Review: Cross-Cultural Servanthood— by Duane Elmer

I want to say that this is the best Christian Missions book I have read in a long time. The problem with that is that I have been rather blessed in having read a lot of good Missions books lately. Maybe it is better to say that it is “THE MOST READABLE, RELEVANT, AND QUOTABLE MISSIONS BOOK” I have read in a long time.

The title is “Cross-Cultural Servanthood— Serving the World in Christlike Humility.” The author, Duane Elmer is (or was?) a professor of International Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The title is pretty much the way it is. It gives guidance for missionaries, particularly, to serve cross-culturally as servants. I was also quite surprised in the amount of missionary member care was in this book. That is good and the book is driven as much by stories as by concepts.

This is personal for me, but I particularly appreciate his chapter on leadership. He particularly avoids emphasizing the term “Servant Leader.” While there is nothing wrong with the term in theory, in practice many people use the term more like “servant LEADER.” Elmer suggests the opposite. The key role of a missionary is to be a servant. The missionary should not necessarily embrace leadership roles— it is okay at times, but often it is better to leave leadership to others. However, missionaries should ALWAYS be servants. As such, missionaries should be SERVANTS or at times SERVANT leaders.

He promotes the Tribal Chief vision for leadership. A lot of people think that Tribal Chiefs are autocratic, but this is rarely so. In most cases, a tribal chief works with tribal elders to come up with a consensus and then acts as the mouthpiece of the elders to the people. We find Moses gradually moving from a Pharoah- style autocrat towards being more of a tribal chief. He gradually passed on authority to tribal elders. And many of the disagreements that came up between the elders and Moses probably point to a more collegial gathering that would OCCASIONALLY go off the rails when the consensus went against clear direction from God.

The misunderstanding of Tribal Chief leadership is hardly surprising. I was in the military and it is surprising how many Christians idealize military leadership— a system that is absolutely HORRIBLE AND INEFFICIENT except in times of military conflict. And even then, the idea that orders are always to be obeyed shows a lack of understanding of how the chain of command really works.

Anyway, the book is about much more than leadership as it relates to missionaries, and cross-cultural circumstances. At times I feel good as I read stories in the book of mistakes I did not make… while at other times I feel that discomfort of seeing myself making exactly those mistakes. I am talking about leadership here because that was the chapter that struck me the most. But much of it has to do with healthy relationships and the right attitude to serve in another setting. The author provides a fairly simple (simple in concept…. a lifetime to perfect) model for acculturation.

Definitely recommend this book to all involved in missions or cross-cultural ministry.


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