Intercultural Humility: Thinking About Differences

Intercultural Humility: Thinking about Difference

Basic premise: cultures are very different, and cultural difference is good. Not just surface difference, like dress, or weddings and funerals, but more fundamental differences, about values and how people see the world. 

Because church, leadership, theology etc are built in a culture, they will necessarily be different from one another. BC Christianity is incarnational, it is diverse.

There are so many different ways of thinking about intercultural difference, but for people moving from the western world to the global south, I want to highlight four important ones.

A) Four Kinds of Difference

1. Different Cultures Think Differently

  • Story about the Old Man whose horse ran away. 
  • Cultural cognitive difference between East and West.

“The notion of “universal rationality” is today viewed by many as little more than a fiction… There exist a variety of ‘rationalities’, each of which has to be respected in its own right; there is no privileged vantage point, no universal concept of ‘reason,’ which can pass judgement upon them.” McGrath, Alistair E. Christian Theology: An Introduction.

  • Black and White vs Grey (logic vs dialectical thought)
  • Zoom in vs Zoom out (fish and fish tank. Japanese and American students) – Bible reading
  • Rules vs Relationships (justice with a blindfold versus versus “Chinese Justice is an art not a science). Paul and refusing to circumcise Titus (Galatians) but circumicisng Timothy.

2. Different Cultures Relate Differently (Individualism vs Communalism). African Ubuntu “I am because we are…”

An estimated 70-80% of the world’s peoples are collectivistic rather than individualistic. In Hofstede’s research on individualism and collectivism, the three most individualistic nations, the USA, Great Britain and Australia, scored more than double the global norm. These cultures, compared to the rest of the world, are abnormally individualistic.

  • Story: Jess at her workplace
  • Peter walking on the water

Implications for Conversion

  • In The Samurai, Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo; “The Japanese said, ‘I believe the Christian teachings are good. But I would be betraying my ancestors if I went to a Paradise where they cannot dwell.”
  • Conversion is sometimes, wonderfully, corporate. Acts 16; Lydia’s household, Jailor’s household.
  • Much like the Samaritan woman in John 4, or the Gerasene man in Mark 5; first individual conversion, then group witness.

Implications for Leadership


Simon Cozens quotes from the authoritative work on Japanese leadership, Nakane (1972), who says “Japanese soil cannot grow a charismatic leader”. 

“She is not, as some have suggested, making a negative statement, but a positive one. She is essentially stipulating that within a culture oriented around personal and emotional ties, a dominating leader is undesirable. The effect of charisma is limited to the immediate personal relations, rather than the influence directed towards the organisation at large.” Simon Cozens.


Harvey Kwiyani emphasises that the most prized traits in a leader are communality and generosity. “Umunthu is the most celebrated leadership philosophy in Africa. Without it, leaders lose their following and end up dictators.” 

e.g Jesus’ leadership at the wedding in Cana – solving the problem and bringing the kingdom without anybody knowing – invisible leadership.

3. Different Cultures are motivated differently (fear, shame, guilt)

Eugene Nida in 1954 observed that there are “three different types of reactions to transgressions of religiously sanctioned codes: fear, shame and guilt.” In terms of moral motivation, people are persuaded to do good rather than bad for one of three reasons: they feel afraid, they feel ashamed, or they feel guilty.

Shame, as defined by Zeba Crook, is “a demotion in one’s reputation, or depreciation in the eyes of the public court of reputation. Shame… was not an emotion, but a demotion.” Love of honour and fear of shame are considered to be the most powerful moral emotions in honour-shame cultures.

  • External not internal conscience.
  • “Honour is all about the tribunal or court of public opinion and the reputation that court bestows.” Bruce Malina.
  • Communal conscience is more conservative, more resilient to change.
  • The Bible was written in a predominantly honour-shame world.
    • Guilt + derivatives 145 times in OT and 10 times in NT
    • Shame + derivatives 300 times in OT and 45 times in NT

4. Different Cultures Feel Differently (High-Low Context Cultures)

  • Edward T. Hall (1976) talking about differences in communication. Low-context cultures are more direct and explicit, they “spell it all out”. High-context cultures are more indirect, they take so many cues from context that less actually needs saying. In a low context, what is said is important, in a higher context, how it is said is more important.


A high-context communication is one in which little has to be said or written because most of the information is either in the physical environment or supposed to be known by the persons involved, while very little is in the coded, explicit part of the message. This type of communication is common in collectivist cultures. A low-context communication is one in which the mass of information is vested in the explicit code, which is typical in individualist cultures.

  • The Medium is the Message
  • Body language
  • Temperature – my Russian visitor
  • Sacraments – tangible theology

Cultural difference has a great impact on why churches look different. Church planters must take time to study, and grow to love, the culture they are reaching. That’s why church planting is more art than science, is contextual, and is best done with insiders rather than to them.