One of the first things we learn about the God of the Bible is his creativity. Genesis recounts his purposeful handiwork in ordering a previously disordered world. In the six days of creation, God carves out a habitable environment where creativity can flourish, as author Andy Crouch states in Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. In the culmination of his ordering work, God creates an image of himself, the humans both male and female, and commands them, “Have many children. Fill the earth and take control of it” (Gen. 1:28, Easy-to-Read Version). This is temple language. In the ancient Near Eastern cultures, their temples contained images of their gods that represented them to their worshippers. In Genesis, God the Creator creates a habitable environment where he can be known and worshipped. Then, he places in this “temple” his image who, in worship, will continue to make the goodness of God know through their filling and cultivation of the world.
God’s instruction to the humans, referred to as the “Cultural Mandate,” has significant implications for the purposes of human culture. The work of creating culture, exclusive to the human creature, is to take this world that God has ordered, with all its wonder, potential, and mystery, and to make something of it through their rule. As N. T. Wright expresses it: “Creation, it seems, was not a tableau, a static scene. It was designed as a project, created in order to go somewhere. The creator has a future in mind for it; and Human – this strange creature, full of mystery and glory – is the means by which the creator is going to take his project forward. The garden, and all the living creatures, plants and animals, within it, are designed to become what they were meant to be through the work of God’s image-bearing creatures in their midst.” In other words, human creativity and culture-making go hand-in-hand. Our culture-making, in its most uncorrupted form, is purposed to make the goodness of God, of whose image we reflect, extended to the entire cosmos.
Modern anthropologists tend to view human cultures academically, reducing them to merely anthropological studies of human behavior. To the anthropologist, according to missiologist Paul Heibert, culture is the patterns of ideas, feelings, and values that shape the behaviors of a group of people. It is how a people group copes with its environment. Alternatively, the economist’s vision of culture is a marketing device that exploits human wants and needs for the purpose of increasing brand acceptance within a world marketplace.
However, the witness of the biblical narrative affirms the God-revealing character his image bearers’ culture-making. All human cultures contain a telos – a narrative of human flourishing inscribed on the hearts, imaginations, and longings of people that propel them forward in their culture-making. Culture is the ever-hopeful pursuit of the God in whom humans are meant to find their ultimate purpose and peace. Culture, it seems, is like clay in the hands of a master artist who lovingly shapes and reshapes it with a vision in his or her mind’s eye of its finished glory.
The Telos of Intercultural Christian Leadership
This telos of culture-making fuels intercultural Christian leadership. A Christian leader’s engagement with culture, in both secular and sacred vocations, essentially unlocks its creative potential to make this world the auditorium for the praises of God. As the Scripture testifies in Psalm 67:3-4:
May people praise you, God! May all people praise you.
May all nations rejoice and be happy because you judge people fairly.
You rule over every nation. Selah
Wright reflects that the true vocation of humans in culture-creation, and thus of Christian leadership more specifically, is to be cultivators or gardeners in God’s creation in order to “[gather] up the praises of that creation to present them to its maker.”
Cultivating the praises of God from the creation is the high calling of leadership. To conceive of culture as a dynamic God-given enterprise of human creativity, rather than as a static set of rules for engaging cross-culturally, re-imagines the essential nature of Christian leadership. Christian leadership should not be primarily the accomplishment of task-related goals. It must be more compellingly participation in the cosmic drama in which God is redeeming the world through the agency of human culture-making that gives new meaning to the world, that “names” it according to God’s glory. Anthropologist Sherwood Lingenfelter believes that healthy human cultures create open spaces in which social interaction fosters a learning environment he describes as a “community of trust” where ideas, desires, and values, fueled by a compelling vision of faith, interact in such ways that new knowledge and meanings emerge. The primary task of intercultural Christian leadership, then, is to create and protect those open learning spaces by fostering a safe team environment of deep listening to and respect for one another, rich hospitality toward differences, and a generous commitment to peacemaking.
Encoded into the fabric of intercultural Christian leadership is a mission to gather up the praises of creation and offer them back to God through human culture. This mission originates in the missionary heart of God who sent his Son to the world to redeem the world. Douglas McConnell, professor of leadership and intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, articulates that this mission is necessarily incarnational. Just as Jesus embodied human culture to express the unending love of God in redemption, our cultural mission must reside in and seek transformation through specific contexts and people. Christian leadership contemplates the incarnational aspect of that mission which dignifies and affirms human culture as the location of encounter with the living missionary God.
Cultural Differences that Lead to Understanding
But we who live on the other side of Genesis 3 know the toxic dehumanization that sin has wreaked on human cultures and culture-making. Ethnocentrism and power-grabs has biased us against the value and dignity of other people who fall outside our in-group, or what culture researchers Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov describe as our “moral circle.” Sin changes the social game into a program that makes one’s own culture sacred and those outside our moral circle inferior. This degradation slurs the language of praise that human culture was meant to offer to God the Creator. Culture has become a block to understanding, a line that divides rather than the source of a beautiful unity-in-diversity designed to reflect the glory of God. Lingenfelter, in decrying the sinful distortion of making our own social structures and cultural assumptions as only that which is blessed of God as his chosen fill-in-the-blank (i.e. people, nation, culture, ideology, etc.), concludes, “We distort the diversity of God’s creation and reduce the structures for human life to those that are familiar to us.”
But while cultural bias will continue to challenge cross-cultural understanding, cultural differences can become sources of the greatest intercultural engagement if they lead us to curiosity and broader conversations that deepen understanding and shape our worldviews. The goal of such engagement is more than pragmatic; it outsizes the mere acquisition of cultural knowledge that enables us to behave appropriately in different cultural environments. Instead, the goal of Christian leadership’s intercultural engagement that is informed by the missionary heart of God is the formation of a community of people with a new identity and a shared vision of God’s coming Kingdom. Lingenfelter points to 1 Peter 2:9 as the charter of this new community: “But you are his chosen people, the King’s priests. You are a holy nation, people who belong to God. He chose you to tell about the wonderful things he has done. He brought you out of the darkness of sin into his wonderful light.” Here, Peter articulates for this new community a superior identity that transcends categorical cultural distinctions and subsumes them under the grander vision of declaring the praises of God. McConnell, in fact, argues that within the scope of missiology, the community is central to a biblical understanding of service to God’s mission. Kingdom values are incarnated through people who live out the pursuit of the King’s mission through participation in a new community of people who “are wearing a new life, a life that is new every day,” one that is “growing in your understanding of the one who make you” and “becoming more and more like him” (Col. 3:10).
In the community of the new humanity renewed in the image of Jesus, Kingdom values are practiced and reaffirmed against various default cultural values that categorically separate people. Intercultural Christian leadership inspires diverse people to embrace and inculcate those values. Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov believe that much of the social activity of people is aimed at maintaining ties to the groups to which they belong. Christian leadership redefines the boundaries of the in-group by challenging ethnocentric cultural priorities and embracing new and creative intercultural paradigms. Consequently, Christian leadership is not primarily task-oriented, but relationship-oriented. It leads diverse people to participate in a community that is motivated by a Kingdom imagination and telos.
Leadership author Wilfred Drath identifies a new principle of leadership that anticipates intercultural engagement. He asks how people from different worldviews, each equally valid, could possibly make sense of their shared work together? How can they transcend differences in order to work together to accomplish goals? What he terms “relational dialogue” is a leadership concept consistent with the biblical telos of intercultural engagement. In relational dialogue, people with diverse worldviews and perspectives interact in respectful and collaborative dialogue to construct new meanings together. He says: “It is highly practical and useful for the development of a third leadership principle to understand that people construct a (not the) reality when they explain things to one another, tell each other stories, create models and theories (such as this one), and write about all this in books; when they offer intuitions to others for consideration, form judgments and test them with others in word and action, and evaluate outcomes and work with others to improve outcomes according to set criteria; and generally when they interact through thought, word, and action to bring into being what is important, worthy, real, and actual. In other words, people live from day to day in continuous interaction with and knowledge of others, and it is a day-to-day practical reality that is so usefully understood as a relational construction.” Relational dialogue within a team builds a shared vocabulary necessary for the formation of a community of trust from which the team begins to mutually conceive of and pursue a shared vision.
Christian leadership fosters an environment where relational dialogue can really occur as a living dynamic, rather than remaining merely a high-sounding ideal. For example, Drath and his associates at the Center for Creative Leadership discuss a collaborative leadership style in which the leader does not impose decisions on the group. Rather, the leader sets direction for the group while empowering group members to share their unique perspectives and knowledge, align that knowledge to the overall direction, and commit to group interests by subsuming personal interests for the benefit of the shared direction. Relational dialogue can be embedded within an organization through habit-forming practices that reinforce intercultural engagement. For example, employee performance appraisals or reward systems can focus on achievement of group goals, rather than individual goals, through cross-cultural collaboration. Or leadership may establish rituals designed to rehearse new cultural values, such as weekly all-staff meetings that celebrate success of intercultural teamwork or employee training focused on intercultural awareness and appreciation.
Making Something of the World
As Crouch says, we make sense of the world by making something of the world. This is the task of culture-making, and essentially, of Christian leadership. Christian leadership remakes the world through intercultural engagement that gathers and reflect the praises of all nations to our Creator and Redeemer. It doesn’t diminish the dignity of various cultures represented in the community; rather, it creates more culture – Kingdom culture – out of the beautiful diversity of perspectives, traditions, and voices interacting within the horizon of a shared vision of God’s ultimate glory. Kingdom culture prioritizes relationships over tasks to form a community of trust founded upon Kingdom values of serving one another, relinquishing control, and trusting God for the ultimate outcome of a world made alive with the praises of God.