What is intercultural engagement?

What is intercultural engagement?

Rev Anashuya Fletcher is our Intercultural Engagement Enabler, working jointly for the diocese and for NZCMS.  She contributed this blog article to the NZCMS magazine, Intermission.  Click here to view the Intermission website.

I am partial to a good Sri Lankan curry – and I’m slowly learning how to make them. I line my curry leaves, cumin, cardamom, chilli, cinnamon and mustard seeds up on the bench. I grind and mix them with the other ingredients and then simmer them all together. Finally – and often salivating from inhaling the aroma – it’s time to eat. Delicious!

 What is Intercultural engagement?

Intercultural engagement is a bit like the spices in a good curry. It’s incredible how a small amount of any spice can add flavour to an entire dish. But a concoction of spices simmered together can produce an incredible flavour; one with a richness and depth that no single spice can produce. It’s still possible to pick out the distinct notes of each spice. If anything, the contrast with the other spices complements and enhances their flavour. Together, they have been transformed into something else.

All analogies have limitations – and this one is no different – but, I think it does help to explain what we mean by intercultural engagement. Culture is something to be celebrated. Intercultural engagement recognises and honours the differences and commonalities between cultures, and values the contribution of each culture. Intercultural engagement takes place through respectful, authentic interactions that allow each person to be shaped by the others and in the process each is transformed to produce a depth and richness that wouldn’t be possible without the “other.’’ It isn’t a dilution of culture. In the same way that “iron sharpens iron”, intercultural engagement helps to draw out the best of every culture while making us more aware of our own cultural blind spots so that everyone benefits from the gifts that each has to contribute.

What about multicultural or cross-cultural?

We often find ourselves in multicultural or cross-cultural situations. Multicultural situations are an important first step that can provide the basis for intercultural engagement to flourish. Multiculturalism itself doesn’t require any interaction between different cultures. It simply means that there are multiple cultures present and acknowledges the diversity between them. In other words, all the spices are lined up on the bench but they haven’t actually been combined together…yet.

Likewise, done well, cross-cultural engagement becomes intercultural engagement. The term cross-cultural can sometimes reinforce an ‘us’ as the ‘givers’ and ‘them’ as the ‘receivers’ attitude. It can be hard where we are in the majority, or in positions of privilege or power to receive the gifts that others have to offer and for us to allow our own way of being and doing to be indelibly changed in the process. Cross-cultural engagement doesn’t have to be that way! Interculturality recognises reciprocity. No single culture is the ‘norm’; every culture is both giver and recipient.

A biblical analogy

Perhaps the best and most well-known biblical analogy for intercultural engagement is the image of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians. The church itself is meant to be the ultimate expression of intercultural engagement! The church is the united body of Christ where the difference inherent to each part of the body is essential to the functioning of the whole body. Each part must share a life-in-mutuality and solidarity with others, ensuring care, honour and protection of the most marginalised. It is this body that is the lived expression of unity in Christ.

When our own identity is founded in Christ, we aren’t defensive about our own inadequacies. Nor are we threatened by difference. Instead, we embrace ‘others’ as fearfully and wonderfully made. It’s only once we acknowledge the essential part of each member of the Body that we can flourish, growing into the fullness of Christ. God’s mission is to reconcile all things to one another and himself and the church, as Christ’s body, is meant to be a witness to all of humanity of the reconciling love and grace of God. An intercultural church is good news to a world fractured along cultural divides!

Using our imagination

What might an intercultural church look like? Intercultural engagement is dependent on relationship. Like the spices mixing together, or the parts of the body working together, it is the interdependent relationship that forms an intercultural community. Relationship is one of the best places to discover others’ strengths and gifts (and our own inadequacies and blind spots). We cannot be satisfied with being multicultural or cross-cultural in our church contexts or in the way we do mission. We have to get close enough to those who are different from us for authentic, reciprocal relationships to form.

Imagine a church where everyone’s gifts were known and utilised and where those with power and privilege empowered those from minority groups. Maybe there would be a roster of preachers from diverse cultural contexts. Maybe different languages would regularly be used for scripture readings and prayers. Maybe worship would be led by a variety of people using the style and music from their own cultural background. Maybe leadership would increasingly reflect the diversity within the church. Imagine this church engaging ‘interculturally’ in its local context. People from different cultural backgrounds would know that they are welcome and that this church, Christ’s body, is a place where they have value, can belong and can contribute because of, rather than in spite of, their differences.

Final thoughts

As the Body of Christ, we must learn how to engage interculturally within the church and in our communities. Like a good curry, it will require some simmering for the flavours to develop – we will need love, grace, patience and perseverance. But as we allow ourselves to be transformed into the fullness of Christ, the end result promises to be the best that God has for us.

Questions to consider:

  • What might be some steps that can help a church community move towards becoming intercultural?
  • How do you personally identify yourself culturally? Where are you from? What are the cultural influences that have shaped you?
  • How can you learn from those who are culturally different from you in your context? How can you encourage them to use their gifts?

Recommended resources for further reading 

  • Dan Sheffield, The Multicultural Leader: Developing a Catholic Personality, Clements Publishing, 2005
  • Jay Ruka, Huia Come Home, 2007
  • Mark Lau and Juan F. Martinez, Churches, Cultures and Leadership, IVP: Illinois, 2011
  • Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, Abingdon Press, 1996
  • Rosemary Dewerse, Breaking Calabashes, MediaCom Education Inc., 2013
  • Sandra Maria Van Opstal, The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World, IVP, 2016
  • Soon-Chan Rah, Many Colours: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, Moody Publishers, 2010

For more information about Ana’s work, visit the NZCMS Intercultural Engagement resources page.