Teaching Cross-Culturally


As a brand new and very green missionary, having only recently arrived in the country of my calling after the typical 18 months of deputation and year of language school, I was anxious to jump with both feet into the ministry that God had called me to. Then, my area director at the time, Norm Campbell, sat me down for the talk. Now, almost 25 years later, I can understand the wisdom in his instructions but at the time they seemed almost cruel. He informed me that I would not yet be permitted to begin the ministry that I had long prepared to undertake. To begin with, for the next six months, while still living in the capital city, I was to visit and preach in every church anywhere in the country where I could garner an invitation. Also, I was instructed to travel the country and visit every one of our missionaries and take the opportunity to learn to know their ministries. As Norm wisely counseled me, “you as a missionary have been given the opportunity to have a tremendous influence and impact in this country for many years to come, but that influence will be even greater if you come to know and understand the people and the people have been given the opportunity to learn to know and trust you.”

One cultural anthropologist defines culture as “learned and shared attitudes, values, and ways of behaving.”[1] We are in many ways prisoners of our own cultural biases, those things that we have been conditioned from birth to rely on to cope and deal with everyday life. This was driven home to me shortly after arriving in the country of Ecuador where we were to serve among the Quichua Indians for the next 20 years. One of my missionary colleagues complained to me on several occasions that the local Indian pastors were liars and that we needed to confront them about their lying. We had been invited to participate in numerous Tent Crusades that were being held in different mountain villages. The announced starting times of the services was to be 7 PM, however the services rarely started before 9 PM. That meant that quite often we were not being given the pulpit until anywhere from 11 PM to midnight. One night it was actually 2 AM when they invited me to preach! Now, I know that this practice was not a lie in their eyes. As long as the event took place that night everyone was happy.May 2 Unlike ourselves, as Westerners, they indigenous leaders simply were not slaves to a clock. Their culture was event oriented in contrast to the time oriented culture that we had been raised in. Over time, since we always arrived 15 – 30 minutes before the appointed time, as they continued to announce the services at 7 PM they would quietly turn to tell me; “Brother Allen, that means 8:30 PM for you!”


As western-trained missionary educators teaching and ministering in a non-western school setting, we must first come to understand our own culture of teaching and learning before we can be truly successful as teachers in another culture. Just because we learned in a school where certain methods were modeled, there is no guarantee that those same methods will also be successful in our adopted culture. One of the best books that I have found on this subject is Teaching Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Learning and Teaching by Judy & Sherwood Lingenfelter.[2] I like how the Lingenfelters explain this truth about teaching in another culture: “All of us are people of a culture, and we carry our cultural heritage and practices, including our practice of faith, with us into every situation of life. Unless we have a clear understanding of our cultural self and how that self restricts our acceptance of and service to others, we will not readily reach an understanding of others or be able to serve them effectively.”[3]

I am convinced that the best way to learn the cultural cues that will help us be better teachers in the classroom is to first of all be teachable ourselves. Even as you are observing daily life in your new culture, begin by interviewing and spending time with those persons that can help you learn the culture. I have found that veteran missionaries who also work in education are oftentimes an excellent source of valuable information on the subject. Not only in the very beginning, but also for years to come I often found myself going to these same veterans for advice as different situations arose. Their wise counsel was of tremendous value to me while at the same time validating their own worth, knowledge, and experience.

Another valuable source for understanding your adopted culture are the local children. Even as you making new friends, learn to observe how the children interact, both with their own siblings, other children and with adults as well. Take note of the ways that the children are instructed and how they are expected to learn. Do their parents ask them questions and if so what types of questions are they asked? Are the children encouraged to ask questions or are they possibly quieter and seem to learn more through observation? Do the parents read them stories from books or is it common to have times of storytelling where they teach them about their own culture through stories about their ancestors? How do the children interact with their siblings? Quichua Indian children are expected to take responsibility for their younger siblings even as they help the adults to work in the fields. Often times the little ones could be seen strapped to the backs of an older sibling who was no more than 8-10 years older than the toddlers they carried.

Spend time socially with your students both at meal time as well as at play. Often you will find that they will be much more open to volunteer information to you in a casual setting than in the formal setting of the classroom. Interviews can also be helpful, just beware that the interviewee is not simply telling you what he believes that you want to hear. One of the greatest things that I have found for breaking down cultural barriers is being willing to eat their traditional foods. On various occasions I was told by different Spanish pastors: “Allen, do you know what the Indians say about you? They tell us, brother Allen loves us because he eats our food!”

Teaching cross-culturally requires that we learn to think outside of the box, being willing to venture beyond our own cultural context to begin to look for solutions that are not limited to our own experience, training, and expertise.[4] Look for resources to help guide you as well. In this age of Google and the internet we are no longer as isolated as we missionaries once were. Try to stay current through reading missions journals and books by some of the better missionary anthropologists and educators. Sometimes we simply need to update our toolbox by staying up to date with what is taking place in the current trends in education.

We would be wise to contemplate the following list of assumptions about ourselves as Cross-Cultural Educators:

  1. We have been given the gift of influence in the lives & ministries of our students.
  2. That we are working with education in some form cross-culturally with the goal of doing so more effectively.
  3. That our past experiences in education as learners have been in a Western system of education.
  4. That our ultimate priority is training others to follow Jesus more effectively.
  5. We have to keep learning to be effective.
  6. We are teaching for spiritual change in the midst of cultural change.
  7. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate teacher.
  8. That we as Christian Educators have a prophetic role in creating an educational environment where God can prepare and raise-up prophetic voices.[5]

Now, ask yourself the question:

“If not us, who???”


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Suggested Further Reading:

  • Armstrong, Thomas. Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000, 131 pp.
  • Beard, Colin and J. P. Wilson. Experiential Learning: A Handbook for Education, Training and Coaching (3rd edition). Philadelphia, PA: Kogan Page, 2013, 344 pp.
  • Eaton, Philip W. Engaging the Culture, Changing the World: The Christian University in a Post-Christian World. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005, 197 pp.
  • Gupta, Paul R. and Sherwood G. Lingenfelter. Breaking Tradition to Accomplish Vision:
  • Training Leaders for a Church-Planting Movement. Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 2006, 240 pp.
  • Lingenfelter, Judith E and Sherwood G. Teaching Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Learning and Teaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003, 125 pp.
  • Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of A Teacher’s Life, Tenth Anniversary Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007, 272 pp.
  • Rynkiewich, Michael. Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Colonial World. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011, 266 pp.



[1]Stephen A, Grunlan and Marvin K. Mayers, Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988) 39.

[2] Judith Lingenfelter and Sherwood Lingenfelter, Teaching Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Learning and Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003).

[3] Lingenfelter and Lingenfelter, Teaching Cross-Culturally, 9.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] Grant, Beth. “Alternative Approaches to Education.” Class notes for MS 930 Course at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, MO July 13-17, 2015.

5 Replies to “Teaching Cross-Culturally”

  1. Such an insightful article, Allen. Being willing to self-evaluate and make adjustments as you have done is the great challenge for today. It is time consuming, threatening, and requires intentionality. Thanks for reminding us that effective teachers are perpetual learners not just of subject matter, but of the people and cultures to which we are invited.

  2. Great article Allen! Loved the pictures you shared too. The culturally adapted graduation gowns were the best!!
    In ISUM and FACULTAD we have tried to adopt these principles. To be culturally sensitive and flexible. Guess not with the Horario of classes but to the sharing times of fellowship, mentoring, eating together, praying together. It´s what makes the bond of student and teacher. I always tell my students I learn from them. And I DO!!

  3. Allen, thanks for this excellent insight into reaching and teaching cross-culturally. If you don’t mind, I’d love to send it as a follow up resource for a prospective missionary.

  4. Allen, What a great look at the struggles and successes of being a cross-cultural teacher and leader. Your personal insights and stories pulled me in and many times I could relate to the same kind of process. I love the emphasis in looking out side of our personal “box” to find the most creative and effective way to present tired and true principles of live and ministry. Thanks friend.

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