ElmCros3 06-12-181


Serving the World in Christlike Humility


Duane Elmer

InterVarsity, 2006, 212 pp., ISBN 0-8308-3378-1


When I was a graduate student at Wheaton College, Dr. Elmer joined the faculty. 
I distinctly recall him saying that students learned a great deal at Wheaton but he hoped they would also learn to become servants.  Dr. Elmer is currently a professor of international studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  This is the third in a series of three books on cross-cultural ministry.  I recommend this book to every missionary and every Christian traveler. 


“Servanthood is revealed in simple, everyday events.  But it’s complex because servanthood is culturally defined—that is, serving must be sensitive to the cultural landscape while remaining true to the Scripture.  That is both the challenge and burden of servanthood—and of this book.” (12)


“While not being easy, it is the calling of every person who wishes to follow Jesus….” (12)


“We serve people by entering into a relationship of love and mutual commitment.”  (13)


Many internationals say, with conviction, “Missionaries could more effectively minister the gospel of Christ if they did not think they were so superior to us.” (150)


“I am often guilty of a superior attitude.  Submerged deep within me, it is evasive and hard to identify.  I quickly rationalize and deny its presence.  Usually superiority appears in disguises that pretend to be virtues….”  “Superiority cloaked in the desire to serve is still superiority.”  (17)


“We are never more like Jesus than when we serve others.” (21)  “For the life of Christ to be reproduced in us, it must be through servanthood, because that is what Christ told us and showed us.” (24)  “In the kingdom, greatness is judged by service to people.” (25)


“Others can’t see our motives, only our actions, which become the basis for their impression of us.” (28)


“Humility’s face is revealed in…any gracious act offered with no thought of returned favor or desire to announce the good deed.  Such deeds, born of a humble spirit, are usually unconscious because they are embedded as a lifestyle….” (30)


“Humility unites us while pride divides us.”  “We can’t follow Christ as humble servants and participate in quarrelsome relationships.” (31)  “Humility is a lifestyle, not isolated incidents.” (32)


“…becoming a servant is a journey—a pilgrimage.  While not complicated, the steps require considerable discipline and perseverance….”  “Therefore, let us intentionally, every day, ask what we have learned about how a servant looks and acts in this culture. Otherwise we may be deluded into thinking we are serving when others may not see it that way at all.” (37)


The outline of the book develops around the following rubric:

·       Serving.  You can’t serve someone you do not understand….

·       Understanding.  You can’t understand others until you have learned…from them.

·       Learning.  You can’t learn important information from someone until there is trust in the relationship.

·       Trust.  To build trust others must know that you accept and value them as people.

·       Acceptance.  Before you can communicate acceptance, people must experience your openness—your ability to welcome them into your presence.

·       Openness.  …you are willing to step out of your comfort zone to initiate and sustain relationships in a world of cultural differences.” (38)


Chapters on each of the above include definitions, biblical instruction, pertinent skills and illustrations. (38-9)


“Openness is the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe.” (39) And valued. (43)


Every act toward another person treats them with dignity or dehumanizes them.” (44)


“We sometimes honor others most by receiving their kindness and hospitality and music rather than by trying to give to them.” (47)


“We categorize other people (and their cultural practices?) very quickly and very unconsciously.  Once we have them categorized, often negatively, we close our mind about them.  Then our behavior follows, also unconsciously.” (48)


“When people don’t speak or look like what we prefer, we assume negative things about them.”  “When we categorize another group of people, it’s usually negative, and then negative behaviors invariably follow.” (49)


“The first skill necessary for developing an attitude of openness toward others who are different is the ability to suspend judgment.” (50)  “In a new culture, faced with a multitude of differences, we are prone to judge from our cultural perspective.” (51)


“A second skill necessary for openness to function effectively is tolerance for ambiguity….” (53)  Another skill is thinking gray. “The essence of thinking gray is this: don’t form an opinion about an important matter until you’ve heard all the relevant facts.”  The fourth skill is positive attribution, developing an attitude of openness by intentionally thinking the best about other people. (54-5) 


Acceptance is communicating respect for others.  “…many of your cherished experiences probably are a result of feeling completely accepted—one of the group, trusted, secure, respected, wanted, valued, desired.” (57)


“Acceptance is the ability to communicate value, worth and esteem to another person.” (58)  One way we accept others is by “unconditionally accepting others without considering their external features, lifestyle, decisions, habits and so forth.  (Note: acceptance is not approval.)” (60)


“The church in a multicultural world is called to bless the nations by valuing persons and cultures in their particularity.  God calls us to remind the world of the high value and worth God has placed not only on each person but on each family, ethnicity, tribe, tongue and nation.”  “God’s blessing of Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 informs us that the point of our being blessed is to bless others….” (62)


“To make no effort to learn another’s language is by itself a form of rejection of people.”  “Even when short-term missionaries make an effort to learn at least some greetings and a farewell, it communicates that they value others.” (67)


“It seems Americans reveal their ethnocentrism more quickly and more assertively because they are more forthright with their thoughts.  This may be why many people from other cultures think of Americans as arrogant, controlling and even neocolonialistic.”  “They love to be efficient and good stewards of time and resources.  They find satisfaction in a job well done for others who are ‘needy.’  Typically seen as virtues in the United States, these ‘virtuous’ behaviors can be perceived as aggressive and paternalistic elsewhere, making others feel inferior, weak defective or disrespected.  Consequently, the good we intend may not be seen as good by those we serve.” (68)


“Only when people trust us will they listen to what we have to say.” (76 quoting Marvin K. Mayers)


“Trust takes time.”  “Trust comes in small, incremental steps over time.” (77)  “Building trust requires risk—mostly emotional.  Testing strengthens trust.  Friendships grow while working through difficulties together and finding resolution.”  “Trust must be built from the other person’s perspective.” ‘Trust must be nurtured.” (78)  “Some things that build trust in one culture may actually undermine trust in another culture.” (81)  “Trust is culturally defined.”  “Trust is fragile.”  “Without trust friendship, families and organizations, including the church, sink into dysfunction.” (82)  “Without trust we are doomed to chaos and confusion because nothing can work.” (83)


“The more educated we are, the less we are inclined to listen, inquire, probe and be open to learning from those we perceive as less educated.” (91)


“If we aren’t aware of how others are perceiving us, we will be unable to control our message.” (92)


“I am suggesting three kinds of learning: (1) about others, (2) from others, and (3) with others.”  “We tend to believe that once we have learned about someone, we know them.” (93)


“The CIDA study…demonstrated that, far and away, the most powerful factor in overseas effectiveness was the ability to initiate and sustain interpersonal relationships with the local people.” (96)


“For several reasons learning from others is considerably more powerful than learning about others.  When we learn from someone, it is one of the great honors we bestow on them.” (70)


“Dialogue, friendship and solidarity with others require some interdependence.” (99)  “Successful people in overseas ministry value people first.”  “We must cultivate the learning role for the duration of our time in the other culture.” (100)


“Unless we …connect deeply with the people of our host culture, we will neither see nor interpret their situation accurately: their pain, their values, their structures, their social limitations, their dreams, their ethos and pathos.” (104)


“Learning with others yields authentic partnerships where each probes deeply the mind and heart of the other…” (106)


“Serving people is not just doing what seems good in our own culture but seeking out the knowledge of the people, learning from them, knowing their cultural values and then acting in ways that support the fabric of the culture to the degree possible.  After taking these steps, we ill have served them.” (114)


“The idea of priesthood suggests that each of us is able to minister the grace of God to anyone else and be ministered to by anyone else.  Thus we are both teachers of and learners with each other.” (120)


“I’m convinced that many of us from the West have unwittingly…overlooked their priestly function.” (120)


“Listening may be one of the most effective expressions of love for this reason: it honors the person speaking.  It also communicates that you are willing to be taught by the one speaking.” (122)


If we respond by evaluating our ministry may be minimally effective.  We must practice more open responses, such as probing, interpreting, supporting, and understanding.  (123) 


“Understanding another culture is the ability to see how the pieces of the cultural puzzle fit together and make sense to them and you.” (125)  People usually don’t act randomly or stupidly.  It may look that way to you but it all makes sense to them.  “Too often we assume others are foolish or illogical simply because their reasoning is not self-evident to us.”  “It’s hard to understand why people do what they do.  Until we understand, it will be difficult to effectively communicate or to develop any meaningful relationships.” (126)


“Egocentrism is the tendency for each of us to believe that the way we think, believe and act is the best way—the superior way.  We then measure all others by how close they come to ‘our way.’” (131)  “If they don’t ‘measure up,’ we become suspicious and try to change them.”  “Another word for ‘measuring’ others is to judge them.”  (132)


“In egocentrism my ways are superior to yours; in ethnocentrism, our ways are superior to yours.  All of us are ethnocentric to some degree.  (132)


“Asking why keeps our mind open to receiving new information.  It prompts us to search for answers, for understanding.” (137)  “Getting the other’s perspective is not easy—and it’s not easy because of our ethnocentrism.”  “Unchecked ethnocentrism turns human beings into objects to be manipulated.” (142)


“Serving [is] becoming like Christ to others.” (144)  “The Scripture seems clear that we are to witness in word and deed, and thus serve people in both their eternal and temporal needs.” (145)


“Serving is the ability to relate to people in such a way that their dignity as human beings is affirmed and they are more empowered to live God-glorifying lives.  First, serving always includes relationships, even if brief.  Second, the servant respects those served because of their God-given dignity.  Third, the persons served feel empowered because they have encountered Jesus….”  (146)


“Serving without understanding creates confusion or worse.” (146) 


“If it isn’t an expression of who we are, it will come across as artificial and false.” (148)


“The servanthood model has progressed along the following steps: openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding, serving.”  Each is dependent upon the next.  (150)  But to make it work, think circular; it is a continuous spiral, each element facilitating the next. (151)


Servant and Leadership  [Significant chapter. dlm]

“I don’t find the servant-leader title particularly useful.  The repeated use of the word servant apparently doesn’t sufficiently remind us of the type of leadership we are called to exercise.  Many who think of themselves as a servant-leader aren’t—which amounts to self-deception.  Many are tyrants, dictators, self-aggrandizers and benevolent oppressors.  What sometimes passes for Christian leadership is rather shocking.” “Frankly, placing servant in front of leader sounds very spiritual but seems not to have done much good.” (156) 


“…the Bible speaks much more about being a servant than it does about leadership.” (156) 


“Institutions that claim to train most everyone to be leaders may be doing a disservice to the kingdom.”  A minority have the gifts of leadership.  “…only God bestows leadership gifts (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:4-6).  Consequently, many have been trained to lead abut are not so gifted, thus creating problems for everyone.” (157)


“The Western leader often makes decisions in isolation and then asks, How can I get the others to own it?”  This often doesn’t work….” (159)


“The leader’s first and foremost responsibility is to model the servanthood of Christ.  By that standard all expressions of leadership must be measured.”  “Humility is the chief characteristic of the servant.” (161)  “Humility is mostly expressed in relationships.” (162) 


“Good listening skills affirm those we are ministering to, and subsequently they will be more willing to share their lives with us and vice versa.  Listening also signals humility, a willingness to be taught by the other.”  (164)


“I am deeply disturbed by leaders who…rarely take time to listen to their employees.”  “I find unilateral decision making at any level to be based on a faulty view of self, the church, the image of God and the priesthood of all believers.  Such leadership often marginalizes the people who carry the workload….” (164) 


“I confess that I cringe whenever I hear a new missionary talk about training the nationals for leadership.  Does anyone else see this as presumptuous and arrogant?  What do the local people think when they see this happening?” (166)


“Anyone from the West who enters a new culture (or ethnic group) has power: finances, education, resources, technology, relational networks and a passport.” “I am concerned about how it is exercised….” “The way most of us serve keeps us in control.” (171)


“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them… (Mt 20:25-28)”  “I wonder if we in the mission community have also been infected with the ‘Gentile virus’…but perhaps [in] more subtle ‘Christianized’ forms.” (173)


“Perhaps because Westerners exercise so much control over their lives, they’ve grown unaccustomed to mystery.”  “People with resources have a multitude of ways of protecting themselves against the unknown, but those without sufficient resources are vulnerable.” (185) 


“In my extensive travel there have been relatively few situations where interpersonal breakdown has not been the foremost challenge missionaries face.  It is the mystery hardest to bear.” (187)  “The servant is often called to walk in mystery, perhaps never more so than in cross-cultural ministry.’ (191)



Further Reading:

Cross-Cultural Conflict, Duane Elmer, InterVarsity Press,

Cross-Cultural Connections, Duane Elmer, InterVarsity Press


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