Book Review: Cross-Cultural Connections

Summary

            In Cross-Cultural Connections author Duane Elmer takes the reader on a five-part walk through in how to engage in relationships cross culturally. This book presents a unique opportunity for readers to have an opportunity to understand what engaging in a cross cultural context entails from start to finish. Each section is developed to help the reader gain a holistic perspective when engaging in cross cultural initiatives. These sections are Getting a Perspective, Dealing with the New and Different, Attitudes and Skills for Cultural Adjustment, Cultural Differences that Confuse, and Returning Home. Each section will be briefly discussed below.

Getting a Perspective is the opening section and contains the first three chapters of the book. The opening chapter lays the foundation of the book with an illustration of a monkey and a fish. The gist is, the monkey sees the fish struggling to swim upstream, and decides to save it by taking it out of water and laying it on the ground. The point Elmer makes is, “Training in cross-cultural ministry is important so that we don’t act like the monkey.”(p. 16) Chapters two and three dive deeper into the thoughts presented in chapter one by helping the reader distinguish between cultural norms, and actions that are truly right or wrong.

Sections two and three, Dealing with the New and Different, and Attitudes and Skills for Cultural Adjustment focus on developing the reader emotionally, socially, and personally, for cross-cultural engagement. Duane Elmer covers everything from the initial culture shock of a new culture, to setting realistic expectations, how to adjust to a new culture, as well as basic skills to have an effective cross-cultural experience.

In Cultural Differences that Confuse the primary differences between Western and non-Western cultures is discussed. This is the longest section of the book and contains the most detailed work in its explanation of cultural assumptions and preferences that exist for Westerners. Finally, Returning Home is the last section, is only one chapter, and helps the reader set realistic expectations in settling back in to their home culture. Cross-Cultural Connections contains a wealth of gems, three of which will be discussed below.

Analysis

The three major strengths of this book are that it is highly practical, written by an author who possess a wealth of first-hand knowledge, and is written in a way that is very easy to understand and follow. Especially, within Evangelicalism there is a wealth of literature on engaging in cross-cultural ministry from various perspectives. There are historical works, philosophical works, missiological works that tend to focus on movements, but there are few works that are as practical as Cross-Cultural Connections. One example of the highly practical information in this book is seen at the end of section one. There Duane Elmer says, “Maturity is knowing more and more what is worth fighting for and what is not worth fighting for.”(p. 32) Furthermore, what makes this work so practical is how it covers the spectrum from interest in going to another country, through getting on the ground, the experience of the journey, and concludes with returning to one’s home culture. Especially, in the last section Returning Home the book really does a masterful job in presenting a series of lists to help transition back home.

Along with its practicality Cross-Cultural Connections brings the decades of Duane Elmer’s personal experiences in a cross-cultural setting. Arguably nowhere is the author’s experience more noticeable than in chapter nine, Openness: How to Be Approachable. In his discussion on the value to create meaningful relationships through openness, Elmer shares about a specific family in Zimbabwe. These people not only treated the author’s wife as family starting at the age of seven, but have also made the author feel like family, to the point that he is included in their will. In describing their openness Elmer says, “I have had similar expressions of openness expressed toward me in nearly all the seventy-five countries I have traveled in.”(p. 88)

The third significant strength of the book is how it is written at such a popular level. This is most likely a direct result of it being so practical, and written from the author’s personal perspective over decades. Oftentimes, in this writer’s experience books on the topic of cross-cultural engagement or missions, a fair amount of the book discusses ethereal theoretical scenarios, or more philosophical ideas. What ends up happening as a result is that books become bloated with research and data that has its use but isn’t very beneficial in helping someone know what to do in an actual cross-cultural setting.

Along with its easy to understand and process level of writing is how the author makes it a point to clearly explain key concepts to the reader. For example, in chapter 10 Acceptance: How to be Positive, the author doesn’t assume the reader will understand what he means when he says acceptance. In defining this term Elmer explains, “Acceptance is the ability to communicate value, regard, worth and respect to others. It is the ability to make people feel significant, honored and esteemed.”(p. 94)

These definitions are key, especially for Western readers who are surrounded by an increasingly secular culture that values moralistic relativism above anything absolute. Despite its numerous strengths and value Cross-Cultural Connections isn’t without its shortcomings.

            Where this book falls short is in two places. First, is how it seeks to be a field manual, but at times becomes overly brief in places. The other area of weakness, which tends to be a pattern with Duane Elmer, is that he restricts cross-cultural engagement solely to oversees contexts.

            Though this work is highly practical, written from personal experience, and written at a popular level, it can at times be overly broad. For instance, in chapter 12 Skills for Cross-Cultural Effectiveness the author emphasizes the need to regularly examine one’s self mentally and physically, while providing some processes to work through. As a Pastor, who by God’s grace serves in a church where we have sent over 150 long-term overseas missionaries, I have seen first-hand that a lack of personal care is the biggest disqualifier for cross-cultural missionaries. This is the one area that seems to strike regardless of mission or purpose in a cross-cultural context. From traditional missionaries seeking to spread gospel seeds and start churches, to missionaries there through Business as Mission (BAM) initiatives the most common disqualifier is moral failure that is rooted in a lack of personal care. Chapter twelve in particular is the one chapter in the book somewhat dedicated to self-care, and the entire chapter is all of seven pages. In discussing “strategic withdrawal strategy” Elmer shares, “You need a break to settle yourself, get your bearings again and come back to the situation refreshed. This is strategic withdrawal, and it is important to utilize it rather than explode, go into culture shock, or get bitter and cynical.”(p. 110)

That is phenomenal and sound advice! However, that’s where the wisdom of Elmer ends and its primary purpose is simply as a warning to prevent a nuclear option of “exploding.” It is the quality of what is being explained that leads to the desire to want to know more details as well answers to some seemingly obvious questions. Some questions are, “what should I do with my time when I separate for a time?” “Should I separate alone or go with others from my team if possible to process and invite others into my struggles?” Unfortunately, the reader is left void of anymore significant explanation.

Recently this writer had the privilege of reading another of Duane Elmer’s books, Cross-Cultural Servanthood. In both that book as well as this current one it is striking how Elmer focuses solely on cross-cultural connections being done outside of a Western context. Though it is understood that he would view cross-cultural engagement through that lens because of his own experience. However, two potential issues arise as a result. One, is that those in a Western context with proximity to cross-cultural relationships can be led to believe they are off the hook in engaging those God has placed around them. Second, is how emphasizing cross-cultural connections happening at least primarily if not exclusively in non-Western contexts has the potential to re-emphasize a distinction of gifting and maturity among Christians. There are those who only stay home and engage unbelievers in a more familiar cultural context, and then there are super Christians who are spiritually more mature because they engage unbelievers cross-culturally overseas.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Cross-Cultural Connections is an excellent practical field guide for anyone who is considering or preparing to engage in a cross-cultural context. For Christians, this is a great beginners resource for churches to train and develop their people who participate in short term summer trips. This is also a phenomenal resource for college students contemplating next steps after college. Though it has a few weaknesses overall this book shows a very transparent picture of what to expect and how to not only survive but flourish in a cross-cultural setting.

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