes the other direction.  It may not always hold true – but it surfaces the limits of objective analysis sometimes.

There’s a great section that he calls the “Warren Harding error” in which he details how one of the worst Presidents ever came to power because other people thin sliced who would make a good President – tall, good looking, and other appealing qualities. There’s a lot that translates to leadership in general – people get thin sliced all the time with negative consequences because they don’t look good enough, aren’t tall enough, or lack certain outward personality characteristics. In fact – Gladwell illustrates how short people get discriminated against for executive positions in the business world just as much as ethnic minorities and women. That’s the Warren Harding error and illustrates how we have some hardwired assumptions that impact our unconscious processing of situations and our feelings about different people or decisions. Thin slicing can help us in some

Thin slicing can help us in some situations but can hurt us in others when we have socialized or subconscious prejudices that affect decisions – even that conflict with our conscious values and beliefs! That’s a big realization – that while we can have clear values and beliefs, we are still impacted by socialization and society at a subconscious level.

Of most interest to me was the content that impacted subconscious racism or prejudice – either in the business world or in other contexts. Looking at the way the brain works is helpful and should inform how we approach training and development in these areas.  Too often when people respond a certain way or make a decision that betrays that there is a bias towards the majority culture, it’s low hanging fruit for many to cry out (or lash out more appropriately) that those people are racists or misogynists. Sometimes they are – but it’s not a generous response when all people are influenced by society in these ways, some of which in key moments that require fast processing and quick decisions that surface conflicts between your clearly held values and beliefs and subtle and subconscious biases. Gladwell is hoping to surface these dimensions to provide hope for training and development so that we do not have to be

Too often when people respond a certain way or make a decision that betrays that there is a bias towards the majority culture, it’s low hanging fruit for many to cry out (or lash out more appropriately) that those people are racists or misogynists. Sometimes they are – but it’s not a generous response when all people are influenced by society in these ways, some of which in key moments that require fast processing and quick decisions that surface conflicts between your clearly held values and beliefs and subtle and subconscious biases. Gladwell is hoping to surface these dimensions to provide hope for training and development so that we do not have to be ruled or dominated by our subconscious biases informed by history and society (even though that will always be the case to some degree).

A case in point applies to one of Gladwell’s case studies, a police shooting of an unarmed black male in New York by 4 white police officers.  Gladwell takes us through the situation. In the wake of Trayvon Martin and recent history, these are volatile and charged situations that are tragic all the way around. There is no doubt that the shooting covered in the book was wrong and unjustified – but today we as a society immediately go the racist label. Gladwell illustrates that it’s not so simple – and again, we need to be more generous before labeling people with such labels. Were the cops racist?

Despite the evidence, maybe they are not. On another level, Gladwell shows that they were influenced by subconscious influences that in the heat of the moment and stress of the situation betrayed them in a critical moment. This is how much of life goes. There are plenty of racists out there intentionally doing harm. But there’s also a lot of people who are not racist, but the stress of a fight or flight situation may surface influences that impact decision making that have racist or discriminatory impact.

Gladwell argues that these thinking patterns can be intentionally developed and trained. In a world where we so quickly want to label people as either bad or good, these are some things that may provide hope for new ways of thinking and new ways of training and development that nurture ethical and just assessments of one another – even under stress. It’s a reminder that when we jump as a society to want to scapegoat, punish, or shame someone that has done wrong doing – we may be missing key parts of the equation and forgetting that different sets of circumstances could expose different areas of subconscious bias in us as well. It’s a reminder we need to cultivate safe spaces for learning and awareness instead of environments of graceless

In a world where we so quickly want to label people as either bad or good, these are some things that may provide hope for new ways of thinking and new ways of training and development that nurture ethical and just assessments of one another – even under stress. It’s a reminder that when we jump as a society to want to scapegoat, punish, or shame someone that has done wrong doing – we may be missing key parts of the equation and forgetting that different sets of circumstances could expose different areas of subconscious bias in us as well. It’s a reminder we need to cultivate safe spaces for learning and awareness instead of environments of graceless judgement and accusation.

So there’s a lot of helpful thinks to think about here. There are sections on marketing involving the soda wars I remember early on and why people freaked out when Coke introduced “new coke” and then had to bring back classic coke. it was fascinating how packaging impacts the perception of experience and preference – all things equal. There’s a lot of different ways in which the dynamics of rapid cognition impacts behavior and decision making, but the applications with the greatest social significance to me is that which applies to the dynamics of racism and discrimination as well as who makes for a good leader.


Quick Review: The 3D Gospel – Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures

I recently finished The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures by Jason Georges. This had been on my list for over a year since reading The Global Gospel by Werner Mischke last year and attending Mischke’s online webinar hosted by mission nexus.

This is a fairly brief (less than a 100 pages) primer on how to see the full range and impact of the gospel as expressed in different cultural contexts.  Georges uses the metaphor of a multifaceted diamond that reflects the same essence in different ways.  I actually appreciated the diamond metaphor as it provided a more holistic and integrated approach to the discussion about guilt, shame, and fear which sometimes degenerates into either/or application.

The book gives a great, user friendly intro to the discussion and unpacks the correlation between the gospel, culture, and ministry application.   For each of the 3 main culture  (guilt/innocence, shame/honor, fear/power), Georges provides a succinct summary of the salvation narrative through each of those thematic areas of focus, followed by the core ministry approach that may be the most appropriate expression of ministry for that culture.

The connections between culture, the gospel, and ministry expressions is really helpful as it helps one begin to think about contextualization and integration of the gospel into a specific context in specific ways.  I’m very encouraged that more and more are providing practical and theologically grounded efforts at contextualization in light of these common themes in different cultures.  It may not make since to many who have not experienced much beyond their native culture and context, but these perspectives and efforts to provide real tools for ministry are incredibly valuable.

Because of the brevity and and clarity to this book, I really am motivated to find ways to use this in my ministry and leadership training.  There is potential application beyond evangelism and discipleship to other aspects of ministry and leadership development that excite me, but it serves as a great intro and primer to how to think about contextualization in non-western contexts so I highly recommend this as a resource.


Quick Review: Encounters With Jesus

A while back I picked up a few books in Gary Burge’s “Ancient Context Ancient Faith” series.  I was an ancient history major as an undergraduate and my dominant strengthfinder theme is context so I was really intrigued by this series as an introduction to context and culture of the first century when the New Testament was written.  This is the first of the series I’ve managed to find time to go through and I’m really glad I did.

The book explores a lot of ancient near east culture and geography related to some of the more notable encounters Jesus had with different types of individuals in the Gospels.  This book highlights 5 specific encounters in addition to an initial overview of some of the key geographic, political, and socio-economic realities that help the reader understand the fullness of what is really going on in some of these stories.

The author highlights the Demoniac/bleeding woman/Jairus’ daughter narratives of Mark 5, Zacchaeus, the woman at the well in John 4, the Centurion in Capernaum and the Greek woman in Tyre. This includes a lot of general information as well about Roman government, Jewish politics, and the economics and customs of the times.

I found the Mark 5 section extremely compelling and thought it alone was worth the read of the book.  It really opened up those narratives to me and has helped give me some new eyes to see similar elements in other passages.  The Zacchaeus encounter was similarly fascinating and while not definitive in its conclusions, it opened up whole new readings.  For example – I was fascinated that there was a good argument to be made that Zacchaeus wasn’t necessarily short.  There’s a case to be made that the word often interpreted as “short” refers more to status.  Regardless, it opened up new possible interpretations that are powerful to consider.

The others were interesting too, the least interesting was the woman at the well, only perhaps because I have heard so many bring out the cultural elements of that passage.  It had the least amount of “new” information, but it was still quite good.

These books aren’t particularly long and they are written in a very easy to understand way.  I think it’s a great introduction to the 1st century culture and context of the Holy Land and would really help the average reader expand their awareness of what is going on in the Scriptures.

I also think this would be an exceptional resource for those in women’s ministry as three of the narratives deal with three of the most prominent or potentially impactful narratives outlining encounters between Jesus and women. That’s not relevant just to women, but this would be a great resource in developing talks, sermons, or other content related to these encounters.

I wrote an article last year on the interconnected disciplines of developing a cross-cultural capacity in studying the Scriptures while practicing cross-cultural ministry. Each one enhances the other.  If approaching Scripture cross-culturally is an area you want to explore more, find the article here: http://www.brianvirtue.org/2015/02/three-cultures/ 



Quick Review: The Global Gospel

Maybe one of the best books I’ve read recently was The Global Gospel: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World by Werner Mischke.  It took me a while to work through it, partly because it generating so many new questions and new thoughts.

There are many books and resources out there that call for deeper and more thoughtful contextualization of theology and ministry methodology.  This is one of the few books I’ve seen really try to take a clear shot at contextualizing evangelism and discipleship for the non-western world.  Half of the book is theory and theology, but the other half is comprised of concrete efforts to take that knowledge and move it to real, useful approaches to evangelism.

The heart of this book really relates to contextualization of ministry in view of the honor/shame paradigms in the Ancient Near East culture and how they are captured in the Scriptures.  The author goes to great lengths to show these different (9 of them) dimensions of honor/shame as they are expressed in Scripture – from encounters that Jesus had with the Pharisees to Paul’s letters.  Then he attempts to use each of those nine dimensions as a means of communicating the gospel in a relevant way to people from contexts where those honor/shame dynamics are part of the cultural landscape.

I personally felt like the book really expanded my perspectives in reading the Scriptures.  So many narratives and exchanges in Scripture were taken to new levels of understanding and some I would go so far as to say that they felt like they were “unlocked” because of the significance of the cultural components.  It really deepened my motivation to study Scripture because my understanding of so many passages was dramatically enriched through a better awareness of honor/shame realities.

But I also appreciated the real and genuine effort in developing connection points for people to connect meaningfully to the Gospel. I loved reading the author’s efforts at contextualized evangelism, but enjoyed just as much feeling challenged to think bigger and more creatively about how to bridge from Scripture to people in meaningful ways.

I highly recommend this for all Christians – it really can enrich your perspective on Scripture and ministry deeply.  It also is a good reminder to think in terms of culture and it is a guard against ethnocentric ministry philosophy and theology.




Identity & Holistic Coaching

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Multi Ethnic Learnings

As I continue to share some of the things I learned through my experience serving cross-culturally and in multi-ethnic contexts, many of the posts I share will directly or indirectly point to a theme that really is central to effective ministry and leadership development – identity.

Similar to what I shared in my previous post on the problem of paternalism, prior to my experiences doing leadership development in an ethnic minority ministry context I didn’t think much about identity.  Prior to that I had only really thought about identity through the lens of what some call “positional truths.”  These are those truths in the Bible about a believer’s identity in Christ.  My experience cross-culturally took me deeper into those positional truths and their significance for cross-cultural peace and reconciliation and unity.  However, my experience also took me to a broader and more holistic understanding of identity and its significance in discipleship, leadership development, and culture shaping.

My previously narrow understanding of identity I believe stems in part from the dynamics of being part of the majority culture. As I mostly have fit in culturally and have not often been in environments that raised the question for me about whether I belong culturally or not, this arena  existed for quite a while outside of my consciousness.  But some of that also stems from being exposed to perhaps overly propositional approaches to meaning making by my faith tradition.  But through my multi-ethnic and cross-cultural journey, identity has grown to become a central component of my leadership development philosophy and theology. Identity is always being lived out and formed. It’s dynamic. Some things are fixed, some things are dynamically changing.

Several years ago this espn cover really powerfully communicated the complex nature of identity – both in terms of how we see ourselves and how others may perceive us.


Leadership and community ethics really get to the heart of identity – it’s how we express and treat the image of God in ourselves and one another. It includes how we shape others and how others have shaped us. It’s how we understand what distinguishes us from others as well as what binds us together.

But while many like me minimize or are ignorant to the importance of identity in life, leadership, and ministry – identity is a larger or more central journey for people who have straddled multiple cultures or worlds. A word for living in this type of cultural reality is liminality – living in between when you don’t fully belong to one side or another but much of your identity and meaning lies in the tension and the in between.  We have raised our family the last couple of years in the Philippines and have watched first hand the identity journey our kids are on. They are already asking more questions related to identity than I ever did at their ages.

Beyond liminality – any oppressed people group will be aware of and wrestle more with identity because that’s part of the journey we must take to make sense of our experience.  The question of who we are for some is a more complicated one because their identity in the context of their ethnicity and uniqueness has not always been celebrated or affirmed. Most conscientious people today  will ask the questions at some point – why is this happening and what does it say about who I am? Some are forced to grow up asking these questions very early on while some, as a result of their circumstances, may not ask those questions until later in life, if ever.

It’s also important to highlight here that identity is important because ethnic minority stories are very different and people are on different journeys at different paces in different contexts. There has to be a commitment to learning who individuals are within their communities to free us up from unhelpful assumptions and stereotyping. When I paint groups of people with a broad brush I tend to get myself into trouble. Generalizations aren’t always bad, but when they become labels and things that we are projecting onto people, when they might not be true or representative of them then we have crossed a line.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in this season of ministry was about the importance of listening to and paying attention to how people see and express themselves as a window into their identity journey.  Only through learning and listening can one truly come alongside in an affirming and empowering way – and when we see and affirm people’s identity, who God has made them, I’ve seen how incredibly empowering that can be.

As a practical note – this is why ministry efforts anchored in transferability of methodology has limits to its effectiveness.  What can be effective in one context can be ineffective somewhere else and furthermore it could even be unethical!  The degree to which we can see the difference is a reflection of our capacity to see and understand the power of identity in an individual and culture.

A few years ago I co-wrote this brief post on identity with my friend Adrian as a cornerstone of our philosophy of leadership development for Epic Movement.  As an additional resource, here is a team building exercise designed by friends of mine to surface themes of identity and stimulate conversation.

Nothing May Be Better Than Something

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Multi Ethnic Learnings


In a multi-ethnic context,

“Nothing May Be Better Than Something”

In a pragmatic world, this statement is anathema.  But in the absence of knowing how to truly serve a different community, demographic, or group of people, I’ve learned over the last decade that sometimes it is better to wait until you have done your homework before doing something that may do more damage than good.  And by “better” I mean more loving, more honoring, more wise, and more humble.  And sometimes doing nothing requires greater faith than taking action.

By doing nothing I’m not talking about being controlled by fear.  I’m talking about having a healthy capacity of self-control and restraint both personally and organizationally in order to ensure truly serving actions.  The alternative is jumping in blind assuming that something is better than nothing. That’s the justification I’ve heard more than a few times before launching in unprepared to a different type of context and ministry.  I’ve had that justification myself when I’ve anxiously wanted to feel “useful” or want to see things happen.  When this is our defense for our action, we should take a breath and think twice. Maybe something is better than nothing.  Often it is and that’s what pioneering is all about! But sometimes it’s not when attitudes and methodology aren’t appropriate to the situation.

It’s worth making a distinction here between grass roots ministry and organizational functioning.  While humility and learning is necessary in all contexts, failure in grass roots situations is necessary to a risk taking, faith-filled, and innovative growth. This learning point relates primarily to organizational life, functioning, and partnerships. There are times where it would be better if we just listened and learned and didn’t take action – for trying to do something frequently undermines the listening and learning.  “Doing something” needs just as much listening and learning as doing.  If that posture isn’t there, best holster the ambition for impact until it is.

There was a blog I read over a year ago, shortly after I first wrote this, on this general idea that I thought captured exactly what I have learned here and it was called “The Grace to Do Nothing” by David Fitch. It’s worth reading at some point: http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/the-grace-to-do-nothing-on-social-justice-in-the-neighborhood/

Do you have the grace to do nothing sometimes?

How do you resist the temptation to act too fast when it can lead to damaging others and trust building efforts in community?