Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Christianity and Cross-Cultural Competence

Written by: on September 5, 2022

Cultural Intelligence (CQ) might be a critical success factor if the global church is to effectively engage our multi-ethnic world. Paul illustrates the need for CQ by occasionally leveraging indigenous poetry in his sermons, correcting Peter’s culturally-related hypocrisy, and becoming “all things to all men” (Acts 17:28; Galatians 2:11-14; and 1 Corinthains 9:22). In the absence of CQ, people risk falling into any number of the 20 different kinds of bias Kahneman discusses in Thinking Fast and Slow[1]. These biases result in forming stereotypes, falling prey to cultural conflicts, and promoting leadership that negatively impacts the world. Naturally, followers of Jesus who are serious about finishing the task of discipling nations will do all possible to avoid falling into this trap.

Erin Meyer’s ground-breaking book, The Culture Map, helps us avoid cultural landmines. It proposes an eight-point framework on navigating the complex world of inter-cultural relationships. The core elements revolve around communicating, feedback, persuading, hierarchy, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, and time dynamics or scheduling. Based upon Meyer’s own studies, as well as the theoretical foundations of Edward Hall, Richard Nisbett, the Globe Foundation and other researchers, the author points out critical differences between key cultural blocks of the world. For example, she notes that while in the

United States and other Anglo-Saxon cultures, people are trained (mostly subconsciously) to communicate as literally and explicitly as possible … in many Asian [and African] cultures … messages are often conveyed implicitly, requiring the listener to read between the lines. Good communication is subtle, layered, and may depend on copious subtext, with responsibility for transmission of the message shared between the one sending the message and the one receiving it[2].

As a follower of Jesus, reading this quote raises the question of how many times well-intentioned presentations of the gospel may have been compromised due to poor understanding of the dynamics of cross-cultural communication. It also has huge implications for training those interested in short-term and long-term foreign missions.

Within my context in South Africa, cultural diversity cuts across racial, ethnic, geographic and other boundaries. The one I found most subtle to understand is the cultural difference between urban residents (sometimes even within the same racial and ethnic group) and rural dwellers.

Urban residents, arguably owing to the influence of education, movies, travel and the internet, seem generally more low-context and direct in communication; egalitarian; linear in scheduling and time orientation; and task-orientated. Rural dwellers on the other hand, seem more high-context, hierarchical, and flexible in their time orientation and scheduling.  Between 2016-2017 while I was a missionary in Zithulele, a rural area not far from Mandela’s hometown, it was not uncommon to attend funeral or worship services of at least three hours of singing, prayer, preaching, etc. Not attending was almost synonymous to not building relationships, and by extension, ineffective ministry. On the contrary, on average, many worship services around East London, the urban area where I now live, usually last less than two hours. This difference in duration of religious meetings reflects the strong orientation towards relationships and the flexibility in scheduling in rural areas. My frustration with the long duration of meetings and people coming late for appointments was a reflection of my urban culture, although I share the same race as the people of Zithulele. To thrive in that context, I had to quickly make peace with the dominant culture.

Meyer concludes that mapping one’s culture by using the eight scales helps to compare a familiar culture with a foreign one thereby creating understanding and increasing the possibility of harmony[3]. There is no doubt that The Culture Map is one of those important books I will regularly refer to as I navigate a future that is increasingly defined by cultural diversity.



[1] Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) 11.

[2] Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map. (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014) 31.

[3] Meyer, 192.

About the Author


Henry Gwani

Follower of Jesus, husband, father, community development practitioner and student of leadership working among marginalized communities in South Africa

8 responses to “Christianity and Cross-Cultural Competence”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Henry: That is an interesting example of the time duration of funerals and worship services in South Africa. I imagine London would be vastly different in so many ways–even within church services. Learning about these kinds of differences never gets old to me. Meyer’s book was an informative read. My favorite part was her discussion on high context verses low context cultures. I never really thought of that distinction before. I’ve spend all my life living in a low context culture and South Africa is is high context culture. Looking forward to it, as I’m sure you are too.

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Troy, Eish! (a common South African exclamation expressing surprise and a host of other emotions), the low and high context communication issue is also a very important one for me. In my experience, the white community and the more formally educated black community in S/Africa tend to be more low context. But I have no doubt that you’ll fit in well during your visit for the Advance. Looking forward

  2. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Thank you for your insights on culture. I too I’m often caught off guard by the differences between the rural and urban cultures. I wonder how much international interactions and expectations play in shaping the urban culture.
    I’m also challenged by the efficiency mindset that often comes into play within the urban context.
    If relationship is an essential element of leadership, as Northouse defines leadership, is the efficiency mindset of urban life an asset? I’d be interested on your thoughts.

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Denise, I think international interactions through education, media, and travel have significantly shaped and continue to shape the urban culture in South Africa. One not-so-positive aspect of this influence, as you rightly point out, is in the decline in relationships. However, I think that is being slowly redeemed as companies promote staff training in customer service, team-building exercises, and leadership seminars that include discussions on relationships. Primary and high schools are also teaching Life Skills, which include an important element on relationships. I think if there was more passion and competence in promoting life skills in our schools, it would make a significant impact across the country

  3. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Henry, I like that you applied the cultural context to the gospel. I serve in Utah, which has a large Mormon population, and there is a distinct culture with that different faith. A number of years ago, a group (who shall remain nameless) came to present the gospel in a confrontational manner. That season proved ineffective and has left a lasting negative impression with LDS folks about Christians and the gospel. Here, it is critical to walk with people in the context of a relationship. Event-based outreach does not produce positive results. I believe I remember that you are from Nigeria originally? Please correct me if I am mistaken. Have you noticed a big difference culturally between your country of birth and where you serve now in South Africa? If so, what implications for ministry has that had for you and the ministry in which you serve?

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Roy, thanks for sharing about the LDS situation and your question about possible differences between Nigeria and S/Africa. You’re right I am originally from Nigeria. I think the Christian culture in Nigeria, generally speaking, might be a bit more confrontational/event-based, than what I have noticed in South Africa. So, there is a huge tendency towards spiritual warfare, all-night prayer, and the like in Nigeria. Meanwhile in South Africa, there is greater tendency towards friendship evangelism, as seen in the braais (barbeques), chatting while having coffee, etc. The implications are not so easy to define but I think syncretism might be a bit less in Nigeria compared to South Africa. I could be wrong, of course. I also think Nigeria is much more hierarchical than South Africa. This has strengths of-course, but unfortunately it has sometimes resulted in hero worship, even within church circles. In South Africa, the relational discipleship model has provided forums for mentorship’ opportunities and for questions and answers that address deep heart issues; etc. This takes time and focuses on less people at a time, but is quite effective. I think the best approach is to be sensitive on when one should be confrontational and when a more tempered/friendly approach should be taken.

  4. mm Eric Basye says:

    What a great blog, Henry. You have (and continue to have) a context in which cross-cultural awareness is paramount.

    Two questions come to mind:
    1) In what cultural context do you personally identify?
    2) What 1-3 principles have you found to be the most important in maintaining CQ?

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Eric, much thanks for your kind words. I think my default cultural leaning would be a more urban one having been born and raised in a city. But I find myself needing to identify with various cultural contexts depending on the situation I find myself in. For example I live and attend a church close to the central business district in East London. However, my daily ministry activities are in Duncan Village, a marginalized urban community (ghetto) about a 15 minute drive from my house. While in D/Village, understanding that people here have more time on their hands, I try to engage as much as possible without the fear of taking too much time.
      One CQ principle that’s been beneficial is making sure I start the conversation with a proper greeting: eye contact; appropriate body gesture (hand shake, hug, clasping of the hands and bow a bit, etc); and ask about the spouse/family/health before anything else. And to ask with genuine care, listening carefully to the responses and offering hope or encouragement if needed.
      Another principle I am learning is to come as a learner, asking questions about the culture, language, my observations of local happenings, or whatever else the Lord may lay on my heart. I think this communicates that the person has something significant to contribute to me – and they really do – not just something to receive from me. If the conversation goes well, I try to be sensitive to the Lord in terms of where I might offer a word or two from scripture in a way that is appropriate

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