The 5 Circle-Steps of Cross-Cultural Servanthood

5 circle-steps

In Cross-Cultural Servanthood, I walk through a linear model for serving cross-culturally that has evolved over a decade of talks with church leaders around the world, through reading the Scriptures with special attention to the life of Jesus and through careful examination of God's truth as found in the social science and cross-cultural communications literature. The model has been field tested in about twenty countries and incorporates the insights of hundreds of people who have contributed to it.

At its most basic, the servanthood model can be expressed as such:

  1. Openness allows for
  2. Acceptance to be communicated which leads to
  3. building Trust which, in turn
  4. makes Learning from, about and with other people possible and results in
  5. Understanding which must come before you're able to actually serve others.


Openness is the ability to welcome others into your presence and make them feel safe.

Openness is rooted deeply in our view of the God who welcomes sinners and accepts them as bearers of his image; thus each person possesses a sacred dignity—the kind of dignity that compels us to also welcome others into our lives.

Being open toward others is an ability. This means that even if we are not particularly good at it, we can practice and get better. But because openness is directed toward others—those like us and, more importantly, those who are unlike us—it must be expressed in culturally appropriate ways. This, of course, will mean different things in different places. But it will always require the risk of being willing to step out of your comfort zone to initiate and sustain relationships in a context of cultural differences.

As you grow in your ability to be open, you communicate acceptance.


Acceptance is the ability to communicate value, worth and esteem to another person.

Consider the example of Joseph in the Scriptures. How did Joseph—a young slave in a strange land—communicate acceptance to his owners? He recognized his captors' dignity. He treated them not as enemies or oppressors but as those who bore the image of the Creator.

Acceptance of others is to proactively communicate respect and dignity to each human being based on the fact that each is an image-bearer of God. When you value people as human beings, you make way for building trust with them.


Trust is the ability to build confidence in a relationship so that both parties believe the other will not intentionally hurt them but will act in their best interest.

How do we earn the trust of others? What do others do to earn our trust? What is the role of trust in life's relationships? In marriage? In rearing children? In being an employer or employee? In developing a ministry in another culture?

Joseph built trust extremely well. He learned the language, excelled in his daily chores, honored people, didn't complain about the bumps in his life, forgave those who mistreated him and in times of mystery persevered with a deep confidence that God would stay near. Joseph built trust so effectively that each authority (Potiphar, the warden, Pharaoh) turned their world over to Joseph. He built trust by keeping his masters' best interests in mind.


When you build trust, you make learning possible. People won't share important information with someone they don't trust, especially cross-culturally.

Learning is the ability to glean relevant information about, from, and with other people.

Learning about

Learning about others yields facts that help us adjust our expectations and generate fruitful avenues for deeper learning after entering the culture. The danger: we may stop learning and think that now we know everything necessary for ministry. When we don't also learn from and learn with, we will tend to create "we/they" categories.

Learning from

Learning from others yields understanding, which facilitates genuine relationships. The danger: we may tire of learning from and move into the telling mode; that is, "I have the answers." This cultivates colonialist attitudes and dependency.

Learning with

Learning with others yields authentic partnerships where each deeply probes the mind and heart of the other, bringing interdependent growth and culturally sensitive ministry. "We/they" categories are replaced with "us" categories. The danger: I can't think of any.

Learning from and with are not simply good strategies, they are resident in Scripture and touch every part of our relational lives. Common grace tells us we can learn from believers as well as those who do not believe in Christ. We learn from and with because such activity honors the God who made us brothers and sisters, priests and members of the same body. God in his wisdom placed us together in healthy interdependence so that we will best reflect his glory and accomplish his work.


Understanding is the ability to see patterns of behavior and values that reveal the integrity of a people.

Or to say it another way: understanding another culture is the ability to see how the pieces of the cultural puzzle fit together and make sense to them and you. You can't serve someone you don't understand. At best you can only be a benevolent oppressor.

It's natural to believe that we do things the best way. Likewise, it's unnatural for the cross-cultural servant to assume that other cultures have been blessed by God. But when we discover the validity of other cultures' ways (though maybe not all their ways), we discover both the beauty and diversity of God's own character, and something about ourselves. We are freed to change in ways that better reveal our Creator to others.


The model's content is good, and it addresses issues that Westerners need to hear to be servants in other cultures. However, its linear format doesn't match the cultural way of thinking for many. To make the model work for most people around the world, these "steps" must be thought of in circular terms where serving isn't at the end of a progression of steps but is something that happens whenever we are open, accepting, trusting, learning and understanding. In an integrative circular model, you don't need to start with openness. A person could start serving just by learning from others and show openness, get understanding, build trust and communicate acceptance at a later time.

Serving others, then, means always bouncing back and forth between openness, understanding, trust, learning and acceptance, not always knowing what is next but appropriately responding to the situation by being ready to display the servant spirit wherever you are.

What You Can Do Now

Becoming a cross-cultural servant involves a lot of intentional work and practice. But you don't have to wait until you cross cultures to get started. Practicing these four skills for openness in your home culture will make them more natural, so when you enter another culture, you will not need to develop them from scratch, but quickly move into finding the appropriate ways to express them. Practicing in our home culture will contribute to better communications, fewer misunderstandings and stronger relationships with our siblings, our parents, our spouse, our in-laws, our children and our colleagues.

Practice suspending judgment

Attribution theory says we quickly and unconsciously think negatively about others if, in some way, they do not measure up to us or our expectations. We then assume the attribution to be fact—before checking it out. The Bible calls this "judging others." Not all judgments are wrong, but most premature judgments are. We must suspend judgment until we see more clearly. That is unnatural and takes time. This is why we must practice suspending judgment.

Suppose I am standing in a store waiting to pay the cashier. An unkempt woman with ungroomed hair, sloppy dress and neglected hygiene stands behind me. In less than five seconds I will probably draw some conclusions about this person, none of them positive. Yet if I catch myself and analyze my thoughts, I might reconsider. Maybe she just learned her father has cancer and is rushing to help him. Maybe her sick child desperately needs medicine. Or maybe she's depressed. Or carefree. By suspending judgment, I can keep my mind open to alternative explanations for what I see and hear rather than immediately assuming something negative.

The issue is not so much what might have caused her appearance but what is my response to this "stranger" whom God has created. If I allow negative attribution to take over, I am inclined to ignore the woman's humanity and her true needs. But if I stifle a quick response and remain open, it becomes an opportunity for hospitality—a moment of grace, maybe even healing.

Making a judgment is the same as coming to a conclusion. If the conclusion is wrong, we have acted unjustly toward the person. Furthermore, once we have formed a conclusion, our mind is closed to new information that may change our conclusion. Even worse, once our conclusion is formed, we tend to see only the evidence that confirms that conclusion.

In a new culture, faced with a multitude of differences, we are prone to judge from our cultural perspective. Too often we see negatively what God sees as difference. If it is merely different and not wrong, we should stay open and be accepting. We are rightly cautioned by God to judge only with extreme care because to misjudge is to damage another human being and thus to touch Jesus with the same disregard.

Develop a tolerance for ambiguity

Tolerating ambiguity, or living in uncertainty for periods of time, taxes our emotional strength, which in turn drains our physical capacity. Most Westerners leave little room for the unexpected or ambiguous. We work hard to avoid uncertainty and to live an ordered, predictable life. The unknown, the unexpected, is an unwelcome intrusion in our schedule. We believe it to be dangerous to the order we have built into our existence. During times of ambiguity we want things to clear up, we want answers, we want understanding, we want resolution, and we want it now.

There are, however, two compelling reasons why we should exercise patience, keep the anxiety in check and patiently endure the difficult time:

  1. God wants us to know that he is in control of our lives and will act in love toward us at all times even though it may not seem so at the moment.
  2. God wants us to learn through this experience, to grow us in some important way.

When entering a new culture, ambiguities press upon us at all times. Sometimes we feel like hiding. A temporary escape may help sometimes, but usually we get better at handling the discomforts by hanging in there, keeping an open mind, processing our observations and asking questions. Slowly the pieces of the cultural puzzle will fit together and a beautiful picture will emerge from the confusion. Tolerance for ambiguity allows us to persevere when criticizing or running away is what we would prefer.

Learn to think gray

Most people are binary and instant in their judgments; that is, they immediately categorize things as good or bad, true or false, black or white, friend or foe. A truly effective leader, however, must be able to see the shades of gray inherent in a situation in order to make wise decisions as to how to proceed. Thinking gray is an extraordinarily uncommon characteristic which requires a good deal of effort to develop. But it is one of the most important skills which a leader can acquire.

The essence of thinking gray is this: don't form an opinion about an important matter until you've heard all the relevant facts. Get the information before making a judgment. Monitor your thoughts as you experience new people, places and situations. Stop those fleeting thoughts and name them. Analyze them. Are they negative? Positive? True? Have they been tested for accuracy? In most cases you can think "gray" and not force a premature judgment.

Practice positive attribution

The fourth skill to practice in developing an attitude of openness is positive attribution. Whereas negative attribution assumes the worst about the others when we are lacking certainty, positive attribution assumes the best, while not being naive.

I am inclined to quickly think negatively about others. This serious flaw has handicapped me over much of my life, especially in initiating and building early stages of relationships. One thing that has helped me is traveling extensively. The people of the world have been kind, gracious, open, trustworthy and generally wonderful to me. Slowly I have made some significant changes by intentionally thinking the best about them. Then, if necessary, I may notice some of the less pleasant things.

A side effect of my tendency to see the negative in other people is that I then judge the whole person (or group) by that one negative. I generalize from one characteristic to the whole person. Of course, this is grossly unfair. I am the big loser because I might have learned and grown so much from the people I stereotyped. While we should not overlook a person's weaknesses or pretend they are not there, neither should we cast that person aside for one weakness. Positive attribution keeps us open toward others, allowing for a stronger relationship.

Concluding Thoughts

Practice openness toward people, accept them as they are and build trust with them. This is the foundation for revealing Christ to others, even when you are in a new culture for only a short time. Learn from the people. They will feel valued, and your presence will be a positive experience for them. Whatever else you accomplish will be a bonus. Refrain from correcting or judging the local people; instead, ask Why? Seek understanding; study the local people and their ways with an open mind.

Practice serving others before you enter another culture. Develop these primary building blocks while in your comfort zone, and you will be prepared for applying the same attitudes and skills elsewhere. These same building blocks will help you be successful in other parts of life—marriage, friendships and vocation—wherever God places you. There are no boundaries on the practice of servanthood.

God has a significant role for you in his global mission. But it can be significant only if you are able to adopt servanthood, which is difficult in the best of circumstances but especially challenging in places that are foreign to you. Yet God calls all Christians to this life and assures us that we will never be more like Jesus than when we serve.

Adapted from Cross-Cultural Servanthood by Duane Elmer. Copyright (c) 2006 by Duane H. Elmer. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA.

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