A friend invited me to a crosscultural event at her church where the intention was for Christians of two different churches with different cultures to get to know one another. When I arrived, however, I was dismayed to see that all of the members of the Chinese church that had been invited were sitting together at several tables, and all of the members of the predominantly white church that had been invited were sitting together at their own tables. There they stayed for the rest of the evening. It was a cultural event all right, but there was no apparent crossing over.
Why did this well-meaning attempt at crosscultural community fall so far short from what was intended? Was it simply the lack of a seating plan to mix people up, or was there something more going on?
Christena Cleveland’s new book has helped me think about this experience and many others where diversity and Christian unity seem to work against one another. Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (InterVarsity, 2013) is an excellent introduction to group behaviour, identity building, and other related dynamics that shed light on our difficulty in coming together as one body.
The research and insights from social psychology that she presents are fascinating, and illustrated with enough personal anecdotes and humour to keep the discussion lively. I’m also pleased that the book goes beyond simply “uncovering the hidden forces” to offer practical suggestions for moving forward. Throughout the book, while the author writes with conviction and a clear call to unity, she is not heavy handed with judgement but makes it clear that we are all in this together. From page 156:
The work of reconciliation is often excruciating because it is the work of the cross. If reconciliation work isn’t painful, I’d venture to say that it isn’t really reconciliation work. Reconciliation requires that we partner with equally imperfect individuals who are also clumsily scaling the crosscultural learning curve, forgive those who carelessly wrong us, repeatedly ask for forgiveness, engage in awkward and unpredictable situations and, like gluttons for punishment, keep coming back for more.
With this book, I now have the language to describe some of the crosscultural dynamics in my own congregation. For example, at first glance, it might seem rather unlikely for me as a Chinese-Canadian pastor to lead a church with Russian-Mennonite roots. How could that possibly work? And yet it has–in part by continually casting the vision of our common identity in Christ. As the author says in her final chapter, “If we are working with a common identity many of the categorizing processes that were once detrimental to crosscultural relations are neutralized.”
At the same time, as a congregation, we are wanting to be more intentional in our relationship with aboriginal people. Our involvement in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been part of that, and this book has underlined for me that we need to continue to examine our own misperceptions, to be aware of our own social identity and self-esteem issues that may impact our relationship, and to work with other social psychology dynamics. Further, as Chapter 9 points out, “four elements are needed for positive crosscultural interaction: (1) working toward a larger goal, (2) creating equal status, (3) engaging in personal interaction and (4) providing leadership.” (158)
I’m highlighting just a few nuggets here, and definitely recommend the entire book for anyone concerned about the unity of the church and crosscultural engagement–and for anyone who isn’t, you need to read Chapter 2 “How Divisions Are Killing Us and Why We Should Care.”
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for an honest review.