Book Review: Cross-Cultural Servanthood

Once again, I am very thankful for all of the books I have read for my seminary classes.  Cross-Cultural Servanthood is a book I might not have run across on my own, but will be forever changed for having read it.  I’d encourage you to check it out!  Here is my review…

Introduction

Bursting on to the mission field like a bull in a china shop is not likely to win anyone to Christ.  Duane Elmer’s book Cross-Cultural Servanthood calls us to reexamine our hearts and our purpose as we make plans to go and share the gospel around the world.  Matthew 28:19-20 says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  It is time for Christians to get back to the basics of serving others in such a way that will cause people to want to know Christ.

Elmer explores this idea of serving with humility by breaking his book into three sections dealing with basic perspectives, the process, and the challenges.  This book is a very practical tool for anyone looking for the best way to go about reaching people far from God so that they can experience new life in Christ.

Summary

Duane Elmer has penned a book that is a valuable resource to anyone headed to the mission field whether it is short-term or long-term.  There are a lot of fundamental truths to be shared in his work, but the way he does it sets this book above many others that cover the same topic.  Elmer shares many stories of cultural blunders he has made over the years in order to illustrate certain points.  He proves his point that, “Stories are among the most effective tools for teaching people information.”

The book starts with a section on the basic perspectives of servanthood.  It is critical for Christians to understand the power of relationships when it comes to sharing Christ.  Relationships are the pathways that lead to an opportunity to share Christ.

Elmer draws the reader’s attention to the fact that servanthood is both a burden and a challenge. It is a burden because servanthood can only be recognized based on a person’s perspective.  If we do something that we think will serve someone else, they might perceive it to mean that we think we are superior to them.  In order to understand how we can serve someone, we first must take the time to get to know him or her and ask him or her to teach us what serving means to him or her.  Even our best intentions can be all for naught if our efforts end up conflicting with culture rather than encouraging it.

Many of us have heard the story of John 13 used as an example of servanthood.  It is a great picture of serving because Jesus puts on a towel and assumes the position of the lowest servant in order to demonstrate to his disciples what it means to love others.  If Jesus decided to use a towel to serve, Elmer challenges us to question why Christians so often want to put on regal robes and flaunt their perceived authority over other people groups.  He reminds us that Jesus didn’t just take on the nature of a servant.  Instead, He took on the nature of the lowest servant in order to demonstrate the posture of serving others.   Jesus is the Savior of the world, yet “His life was given to carrying the towel, the symbol of humble, obedient, and ultimately suffering service.”   If Jesus carried the towel, how much more then should we as sinful human beings be willing to lower ourselves and get dirty for the sake of the gospel?

More than anything in this first part of the book, Elmer is stressing the importance of understanding what will be perceived as serving someone else.  He used several stories in this section to talk about good intentions that ended up being barriers to sharing the gospel because of the way that they were received.  Throughout the Bible, God commands us to be humble.  John 3:30 says, “He must become greater and I must become less.”  We can never lose sight of this seemingly simple truth if we desire to do great things for God!

Once Elmer reviews the idea of perspective on servanthood, he jumps into the meat of the book talking about the process of servanthood.  This portion is broken up into six steps: openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding, and serving.  He even goes one step further in dividing learning into two chapters, first dealing with seeking information and second, what the Bible has to say about change.

The steps that Elmer discusses in this section are once again very basic principles that should be used in any relationship, not just on the mission field.  These are steps that a Christian would take to evangelize and disciple anyone they are hoping to reach for the Kingdom.

Elmer reminds Christians that the single act of forgiveness and redemption on the cross points directly to the idea of openness.  He points out that Jesus was crucified with His arms open wide as if to welcome all people to Himself.   If Jesus can go to the cross willingly for each of us, how much more then should we reach out to those around us?  Many people translate the call to openness to mean unmerited tolerance.  Elmer is quick to draw attention to the fact that openness is not license to compromise biblical truths.  However, if you have built a relationship with a person, you will be more likely to have a chance to share with them why you believe differently than they do.

Once openness has been established, acceptance is the next step.  As you begin to get to know a person and enter into a relationship with them, you are agreeing to accept them and their culture the way it is.  As Westerners, we are often guilty of wanting to make people mirror images of our culture.  You can see this as you travel in foreign countries and see nationals walking the streets with t-shirts emblazoned with American logos.  We have believed the lie that Americans are superior and that everyone in the world should be like us.  In Genesis 1:27, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Elmer challenges us to avoid cultural cloning and focus on helping people become more like the image of God they were created to be.  He says, “Servanthood means helping people look more like Christ, not more like us.”

Openness and acceptance will give the missionary an opportunity to build a trust relationship with the people they are working with.  In order to advance the Kingdom of God, trust is critical to a relationship.  Time and time again people are wary of becoming a Christian because of the hypocrisy and backbiting they have witnessed in churches and from Christians in their communities.  Elmer reminds us that building trust takes time, it requires emotional risk, it has to be built from the other person’s perspective, and it must be nurtured.

Trust is not something you can check off the list of items as being complete; it is something that requires constant attention.  You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable to the input of another person for this to be successful.  It is critical for missionaries to remember that trust looks different in each culture and you must be sensitive to the perspective and traditions of the people you are working with.  The author shared some very pertinent personal stories in this section to illustrate this point.

Once you have established a relationship based on openness, acceptance, and trust, you will be able to pursue learning.  Learning is more than reading about people in a book or looking up some information on the Internet.  That is a good start, but you have to have relationships of trust that will allow you to ask questions.  Pray that God will give you an opportunity to be in partnership with locals to allow you to learn as you work with them.  You are often more successful in sharing Christ if you show a genuine interest in immersing yourself in the culture of the people you are trying to reach.  This communicates value to the people you are working with and will cause them to be more open to what you might have to share with them.

Learning can be taken one step further when the evangelist realizes that they should be learning from all people, not just the Christians they encounter.  It is easy for us to be comfortable in our “holy huddles” talking about those on the outside.  Elmer points out that Jesus didn’t just hang out with the disciples; he spent time with all kinds of people in all different situations.  Jesus was ridiculed for eating with sinners and associating with tax collectors.  This discipline can be learned at home.  Rather than sitting around praying for lost people all day, Christians should look for opportunities to engage nonbelievers on the golf course, at the department store, or in their profession.  The principle of common grace says that people can learn from anyone, not just Christians.

Learning begets understanding, the next step in the process.  As you learn more about a people group, you will understand more about why they do what they do and what it will take to connect with their culture in a way that will open the door to share Christ.  Taking steps to learn and understand people for who they are is a picture of humility.  This means that you recognize that all people bear the image of Christ and have something to contribute to the tapestry of life.  If we see people as God sees them, we will naturally want to serve them and show them His love.

Once a relationship has been established through openness, acceptance, trust, learning, and understanding, serving is the next step.  By demonstrating that you care about people and that you value them, God will reveal to you opportunities to meet needs in His name.  You have to earn the opportunity to serve rather than just assuming people want you to serve.

The last section of the book explores some of the challenges of servanthood focusing on leadership, power, and mystery.  Servants have to stay committed to the process that placed them in the position to be able to serve.  They must remain humble before the Lord in order to demonstrate humility to others.  Elmer uses the story of Joseph in this section to demonstrate the way that he worked through the process.  Even though Joseph encountered serious adversity along the way, he kept his focus on what God called him to do and honored God and in the end, led many other powerful people to follow God as well.

Cross-Cultural Servanthood focuses on the idea of recognizing God at work and joining Him in reaching people for His glory.  You must be willing to abandon your own selfish ambitions and desires in favor of His kingdom so that people will be drawn to Christ.  If we don’t work together as Christians to serve others and love our neighbors, we will see generations of lost people die and go to hell.  Elmer says, “As long as the members of the church are unable to work together, the world is safe from the church’s influence.”

Critical Interaction with the Material

At what point did Westerners get the opinion that our way is the only way?  Why do we think the rest of the world wants to be like us?  Our nation is known as the “Land of Opportunity” and we have a lot to be thankful for.  We celebrate many freedoms that aren’t realized around the world.  That shouldn’t make us arrogant, conversely, that should make us even more generous.

The two major points that I walk away from this book with are the idea of people being created in the image of God and the priesthood of all believers.  I think these are the pivotal take-aways that should affect our relationships with everyone we come in contact with.

God didn’t create people in our image; He created them in His image.  Our first glance at someone should be with the realization that God created them and has great plans for their life.  Perhaps He has put us in their path to help them realize that potential.  If we build relationships with people, we will be able to learn about them and then be trusted enough to share Christ with them.

If we end up with a world full of people just like us, then we will be the absolute opposite of God’s vision for His kingdom.  Just as we learn in I Corinthians that the body is made up of many parts, all necessary parts that work together, so is the Kingdom of God.  In heaven, there will be people from all over the world.  It is earth shattering for some people to realize that God doesn’t just speak English and talk in the New International Version!

Elmer shared his personal journey of realizing the priesthood of all believers when his young son accepted Christ.  As a Christian, his son was to be considered as someone that God was using to influence his parents and the situations that he might find himself in.  The book challenges us to recognize that God has set up this priesthood so that we can all benefit each other and find strength in Him that will be a blessing to others around us.   To discount a Christian’s contribution to this brotherhood is to question God’s authority and ability to use someone.

Conclusion

Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.”  God did not just call us to serve others, He gave us the gift of His only Son that walked on this earth as a man, lived a perfect life, and in the ultimate act of humility, died for our sins to redeem us so that we could have fellowship with God.

I would recommend this book to anyone that is looking to grow in their knowledge and understanding of how God intends for us to relate to others and serve His kingdom.  I work as an administrator in a Christian school and have had the privilege of organizing several mission trips and outreach opportunities.  This book was very convicting as I think back on what my attitude has been in the past about serving.  I have always been tremendously blessed when serving, but can recognize the arrogance in my own heart believing that “I” am serving someone else, rather than realizing that it is God serving through me for His glory.

I intend to encourage our mission and outreach leaders to read this book to gain a new perspective on what it means to approach the world with humility.  The way we build relationships and serve others paints a very distinct picture of the God we serve.  My prayer is that God will change me and burden my heart for others to the point that it is a delight to become the lowest in order to exalt others and point them towards Christ.

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