In 1995, my wife and I spent five months in missionary training prior to our departure to Ghana, West Africa, where we served as overseas missionaries four years. During our training, we took a missiology course at a local seminary, underwent group counseling to discover our strengths and weaknesses related to inter-cultural encounters, and participated in weekly lectures and discussions with educators and missionaries about ways to effectively engage people from other cultures. Of all the information presented, a single term remains embedded in my mind as most helpful—the cultural broker.
Various disciplines recognize the value of cultural brokers “anthropology and ethnohistory, health education…education, [and] business” (Michiel, 2003). The term’s origin dates back to the mid-1900s in the field of anthropology (Michiel, 2003). The cultural broker functions as a go between or an intermediary. In his article, The role of culture brokers in intercultural science education: A research proposal, Michael Michiel quotes the much used definition of cultural brokering by Jezewski who describes it as “the act of bridging, linking, or mediating between groups or persons of different cultural backgrounds for the purpose of reducing conflict or producing change” (Michiel, 2003.) In short, the cultural broker helps interpret, advocate, and inter-cultural relationships.
Experience the Benefit of Cultural Brokers
While in missionary training, we served in an all Ghanaian congregation. The pastor and many of the parishioners functioned as cultural brokers to us. Through our conversations with them we learned customary greetings, which were essential first steps in forging relationships. The right hand was your “clean” hand, your left had was your “unclean” hand. Always greet from right to left in a room to honor the ancient tradition that reveals an empty hand (with no weapon or anything to bring harm) to the person being greeted. Always offer water and a seat to guests—after all we would be serving in the tropics where a glass of water is deeply appreciated. Elders, even a person one day older than you, deserves the utmost respect. On and on our conversations went; each one revealing new insights into the culture that prepared us for our initial interactions overseas.
Two Cultural Brokers Needed
From my initial missionary training, I long believed that finding the right cultural broker from the target culture was one the most important steps one could take in preparation for cross cultural ministry. After all, the cultural broker helps you preview the culture before your initial encounter. The information obtained becomes part of your “starter kit” to enable you, hopefully, to avoid committing a cultural faux pas from which it would be difficult if not impossible to recover. In retrospect, finding a cultural broker is only half of the process needed. You also must be willing to become a cultural broker.
As a missionary, I was thrust into the role of perpetual learner. I was the outsider. I needed to bear the burden of cultural adjustment. I was a visitor in a different culture.
In cross cultural ministry in which a church is trying to reach another ethnic or cultural group in a surrounding neighborhood, the host church must be willing to enter into the process of cultural adjustment. For example, if a primarily Anglo congregation desires to reach a specific Native American ethnic group, it must do more than find a Native American cultural broker. The Anglo congregation must be willing to do its homework and learn about the “specific” Native American ethnic group it is trying to reach. Read literature, view films authored by that ethnic group to gain perspective about the ways they see the world, what is valued, and what is important. Attend cultural gatherings and learn from them. Become an empathetic observer who comes to learn first.
Crossing cultures involves crossing borders. Borders are often erected by the dominant culture to protect and preserve its cultural norms and belief systems. For example, the ethos of some congregations is largely shaped by its identification with national culture. Such a church may celebrate a host of national holidays in worship such as Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and the Fourth of July. Without realizing it such a congregation may be equating nationalism with Christianity. In such an environment, what type of “brokering” might be necessary if that congregation were trying to interact with a Native American ethnic group that has a long history of abuse and mistreatment from national, governmental entities? What if the veneration of one set of ideals stirs thoughts of unresolved hurts and estrangement in another group? This is where the pastor and others from the congregation must be willing to assume the role of cultural broker and guide conversations and honest dialogue about the values that both the congregation and the target audience believe are the Christian values that they agree should be promoted in the church
Failure to engage in these types of conversations creates an environment in which persons outside the predominant culture in the church are expected to assimilate to the status quo. In such situations, the burden of cultural adjustment falls squarely on the outsider.
The Value of Curiosity
Cultural brokers are curious and open to learning about their own culture (including the ways it is perceived by others) and about the cultures of others. With this curiosity comes a genuine respect and belief that all cultures have intrinsic worth and value. Cultural brokers are often people who have spent significant time in multiple cultures to the extent that they have become “culturally bi-lingual” and are able to see issues from multiple perspectives. Last, cultural brokers understand the complexities of inter-cultural relations and are able to negotiate between two parties because of the cultural broker’s trustworthiness.
We find a biblical parallel to the contemporary cultural broker in the life of the apostle Paul. Because of Paul’s cosmopolitan pedigree, he was fit to become an apostle to the Gentiles. He refers to himself in Ephesians like this, “I, Paul, am a prisoner of Christ for you Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1, CEB). Paul, was a “Pharisee among Pharisees” and a Roman citizen. He was steeped in Jewish culture, yet he knew Greek culture well enough to be able to converse with people on Mars hill about the tomb to an Unknown God (Acts 17:16-34). Paul began his conversation with the Greeks by dialoguing with them using examples and insights from Greek culture. Later in the epistle to Galatians, Paul chastised Peter for siding with Judaizers who promoted Jewish cultural practices as prerequisites for initiation into Christianity (Galatians 2:11-16).
Cross cultural ministry is messy, challenging, rewarding, and more than possible through the efforts of people willing to function as cultural brokers. The presence of cultural brokers signals a genuine willingness to create a church ethos large enough for different cultures to abide in.
Michiel, M. (2003). White paper presentation. The role of cultural brokers in intercultural science education: A research proposal.
Jezewski, M.A. (1995). Evolution of a grounded theory: Conflict resolution through culture brokering. Advances in Nursing Science, 17(3), 14-30.