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Today’s world demands that we prepare learners to confront worldview implications for living in a multicultural and pluralistic world. One way we are doing this is through cross-cultural programs, domestically and internationally. While Christian higher education is increasing the number of students in these programs, Naomi Ludeman Smith, D.Min., asks if our institutions can show satisfying results that our students are developing the sophisticated skills necessary to navigate complex cross-cultural, cross-religious relationships. She asserts that we must reconsider our pedagogy to mentor students toward critical and biblical ethnorelative worldview development. Then she offers methods to support this learning. Ms. Smith is an Associate Professor of Intercultural Studies in the Anthropology, Sociology and Reconciliation Studies Department at Bethel University, St. Paul, MN.

A Wedding, a Muslim, and Some Christian Students

It was a beautiful autumn evening where we sat on the lawn of a lush, rolling hill overlooking the Mississippi River. It was perfect for a wedding. I sat with students from my 2012 study abroad course to Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. As we waited for the arrival of the bride, I reflected on how good it was to be sitting with this group of students, and a friend from Jordan.

Just eight months earlier, twenty-four of us spent January studying how Arabs are bringing change to their region. We also focused on developing our intercultural competencies through an intentional course design that put the students in relationship with a group of Jordanian students and Palestinian Christian families. The Jordanian group hosts young people from the West for cultural exchanges to support leadership development. A key goal in my course design was to create a context for friendships to flourish so that we could intentionally explore our cultural, relational, and religious commonalities and differences at the same time that we studied Arab change agency.

So it was no surprise that in the middle of my group of students at this Christian wedding sat our friend Wáel, an Arab and devout Muslim whom we befriended in Jordan. Wáel traveled to Minnesota to spend three weeks with his new American friends in their homes and on their campus. He told us that he chose Minnesota—not Los Angeles or New York—because of the authentic and respectful friendships we developed in our short but intense time together in Jordan. We felt honored to have Wáel as our guest and the opportunity to return to him a portion of the hospitality that he and his friends showed to us while we were in his homeland.

The bride’s wedding reflected the traditions of most North American, Christ-centered weddings of young people who graduate from our Christian colleges and universities. Having attended Muslim weddings in Jordan, I was sensitized to how Wáel might be experiencing this significant cultural event and its expression of deeply held ideals, beliefs, values, and feelings relatively common to evangelical, North American Christians on their wedding day.

I also looked forward to our conversations with Wáel and the students to observe how they would again embrace the opportunity to explore deeply and sensitively the similarities and differences that crossing cultures and religious differences can offer. I was confident in their intercultural skills to interact with Wáel in authentic and respectful ways, despite the discomfort and internal worldview conflict that they would likely experience. I knew that they were now operating out of a deliberately taught and learned, critical ethnorelative worldview perspective that was well-grounded in God’s precepts. These students were better prepared to follow God’s call effectively and collaboratively in our globalized reality than before our time in the Middle East. How could I be so confident and what have I learned from trying to teach through a cross-cultural experience? The answers are what this article explores and why more of our institutions of Christian higher education must reconsider our international education goals and pedagogy.1

Experiential Education for Intercultural Development

Today’s global economy and interdependent world demands that Christian higher education prepare its learners––and its teachers, administrators and staff–– to be global citizens and to confront productively the worldview implications for living in a multicultural and pluralistic world. Director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning David L. Smith argues in his book Learning From the Stranger that the state of our interconnected world demands that all Christians invest in intercultural learning. He asserts:

Intercultural learning and a willingness to learn how to love amid linguistic and cultural differences are as relevant to my church, my neighborhood and my willingness to attend to those around me as they are to my professional plans or aspirations.2

To learn from the stranger, Smith argues, is “a matter of Christian discipleship.”3 In Globalization and Grace, theologian Max Stackhouse encourages Christian educators to disciple our students in ways to embrace critically the opportunities and responsibilities that globalization offers.4 As educators, we must find ways to develop mature world citizens. Muslims and Christians attending one another’s weddings, working together in the marketplace, the research lab, the classroom, the humanitarian clinic, and meeting at the military negotiation table to solve the world’s most contentious problems—these are examples of what we must prepare our students to experience so that they may become collaborative agents of change, peace, and hope. For the sake of our humanity, we must prepare students to do as Christ called us to live in this world, by loving God and our neighbor and our enemy just as the Good Samaritan modeled. This is our essential calling.

To learn from the stranger, Smith argues, is “a matter of Christian discipleship.”3 In Globalization and Grace, theologian Max Stackhouse encourages Christian educators to disciple our students in ways to embrace critically the opportunities and responsibilities that globalization offers.4 As educators, we must find ways to develop mature world citizens. Muslims and Christians attending one another’s weddings, working together in the marketplace, the research lab, the classroom, the humanitarian clinic, and meeting at the military negotiation table to solve the world’s most contentious problems—these are examples of what we must prepare our students to experience so that they may become collaborative agents of change, peace, and hope. For the sake of our humanity, we must prepare students to do as Christ called us to live in this world, by loving God and our neighbor and our enemy just as the Good Samaritan modeled. This is our essential calling.

Few would dismiss the importance of this Good Samaritan teaching from Scripture, but to teach it to our students through potentially messy and unpredictable cross-cultural experiences is a risky business that few of us are prepared to do. Most of us prefer the clear, direct delivery of content in predictable settings and so do our students. Still, many of us pine after the adventure of unpredictability and travel and its potential for learning. To fill these longings, many of us have been designing and leading programs abroad for many years. We also take deep satisfaction in observing our students open their eyes, minds, and hearts to complex worldviews different from their own.

When we engage in intentional learning experiences across ethnic, racial, religious, and geographic borders, it is inevitable that we will create emotional, spiritual, and cognitive tension. As these critical incidents occur, we also are called on to create interventions that help our students to experience and process these moments productively. We are, as philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff predicted, in an age of Christian higher education in which our students demand that we

be far more concerned than ever before with building bridges from theory to practice. … The goal is not just to understand the world but to change it. The goal is not just to impart to the students Christian world-and-life-view––it is to equip and motivate students for a Christian way of being and acting in the world.5

The challenge to us, then, as Christian scholars and educators, is to model and deliberately develop excellent and informed practices of intentional, cross-cultural experiential learning. We must be knowledgeable about ways to prepare our students effectively to respond productively to these critical incidents and to leverage their assets collaboratively to create bridges for civil dialogue and collaborative solutions. This is what I observe happening in my students and why I am confident in their ability to engage in difficult and productive projects with people from and in some of the most tumultuous places in the world. I see them becoming, in the words of international manager David Livermore, culturally intelligent servant-leaders.6

Assumptions to (Re)Consider

Today we have available to us a healthy body of research and models for how to mentor our Christian students to be culturally intelligent global citizens through experiential, cross-cultural opportunities, taking advantage of globalization rather than confronting it as an evil. What motivates me to write this article, however, is that I do not see enough of us taking advantage of this body of knowledge by which we can be leaders in global training in higher education. Are your institution’s cross-cultural experience courses and co-curricular opportunities still working out of an “immersion assumption,” as interculturalist Mitchell Hammer describes it? This assumption is that if we immerse students in a cross-cultural experience, they will come up with the sophisticated competencies needed to be responsible and effective global citizens.7 Hammer’s and others’ research about these kinds of learning assumption are collected and analyzed in Student Learning Abroad, a book that challenges the veracity of these assumptions as they apply to developing intercultural competencies during the study abroad sojourn.8 Programs like Westmont’s semester in Mexico are being recognized in this book and in the field of international education for their “holistic approach to Intercultural Learning.”9 What about your institution? We may be increasing the number of students who are studying abroad, but can we show measurable and satisfying results that indicate that our students are truly developing the sophisticated understanding and skills necessary by which to make sense of the complexities of their own and other cultures? Are our students undergoing their own worldview shifts necessary to operationalize intercultural understanding and skills contextually? Students might be able to say that they return more globally aware, but find it difficult to articulate just what this means and to demonstrate increased competencies to interact with people from another culture in interculturally sensitive and insightful ways.

Teaching and Living Out of a Critical Ethnorelative Worldview 3

Why are Christian institutes of higher learning not leading the international education field in preparing our students in sound and sophisticated ways to be responsible and effective global citizens? With our history of global missions and humanitarian work, one might think we would be some of the most experienced and sophisticated educational institutions to prepare students to cross borders in effective ways. I concede that I cannot offer evidence that we are not leading the field, and perhaps I am impatient or my expectations are too grandiose. My evidence is anecdotal. Most often I find myself alone attending some of the field’s leading professional conferences and intercultural training institutes. I am finding only a few fellow educators from Christian colleges and universities in the sea of people from other institutions similar in size and mission. On the occasion when I do meet with colleagues from sister institutions, we often discover that we are alone in our institutions struggling to move practices and standards to a place where we know that we could be. I also regularly experience resistance from others in Christian higher education to consider our assumptions about what students actually are and are not learning in our study abroad programs.10 I also acknowledge and applaud Ronald Morgan and Cynthia Toms Smedley’s recent book, Transformation at the Edge of the World.11 Still, I am not satisfied. Rather, I am left curious as to why we are not participating and leading in ways that I think we could be.

One possible sticking point for Christian educators that holds them back from participating in the international educator dialog is the field’s seeming assumption that international education should teach and support ethnorelative worldview orientations about differences. The field does assert that to be truly multicultural and global citizens, we must live out of this perspective. Many of us in Christian higher education, however, are uncomfortable with this assertion. To us, the word “relative” can connote that we should respect, accept, and even encourage any value, ethical criteria, and behavior out of respect to culture and its people. For some to be ethnorelative, then, is to adopt a position that dismantles any notion that there is a set of universal standards by which we can rightfully judge or confront the good and the bad of how a people group, religion, and society lives.

At its core, this understanding of cultural relativism counters our deeply held convictions that to be just and merciful Christians means following God’s precepts rather than the world’s. Yet most of us know that we cannot demand that others live according to what we believe is right and wrong based on our religious convictions, especially in our global existence. Many of us acknowledge that culture does have something to do with why our convictions of right and wrong can display themselves in diverse and sometimes confusing and seemingly contradictory ways. Still, we do have a conviction, supported in Scripture, that there are universal needs, conditions, truths, and principles by which we all must live no matter the culture and context.

What are the implications of this tension to believe in universal truths and to live out of an ethnorelative orientation for how we prepare students to connect with people who hold seemingly disparate worldviews? Is it even possible to manage both in a cohesive worldview? I assert that it is and that we can support students to engage in similar journeys to explore this tension. The key is how we prepare and support them on this journey. Consider with me three introductory matters necessary to produce global-ready students. First, we need to reconsider our understanding and use of the term “ethnorelative.” Second, we will consider our context and our students who aspire to have cross-cultural experiences, but who are not prepared for challenges to their worldview assumptions and potential paradigm shifts. Third, we will explore a path that supports intercultural learning and its connection to worldview development. This path offers three pedagogical essentials to support students’ intercultural development through cross-cultural experiences. These approaches are drawn from the cross-cultural sojourns of biblical characters and supported by international education research. Though much of this article will refer to cross-cultural experiences gained through study abroad, the essential approaches apply equally to domestic cross-cultural experiences.

What I am about to recommend, though, does not mean that these approaches can be applied in a cookie-cutter fashion, or that the same outcome will appear for each student and be repeatable in every context. Rather, they are approaches that incorporate a methodology that is highly experiential and fluid. To be effective, a facilitator of experiential learning must be able to recognize the contextual, developmental, and complex dynamics of worldview transformation in our students, as well as in ourselves, and then to respond with carefully informed interventions. When we can model, challenge, and support our students to have these kinds of cross-cultural experiences, we will be educating world-hardy, culturally informed and mature Christ-followers. These will be graduates who can effectively and respectfully navigate and influence the complexities of our pluralistic and globalized world for good. These are the kind of people the world desperately needs and that Christ modeled and called his followers to be.

(Re)Considering the Meaning of an Ethnorelative Worldview Orientation

As stated previously, the term “ethnorelative” can be troublesome, especially in a Christian setting. One of the most commonly known cultural adaptation theories used in international education is Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.12 He asserts that people develop sequentially through six worldview orientations that process and respond to cross-cultural engagement in increasingly more sophisticated ways. The first three worldview orientations in Bennett’s theory support an ethnocentric worldview and the second three an ethnorelative worldview. The assumption is that in order to be effective intercultural people, we must experience the world through an ethnorelative perspective.13

This explanation of intercultural development is one example of a challenge that many in international education face. How do we, as well-intentioned educators who see globalization as an opportunity for good, respond to a leading theory in the international education field that counters how we might understand core teachings in our doctrines? For many Christians when we are relative in our worldview convictions, we are perceived as lacking certainty about our beliefs. Some of us are quite comfortable with the uncertainty of the truth of our convictions and others of us are not. For the traditional-aged student in our undergraduate cross-cultural, experiential “classrooms,” this is a developmentally troublesome consideration—that the truths of our beliefs are not certain. If we are relative in our convictions, we could rightly be accused of being like children who are blown about by every new wind of teaching that might come our way as we engage others across cultural and religious borders. On the other hand, most of us want our students to develop the discipline and strategies to examine critically a range of evidence and propositions. We want them to be able to filter complex belief systems through biblically grounded beliefs, values, and feelings that comprise our worldviews. We also want them to have a growing awareness of how culture influences the priority values, forms, and functions of our beliefs.

In my own teaching and writing about intercultural learning and worldview development, I have avoided the use of the term “ethnorelative” for some of these reasons. For a more traditionally minded audience, I avoid using the term for fear that it will raise alarms and warn the audience that they should be suspicious about what I teach. Instead, I use words like “multicultural” and “multi-lens,” “intercultural” and “global.” Some faculty at North Park Theological Seminary use Bennett’s theory and an accompanying assessment tool to train those going into cross-cultural ministry. The professors changed the terms to be more palatable to their audience. They found that the term “ethnorelative” creates barriers for their students even to consider the phenomenon that this theory promotes.14

The fact is, though, these North Park seminary faculty and I still actually mean “ethnorelative.” The reason is that the professors and I understand “ethnorelative” the way that Bennett defines it: “the experience of one’s own beliefs and behaviors as just one organization of reality among many viable possibilities.”15 What does Bennett mean by “viable possibilities”? “It is naïve to think that intercultural sensitivity and competence is always associated with liking other cultures or agreeing with their values or ways of life,” Bennett explains: “Some cultural differences may be judged negatively—but the judgment is not ethnocentric unless it is associated with simplification, or withholding equal humanity.”16 Clearly, Bennett is not promoting that we are complete chameleons in our intercultural compromises. Rather, intercultural competencies have at their core an increased self- and other-awareness to be able to differentiate who we are as compared to another.

In truth, then, when it comes to processing cultural complexities I am seeking to develop an ethnorelative worldview orientation. More precisely though, I add the adjective “critical” and with the appropriate audiences I include the word “biblical,” as this is what I truly seek: a critical and biblical ethnorelative worldview. What gives me courage to use the word “ethnorelative”? Anthropologist and missiologist Charles Kraft’s insightful explanation of this worldview challenge is my grounding. Kraft describes the distinction of biblical relativity in this way:

This principle of approaching each situation in terms of its own special cultural circumstances is a constant supracultural principle of God’s interaction with people. The principle, therefore, is not relative, but its application in the relative context of human culture illustrates once again the correctness of the “biblical relativity” understanding of God’s approach to people. … The relative application of God’s supracultural principle explains, for example, how Paul could object strenuously to Peter compromising in a Gentile context under pressure from the Judaizers. … Yet, later, he himself, when in a wholly Jewish context, went through Hebrew rites of purification to demonstrate to them that he had not abandoned Judaism (Acts 21:20-26). Likewise, Paul could circumcise Timothy who had a Greek father but a Jewish mother, in order to give him an “in” with the Jews (Acts 16:3), yet not compel Titus, whose parentage allowed him no such “in” with the Jews, to go the same route (Gal. 2:3).17

Kraft’s biblical relativity principle is helpful in working through the tension of living within and above several cultural contexts and their people. This biblical relativity principle is what informs my struggle to hold to my convictions gently, yet not be tossed and blown by the waves of every fascinating new belief that I encounter as I engage with people of a different belief system. I deliberately choose to shift my frame of reference to the foreign cultural context and belief system for the sake of understanding and relating to others and their perception of reality. This does, indeed, mean that I consider other beliefs as an organization of reality among many viable possibilities. It also means that I know that culture influences patterns of thinking that support beliefs and its system and that out of intellectual integrity and cultural humility, I must consider these things. How to process these experiences creates the tension and is the task of developing a critical and biblical ethnorelative worldview.

By “critical and biblical,” I mean that it is the habit to analyze cross-cultural, cross-religious experiences in ways that consider multiple perspectives, recognizing that culture influences all of them, for better or worse. In addition, a person with a critical and biblical ethnorelative worldview also considers what Scripture teaches in the ways that Kraft speaks to, giving Paul as an example. It means that I must slow down my judgment so that I critically consider multiple perspectives and the essentials of God’s precepts for living with others peacefully. Then I decide how I am going to respond in an effective way for the cultural context that I am in. This is how I understand and try to live from a critical and biblical ethnorelative worldview perspective. To support our goal of global-ready students, then, we need pedagogy to support the development of critical and biblical ethnorelative worldviews that is informed by today’s body of research and models. We must offer students ways to process the tension that this challenge will present.

This process of worldview development is dynamic. In it, we are constantly negotiating how to filter and test each of life’s experiences to best make sense of them. This is exactly what we do when we confront differences due to culture. Humankind’s usual goal is to create a stable way of making meaning out of the uncertainties of life. Our worldview provides a framework by which we make sense of new ideas, behaviors, and patterns of thinking. It is a testing and filtering framework. As people experience other worldviews in cross-culture experiences, they filter the new experiences through their own worldview. Anthropologist Paul Hiebert explains that we do this as a way “to select those [experiences] that fit our culture and reject those that do not. It also helps us to reinterpret those we adopt so that they fit our overall cultural pattern.”18 Kraft affirms that this worldview monitoring function “lies at the heart of a culture, providing the basic model(s) for bridging the gap between the ‘objective’ reality outside people’s heads and the culturally agreed upon perception of that reality inside their heads.”19 The cross-cultural experience is an opportunity to challenge and support our students to explore and develop critical and biblical ethnorelative worldview orientations. This kind of exploration is the only way students can develop transformative intercultural skills.

A common problem for us in higher education is that we are still teaching out of a traditional classroom approach or under the immersion assumption. Intercultural skills development happens through experiential “classrooms.” Our pedagogy needs to shift to support those students who can skillfully and sensitively impact the world in our experiential cross-cultural, interfaith exchanges. Our students are demanding it, though it is doubtful if they know what their demand means for their own worldview shift.

Our Setting for Ethnorelative, Experiential Learning and Pedagogy

Our institutions would be remiss, and probably fail to attract today’s competitive student market, if we did not adjust and expand our liberal arts curriculum to support the necessary preparation for our students to influence today’s multicultural societies productively. Our learner outcomes often describe global-ready graduates as interculturally competent people with the knowledge and skills to be collaborative and productive intercultural world citizens. For Christian higher education, a primary basis for this conviction is to educate our students to be peacemakers in the world for the sake of God’s glory.

A major curricular outcome from these convictions is that in addition to the traditional western and world history courses, most institutions have expanded their curriculum to include courses that focus on today’s non-western cultures and religions and on acquisition of a second language. Increasingly, higher education institutions seek to establish a competitive edge around their study abroad course offerings, and as a result those offerings often do sway students to choose one higher education institution over another.

This emphasis in higher education on study abroad is increasing exponentially in the United States. From 2001 to 2006, study abroad participation among United States students in higher education increased by 20%20 and since 1996, 144%.21 At my institution, Bethel University in Minnesota, from 2000 to 2010, our study abroad participation has increased by 124%.22 The February 2013 U.S. News and World Report ranked Bethel as seventh in the nation for having the most students study abroad in relationship to the total population of students. Of the 2011 graduates, 75% of the students studied abroad at least one term.23

Students have a range of motivations to study abroad. Exotic adventure, enhancing their resume, and earning credit through something that resembles a vacation are all common motivations behind why students choose to invest in immersion courses and semesters of international study. Why not? What could be more exciting than to tramp off to famous and ancient sites to study literature in the very place it was written or a psychotherapy approach where its author tested it or a parable on the very hillside where Jesus told it? What exactly, though, are students learning about how to interact across cultural and religious differences during these fabulous opportunities? As stated previously, intercultural scholars are repeatedly showing through empirical research that students are not learning intercultural skills just by being immersed in these places.

How the experience looks on their resume is another motivation for students. Developing a robust resume to compete in the global job market demands that students have some amount of intercultural experience. Recently I talked with the founder of a software design company in Jordan, Heath Arenson. This company is doing work across the globe and his staff of fifteen people are from five different countries. Arenson will only hire people who have lived abroad for a minimum of two years. With that experience, Arenson is looking for people who can demonstrate intercultural skills and attitudes, along with designer know-how. If they cannot do both, they do not last long at the company.24 The question we should be asking, then, is how well our students are prepared, for example, to converse with intercultural intelligence in multicultural and multinational work teams as a result of their cross-cultural experiences at our institutions.

Along with accepting that for many students their primary motivation for study abroad may be more about location than substance, we must also concede that generally only a small portion of students seek a worldview shift, which is the very thing needed for global-ready learning. Few students are particularly practiced in epistemological reflection and cultural self-awareness, nor are they adept at other-culture awareness. In reality, the influence of culture on critical aspects of our daily lives and choices often escapes most of us. Many dominant culture students in my classroom would claim that they have no culture. As Bennett observes: “Intercultural sensitivity is not natural. It is not part of our primate past.”25

Then there are the students who walk through our offices and classroom doors already knowing that they must develop their intercultural sensitivity. A fair number of students are entering our institutions having already traveled or lived beyond their cultural norms and ethnocentric neighborhoods. Some of them have a growing conviction of the need for intercultural knowledge and skills to engage with people, systems, and conditions in other cultures effectively and peacefully. Some of our students are more aware and convicted of this than their instructors. They hear on a daily basis the present and future impact that a lack of understanding of culture and worldview differences is having on nearly every part of our globe, and they have been there to see it first-hand. From the Middle East to Burma, India to Tibet, Rwanda to Somalia, New York to Arizona, students hear and some experience first-hand how religion and belief systems are at the center of these conflicts. They are expecting to develop their intercultural knowledge and capacity their higher education. To match this expectation, university marketing is telling them that we will do this for them: Get an education so you can change the world.

Students are telling us that they expect that we will provide the support needed for them to explore religious differences so that they can change the world, joining God in this mission. “In a 2004 national survey … fifty percent [of new students] suggested that they believed themselves to be on a spiritual quest and desired avenues to develop spiritually while in college,” reports Cynthia Toms Smedley.26 She goes on to say study abroad in faith-based institutions that many of these students “expect their colleges to provide opportunities to pursue spiritual interests.”27 Bennett asserts, however:

The concept of fundamental difference in cultural worldview is the most problematic and threatening idea that many of us ever encounter. Learners (and teachers) employ a wide range of strategies to avoid confronting the implications of such differences.28

How, then, do we prepare and support our students to connect with people who have distinctly different worldviews if our greater tendency is to avoid this learning? How do we help students to self-advocate respectfully for their own beliefs and belief systems in culturally sensitive, biblically relative, and multicultural ways? I am not sure students realize just how their expectation of what international education could offer them and the pedagogy necessary to teach it will disrupt their certainty around their belief system convictions.

Measurable and Transformative Intercultural Learning

Do we in Christian higher education avoid such confrontations that Bennett speaks to in our experiential pedagogy? How do our study abroad and required cross-cultural experiences effectively challenge and support worldview development to support intercultural learning and ethnorelative worldview orientations? Each of us would do well to ask this question of our institutional assessments related to intercultural skills, especially as it connects to spirituality and religious convictions.

The majority of us might agree, as associate dean of assessment at Bethel University Joel Frederickson wrote, that our desire is to change students’ understanding of the complexities of their own and others’ worldview convictions as lived in a complex, pluralistic society. Frederickson asserts the following in response to a 2006 report regarding the findings about Bethel’s students’ dogmatism ratings based on Altemeyer’s Dogmatism Scale:

We would expect students to become less dogmatic during their time interacting in a Christian Liberal Arts College. The phrase “I gently hold this firm belief” comes to mind when we think of the tacit goal of a Christian liberal arts education. We want our students to have “firm beliefs” but we also want them to be open-minded enough that they can examine evidence that may disconfirm some of their beliefs.29

Further research at our institution in 2007 did show that the study abroad experience significantly lowers dogmatism and ethnocentrism scores (Generalized Ethnocentrism Scale). Still, a 2008 study of the institution’s study abroad students using the Intercultural Development Inventory as its pre- and post-experience measurement tool indicated that students studying in different programs were not demonstrating reasonably consistent development toward an ethnorelative worldview and the intercultural competencies that would support the University’s stated Global Citizenship goals.30 Most disturbing were the research findings in 2009 using the same research design and measurement tool. Students were asked to read a book voluntarily before they studied abroad that taught about cultural adaptation, worldview development related to culture, and a strategy and framework to reflect on the tensions that their experience would likely create. Then they were asked to reflect about these experiences voluntarily during their cross-cultural immersion.

The study’s findings showed that the students who only read the book but did not reflect (n=10) went backwards in their ethnocentric mindset when comparing their pre- and post-experience measurement (n=10, p=.017).31 By “backwards,” I mean that while they may have begun their experience in a transitional place between an ethnocentric orientation and an ethnorelative orientation, they measured at a significantly lower score at the end of their semester study (-4.08). They fell backwards into an orientation of defensiveness about the superiority of their own culture’s norms. In other words, the study abroad experience had a significantly negative impact on their worldview development that we might assume would support the development of intercultural competencies. This collection of studies suggests that something is happening in the study abroad experience, but in question is how it actually supports the institution’s learning goals in the area of intercultural skill development and global-ready graduates.

Given the context in which we teach today and our students’ motivation for higher education, we cannot avoid that it is our job as educators in Christian higher education to make room in our curricula to prepare and support students deliberately for intercultural development. If we have not seriously prepared our students in every discipline with the intercultural knowledge and tools to continue to develop their intercultural skills, then we have not accomplished our mission of preparing our students for the realities of the twenty-first century. Our pedagogy for our cross-cultural experiences must make sure to support sophisticated intercultural, skill-oriented learning. Students need more than just a statement on their resume. Students need us to require them to begin the reflective habit of cultural learning before they leave our campuses for the cross-cultural experience and before they leave for further education and the marketplace.

Intercultural Development and Its Connection to Worldview Development

Current research in international and intercultural education is offering a plethora of information and tools by which to support ethnorelative worldview learning at increasingly more sophisticated levels. If our curriculum and calendar do not support a solid preparation and in-country mentoring and re-entry courses or sessions for the cross-cultural experience, we are, as Bennett warned, avoiding what needs to be done. Our preparation sessions, for example, must go far beyond how to get a passport, what to pack, and a class period about the culture iceberg and culture shock. If this is the core of our preparation, our students are not truly prepared to go or return. Students need to know from theory and experience about the cultural adaptation process. They need to have basic culture knowledge about, for example, ways that culture influences how we relate to individuals and groups, time, tasks, relationships, power dynamics, and fate. Then they need to learn about the specific culture that they are visiting. This will strengthen their learning more about their own culture.

To support students in how to process the worldview tensions that they will experience, they must learn about worldview development and how culture influences that development. Then we need to teach them frameworks by which to reflect and process the critical incidents they will encounter in the relational cross-cultural experience, and require that they reflect about those experiences along with our deliberate and informed mentoring. Most critical for today’s Christian scholars and educators, we must teach students how to process the confrontation to their beliefs that they will experience. And we must be diligent to design the experiences for these deep worldview challenges. To do all of this well and in a way that supports our Christ-centered mission, we need to understand this phenomenon of worldview development and how we can support students’ worldview shifts. We must find and practice ways to intervene with the learners in biblically relative and multicultural ways for life-long development of students’ intercultural learning.

The Phenomenon of Intercultural Worldview Development

What is this phenomenon of intercultural worldview development during the cross-cultural experience? Within the international education field, scholars and practitioners all but dismiss the immersion assumption that just spending time in a different cultural location will increase one’s skill to interact and collaborate with someone from that culture productively.32 The reason is that the deeper we engage with people from another culture, the more likely we will confront differences between tightly held values, beliefs, and feelings. The dissonance it produces often forces people to choose between withdrawing from the affective, behavioral, and cognitive messiness or engaging in the complexity of negotiating the inevitable worldview tensions they create. As Bennett points out, most of us will avoid the confrontation. Besides, the tourist sites and cuisine could keep us fascinated and satisfied enough so that we might not see a need to delve into relationships with the people of the culture. Yet, deep relationships with people who are different from ourselves is what intercultural development requires. If all we are doing on our cross-cultural courses is visiting the famous sites or observing the people of the culture without relational interaction with the people, then we cannot say that we are offering courses to support interculturally competent, globally responsible graduates.

What exactly is intercultural competence? Simply stated, intercultural competence is the ability to interact and accept people with cultural and worldview differences using culturally sensitive knowledge, skills, feelings, and attitudes. Hammer defines intercultural competence as “the capability to accurately understand and adapt behavior to cultural difference and commonality.”33 To develop intercultural competence, sojourners have a growing capacity not only to solve problems that arise due to differences, but also to recognize and benefit from the assets of different ways of making sense of the world and solving problems through the integration of multiple worldview perspectives learned through relationships with people from other cultures. “The main issue,” asserts anthropologist Doug Magnuson, “is either confronting the challenge of relating to people of different cultures or confronting cultural differences as we engage with others.” As we work through the relationships, he explains, “we are forced to deal with cultural differences, worldviews, etc. But the focus is relating to people, not (I think) relating to worldview or even culture (by itself).”34 It is through relationships that we can learn to accept and appreciate the value of our differences and the assets that they can offer.

This recognition of differences as assets is shifting the conversation about the goals of intercultural education. It is shifting from how to prepare sojourners for effective cultural adjustment to how to prepare and support sojourners for epistemological transformation. The educator’s goal has shifted to the need to develop skill sets and attitudes in sojourners to help them recognize the challenge of interacting with people with differences not as a problem to solve but as a resource for solving problems.35 If, for example, a goal is to prepare students to address social justice practices effectively, then we must include in that preparation intercultural skill development.36 This preparation begins with the recognition, belief and determination to draw on differences as assets. Recognizing the assets that we have in our diversity, argue Victor Friedman and Berthoin Antal, “enables people to discover differing views of reality, making it more likely that they will create common understandings and generate collaborative action.”37 International education cholars and practitioners investigating this transformative goal would describe a person with this competency as one with a multicultural identity or ethnorelative worldview orientation.

A more complex understanding or description of a person with intercultural competence, then, is someone who knows how to process these critical worldview experiences with the skills and capacity to negotiate cultural similarities and differences. This explanation of an ethnorelative worldview expands its meaning beyond an uncritical unleashing of believing that anything goes. A person with an ethnorelative worldview knows how to reflect critically about both one’s own and others’ beliefs and cultural values, and then to consider how the virtues of each can elevate our levels of consciousness and recognize the vices that plague us both.

As institutes of Christian higher education, we should practice the integration of Scripture’s teachings in this critical reflection. These are the opportunities for us as Christian culture mentors to point students to consider the implications of the Bible and its characters as participants in a variety of cultural contexts. This is when some really disturbing learning can take place that requires our support. This kind of confrontation with people of differing worldviews, asserts intercultural educator Michael Paige, requires cross-cultural sojourners “to be emotionally resilient in responding to the challenges and frustrations.”38 This is why required and directed group and individual reflection and mentoring during the cross-cultural experience is an essential component for transformational intercultural education.

These three introductory matters to consider for transformative, cross-cultural experiences are a foundation to support and motivate our commitment to intercultural education with the goal of critical and biblical ethnorelative worldview development. Knowing the context in which we are teaching helps us know our audience, their expectations and motivation and the challenges to impact their intercultural learning. As we increase our understanding of the phenomenon of intercultural development through cross-cultural experiences, we can more precisely communicate and achieve our learner outcomes. Is it critical that we use the term “ethnorelative” to describe our outcomes? No. What is critical is that we as Christian educators deepen our understanding and our experience of what it means to be able to navigate the complexities of relationships with people with cultural differences and commonalities productively and collaboratively. Then we must choose vocabulary that best welcomes the students in our classroom to join the sojourn.

We must assess our current experiential pedagogy to support ethnorelative worldview development and then design experiences that challenge and support it. Our task is to do our best to put into place the essential components for sound and sophisticated intercultural learning that is worthy of the mission that God calls us to join. I highly recommend that as Christian educators who support a critical and biblical ethnorelative worldview we deliberately design our programs with the following three essential pedagogical components.

Informed Pedagogical Design to Support Intercultural Development

In the most current comprehensive empirical review of What Our students Are Learning, What They’re Not and What We Can do About It (2012) during their study abroad, leading international and intercultural scholars have identified several essential pedagogical interventions and design components to support transformative intercultural and worldview development. Part one of the three-part volume summarizes the findings of eight studies. Some of the studies’ settings are specific locations, one of them being our CCCU affiliate, the Westmont in Mexico Program. Other settings are programs to which many of us point our students to consider, such as the Council of International Education Exchange (CIEE). Criteria for all eight studies were that they practiced intercultural interventions, which the editors define as “intentional and deliberate pedagogical approaches, activated through the study abroad cycle (before, during, and after) that are designed to enhance students’ intercultural competence.”39 The review also explores the programs’ developmental approaches to intercultural learning as key to the participating institutions’ pedagogy. Book editors Michael Vande Berg, Michael Paige and Kris Hemming Lou offer a summary of the essential interventions that measurably make a difference in study abroad education. These are the components that we must do our best to include and require in the design of our cross-cultural experiences if our learner outcomes are the development of intercultural competencies and toward critical ethnorelative worldviews:

  • Trained cultural mentors who engage learners in on-going conversation about their experience before, during and after the experience
  • The provision of cultural content, such as value orientations, communication styles, nonverbal communications, conflict styles, and ways of learning
  • Reflection on intercultural experiences, driven by cultural mentoring and cultural content
  • Engagement with the people of the culture built into the experience, as long as a cultural mentor is also working with the student to process the experience
  • Intercultural learning throughout the study abroad cycle, providing content and frameworks before, during, and after the experience
  • Online versus on-site intercultural interventions: both are worthy of implementation and further study
  • Comprehensive intercultural interventions that are “woven into the fabric of the larger educational experience”40

This review offers our cross-cultural experiential programs a wealth of informed criteria by which to be deliberate and focused in our program designs, pedagogy, and outcomes. In support of these interventions or design components, there are three pedagogical components that I have found essential for measureable results in my international and domestic cross-cultural experiential courses: repeated opportunities for alterity, required reflection with a framework that supports culture learning, and experiential modeling of a multicultural community.41

Alterity as a Pedagogy for Intercultural Worldview Development

To develop the emotional resilience that R. Michael Paige speaks of, sojourners must be willing to engage deeply with others who have different worldviews from their own and then have the courage to confront the core assumptions of their own worldviews.42 This kind of intimate and epistemological engagement with another person is referred to as alterity. When cross-cultural sojourners engage alterity, they are inevitably engaging with others’ beliefs and belief systems. When they are challenged by others’ beliefs and belief systems, the confrontation results in deep epistemological tension. This is often the experience of the cross-cultural sojourner and the students in our learning environments. Alterity is what Vande Berg, Paige and Hemming Lou refer to when the scholars found that “engagement with the culture was a recurring component of successful study abroad experiences for intercultural development.”43 Worldview shifts happen through relationships across differences, if the sojourner is prepared and mentored through the tensions that these relationships will likely produce.

After the sojourner engages with the other in this deep worldview exploration, faith-oriented sojourners must then go deep within themselves to recognize, understand and discern these experiences of tension due to alterity. In the midst of the cross-cultural experience, sojourners must explore how their culture influences their worldview beliefs and the behavior and values that express their beliefs. The reason, asserts Kraft, is that “the worldview lies at the very heart of culture, touching, interacting with, and strongly influencing every other aspect of the culture.”44

Much of people’s experience with and understanding of how to get along with those who are different from themselves is to tolerate these differences. Intercultural competence requires more than tolerance. Developing or practicing tolerance toward people with differences rarely leads people to explore their own worldview or open themselves to others’ ways of experiencing life. Tolerance is merely a way of protecting oneself from alterity, from the risk of deeply experiencing and relating to differentness. A person who seeks to tolerate another person’s differences rarely seeks to understand why there are the differences, especially if there is epistemological tension. Practicing only tolerance fails to teach a person how to adapt one’s behavior and thinking in order to relate successfully to the perceived differences of others. Intercultural competence is about accepting and adapting, not just tolerating people who are different. It is to develop the skills and attitudes to accept and relate to people as they are rather than wishing they were different than they are.45

To engage alterity and seek a critical ethnorelative perspective does not mean that we must be disloyal to and abandon, even momentarily, our own religious and spiritual convictions. Rather, to develop an ethnorelative worldview is to develop the skills to shift cognitively and behaviorally from our own culturally influenced worldviews to consider others deeply. How is this done? It happens because we have opened ourselves to try to understand the other cognitively and relationally and to cope with the ambiguity that it creates. And then we can to shift back to our own frame of reference because we know it and we recognize, with increasing insight, culture’s influence on us. Finally, with our new insights, questions, and tension within, we engage with God, Scripture and a multicultural community of Christ-followers to reconsider bravely our own priority values, beliefs, and behaviors by which we live out our faith in our own cultural context.

Therefore, intercultural sojourners must reflect on their tension and their culture’s influence on their worldview in order to face the assumptions that often support it. Here is where the tension and turbulence begins. Upon reflection, sojourners usually challenge the unexamined beliefs that their culture and belief systems support and must face the question of what to do with the contrasting beliefs. They often question what truth is and the authorities that taught and supported it. They must decide if or to what degree they are going to allow other beliefs and new ways of thinking to influence and shift their worldview perspectives. Unfortunately, we can observe this in students who return home from their study abroad experiences and claim to “have lost their faith.” Or their transition back to their home culture puts them at a loss of how to live in the norms of U.S. culture related to time, relationships, and materialism. For example, my suspicion is that the students were not prepared or mentored to confront this common experience.

A person with a critical ethnorelative worldview does not have to accept the beliefs and values of the other worldview as the truth, but accept and respect the reality that others also hold their convictions with devotion that parallels their own convictions about what is true and real. “In other words,” explains Magnuson,

as we encounter others and their different views about reality, we both change by learning to live in relation with others who have different cultures and worldviews, to experience our own experience of reality as one among many, rather than as the only, straightforward one.46

People with intercultural competence recognize that exploring others’ contrasting beliefs can offer insight into life’s big questions, serving as a resource rather than a problem to solve.

What happens psychologically and spiritually when people confront contrasting worldviews and the challenge to shift their paradigm? Psychologist Steven Sandage and theologian LeRon Shults integrated their areas of expertise to explore this question. In their book Transforming Spirituality they conclude that “spiritual transformations involve profound changes in self-identity and meaning in life, often following periods of significant stress and emotional turbulence.”47 As the designers and facilitators of these turbulent times we must expect the critical incidents, prepare our students for how to process them, and do what we can not to push them through the tension in order to process positive intercultural development. To develop and practice these competencies, however, is no easy task. It does, though, support our goal to teach our students to hold their firm beliefs gently.

What are some of the ways we can do this in our cross-cultural experiences? First, we have to be deliberate in our program design. We must seek multiple experiences for students to interact in sustained ways with people of the host culture. And it needs to include some fun! Second, we have to prepare them for the possibilities of alterity happening so that when it does, they are in a posture of openness rather than immediate resistance. Teaching students theories about cultural adjustment and the choices we have to make when we do not want to feel uncomfortable helps students to recognize and adjust their expectations of what they might experience and to anticipate how they are most likely to respond. This can be done through readings, stories, film, and simulations. Third, we must require students to reflect about what they read, heard, or experienced. Another approach is to ask students to consider past transitions they have experienced and the coping skills they used to work through the tension successfully. As the student moves through the course experience, I increase the frequency of the opportunities for these potentially challenging interactions and the kinds of topics for conversation. At the same time and based on Cornelius Grove and Ingemar Torbiörn’s findings about cultural adjustment, I also offer enough opportunities for students to have safe and transparent conversations and reflection to process the increasing complexities and confusion that the relationships across cultural differences can and will create.48 After these safe debriefing times, I find that students are then ready to re-engage with a greater capacity of skills to cope with the tension that alterity creates. These are just some of the ways that I require and support alterity as an essential pedagogical component to support ethnorelative worldview development.

Required and Directed Critical Reflection

Intercultural competence also includes knowing how to process the intense spiritual, affective, behavioral, and cognitive critical incident effectively. How do we teach this? It starts with the learner’s willingness to engage across differences. We can greatly encourage a willing spirit through the ways that we prepare students for what is to come and to recognize their conscious and unconscious expectations. Then it is about skill development through these experiences. This development is supported through required, directed, and two-way reflection about culture learning in an environment in which students can safely explore their most difficult and sometimes heretical questions about assumptions that they have held. Monica Pagano and Laura Roselle refer to this kind of reflection as “refraction knowledge” that supports critical thinking through cross-cultural experiences.49 Refraction learning is the

transformative learning process that helps students understand and identify the intermediate processes of learning to aid the development of critical thinking skills. Refraction centers learning by integrating and elaborating the experience, the academic subject matter, and the context by examining assumptions and biases.50

The first critical component of our pedagogy is that we require students to reflect. North American popular culture does not encourage deep and critical reflection about challenging matters such as culture and belief system differences. More often we live at a surface level of contemplation. I have found that it is unrealistic to think that students will naturally reflect at the level needed to get at the deep and sophisticated complexities of culture so that transformative learning takes place. It is easy for us to record what we have done in a day; it takes an added effort to reflect on the cultural meaning and significance of what happened in that day.

Second, I suggest that we teach students a reflective framework that is easy to remember and use before, during, and after our experiences. Use a framework that is flexible for spontaneous and deliberate, verbal and written, and group and individual debriefing and reflection. There are several frameworks to choose from, including the more complex approach that Pagano and Roselle offer. Below are just a few that mentors can find more fully described in international education literature and simple Internet searches:

  • DIE: Describe, Interpret, Evaluate
  • Kyoung-ah Nam’s DAE: Describe, Analyze, Evaluate
  • Deardorff’s OSEE: Observe, State, Explore, Evaluate
  • Drake’s Cultural Learning Cycle: Anticipating, Noticing, Contemplating, Learning
  • Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle: Experience, Reflect, Learn, Act
  • O.R.E.: Observe, Reflect, Expand

I use Karen Drake’s Cultural Learning Cycle.51 I find it the most flexible for teaching and for students to apply to their range of development, learning preferences, needs and circumstances.

For example, I get students started on developing a reflective habit by asking them to anticipate their expectations or stereotypes about the host-culture norms, food, jet lag, language acquisition and religious practices before we leave the classroom or home. When they are guests in their host culture, I ask what they are noticing and how that compares to what they anticipated in their earlier reflection. Then I require that they practice together and in their writing to describe only what they are noticing and not what they are contemplating is the meaning of what they are noticing. This supports the intercultural skills of attending to and sustaining judgment about behavior and promotes the practice of alterity. They have to find out from the people of the culture what the observation means. In addition to learning about our host culture’s norms, this reflective directive strengthens students’ learning about their own cultures’ norms as they make these comparisons and consider their origins. The point here is that the students have a framework that directs and encourages reflection about culture experiences that is easy to carry with them wherever they have the experience of “Hey, that was different.” They are valuable frameworks for life-long, intercultural development.

Third, I require students to reflect on their spiritual practices and religious convictions and how their experience is impacting this area. Then I ask students to consider how their own culture might influence how they practice their religion, the function that it performs in the culture and where in Scripture those practices are explicitly taught. This supports student learning to see how culture influences something that they may have thought was more common and universal. For example, before students enter their cross-cultural relationships and settings, I walk students through a reflection about prayer—their posture, purpose, values and beliefs about it. Then the students compare it with others who are studying abroad. They find that even amongst themselves their answers are similar and different. Then together they have to explore why that might be similar and different and how the subcultures of their places of worship have influenced this important part of our Christian life. Then we turn to the Bible to see what is actually said about how we should pray. They find that how people prayed changed over time and in the various cultural settings.52

For example, when Daniel was in captivity in Babylon, we are told that it was his habit to pray three times a day bowing to the floor on his knees with his head aimed at Jerusalem. As one students said, it sounds like what a Muslim would do today! Then we fast-forward in Scripture a couple hundred years and we learn that Jesus would go for prayer retreats, a practice that we thought was more contemporary than ancient. This simple exploration begins the conversation and observation about how culture can be one influence in our purpose and posture for prayer.

To engage in these kinds of conversations and learning, though, we must support students’ reflective skills. We must require them to reflect in specific ways on the substantive ways that culture influences our worldviews. The result is that they are more consciously aware of culture’s influence on their most deeply held convictions and from there they begin to identify the foundations of their faith and their religious practices. I have also found that they are more prepared to engage in conversations with people of different religions in thoughtful ways. Finally, upon students’ reentry into their own culture, they are better equipped to articulate what they have learned about themselves, their culture, and another culture. Too often, though, our study abroad students are prepared to offer mostly vague replies about their semester-long study saying, “It was awesome!” or “I have a bigger view of the world.” And that is about where it stops. Why? Because they have not been adequately prepared and supported to deeply process just what was so awesome about it and how it changed their view of their bigger world.

The Habit of Participating in a Multicultural Community

A third essential pedagogical component to support critical and biblical ethnorelative worldview development is to model and encourage in our students the habit of participating in a multicultural community during and after the cross-cultural experience. Student Learning Abroad supports this key pedagogical component of a processing community because it serves as another cultural mentor during the experience and upon re-entry. It is also essential for life-long intercultural development.

God’s global intention that the chosen go out to be a light to the nations is an overarching motif in the stories and characters of Scripture. The narratives make it emphatically clear that the Messiah came, ministered, and died for every people, tribe, and nation, expanding the audience of who should light the path toward God. Jesus commanded his disciples to go to those near and far from our homes to teach and disciple people about the Good News (Matt. 28:16-20). Paul instructs Jesus’ followers in the early church in how to go out to these foreign lands, following the model of those told about in Scripture. In addition to Jesus, these models included Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and Mordecai. Each person demonstrates in varying degrees a willingness to learn the ways of the foreign and sometimes despised culture in order to be a light to the path toward reconciliation with God, and each other, and how to do this with prudence and discernment according to God’s essential commands. All who follow this call to teach and disciple every tribe and people are implicitly called, then, also to experience the tension of having their worldview challenged and shifted if they are to be effective in telling the Good News. This will to embrace the other and to follow this call requires the intercultural competence to do so in sophisticated ways. This means integrating faith convictions and biblical principles with an ethnorelative worldview. This is why I add the adjectives “critical” and “biblical” to my use of the word “ethnorelative.”

One of several things that we can learn from these Bible characters about crossing cultures is the importance of a multicultural community of believers to discern together wisely when to compromise in a culture and when to be exclusive. A multicultural community is one in which there are people with multiple cultural perspectives and life experiences in dialogue to contribute crucial perspectives and interpretations about life with God and the meaning of Scripture. The most obvious and ideal way this happens is to make it a priority to spend time in relationship with people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. In addition, it could be through reading what people from ethnically diverse origins are thinking and the stories they are telling and how they are telling those stories. The diversity of members serves as bridges into other cultural perspectives as the multicultural community interprets Scripture and teaches about life experiences from a variety of cultural perspectives.53 Kraft refers to this experience as dialogical hermeneutics:

The hermeneutical process, then, involves a dynamic interaction or dialogue between an interpreter deeply enmeshed in his or her own culture and worldview (including theological biases) and the Scriptures. The interpreter has needs, some of which he or she formulates into questions, “asking” these questions of the Scriptures and finding certain of them answered. Other questions remain unanswered. … It is a dynamic process that properly demands deep subjective involvement on the part of Christian interpreters operating within the Christian community (which includes scholars) both with the Scriptures and with the life of the world around them in which they live.54

These are the characteristics and activities of a multicultural community that engages and embraces one another’s differences and similarities that can support ethnorelative worldview shifts.

Paul repeatedly speaks affectionately about his fellow laborers who make up what I have described as a multicultural community of believers. These companions encouraged and supported him. They also joined him in the task of keeping the Good News centered on the new freedom in Christ, not the distractions of following rules dictated by cultural norms. The companions were people from a spectrum of cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds—Barnabas, Peter, Luke, Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus, Nympha, Aquila and Claudia. The forms of their names suggest something about their diverse cultural backgrounds. For example, Paul ends his letter to Rome with a long list of affectionate greetings to women, men, and families from several different ethnic origins (Romans 16). This diverse mix of companions is one example of a multicultural community. A multicultural community is a key dimension in the search for truth as the community seeks to unearth and discern what are cultural norms and what are God’s ways no matter what the cultural context. These essential communities also help us to know when to adapt ethically to the culture’s norms.

Andy Crouch argues that being in a multicultural community is a way to sort out the behaviors and theologies that cultural traditions, rituals, and orthodoxy can mutate into as they find themselves over time imbedded in culture. Rituals and theologies can lose the functional essence of what they were intended to accomplish because they develop within a culture. “Trying to discern the idolatries, the misplaced importances of our culture is like trying to remove our own appendix,” Crouch warns. “However vestigial it may appear, its removal will be painful; in any case, we can barely see it.”55 This challenge to discern something that is nearly subconscious is why engaging with others from different cultures and perspectives is crucial. The diversity of perspectives helps the community of believers to grow in its awareness of their culturally influenced patterns of thinking, behaving, and feeling as they exchange and compare their perspectives. The multicultural community is also a support in those times of pain that Crouch speaks about and that the biblical narratives tell about. This pain is the tension sojourners experience when they confront the challenges of alterity, especially those sojourners with deep religious convictions, systems, and ritualistic behaviors.

As sojourners engage with people, worldviews, and cultural norms different from their own that challenge what they believe is true and right, the confrontation creates confusion and uncertainty about what was thought certain. The experience requires humility and the study of culture, society, and people. It requires one to recognize and reconsider his or her own identity as different from the comfort of one’s own culture and norms and ways of making sense of life’s challenging questions. It requires a multicultural community to discern together what it truly means to be Kingdom Seekers (Matt. 6:33). The result of facing this confrontation with differences and embracing the experience can be the development of intercultural competence and an ethnorelative worldview.

Crouch pointedly states:

To diagnose and treat another culture’s unique failings without active partnerships and relationships with [those from the culture] is violence, not surgery. Only together [in multicultural relationships] can we discern the deeper significance of any given cultural practices, its redemptive possibilities, and its tempting distortions of the life that really is life.56

In other words, believers must engage in alterity if they are to understand God and one another more fully, being careful about the conclusions made about life. It is through these relationships that believers can more soundly develop a true identity and allegiance to God. Wesley Kort agrees with Crouch, saying,

We are persons not in and by ourselves, not in our individuality first of all, but in and through our relations with others. This is because a relation with someone means engaging in an open interaction in which the dynamics of similarity and difference begin to clarify for me not only who the other person is but also who I am. And difference is as important for that process as similarity. It is only persons who mistakenly think of themselves as having fixed and certain identities who will fail to see the encounters with persons who are different disclose not only something about other persons but also something, heretofore undisclosed, about themselves.57

To develop the skill, knowledge, and character of alterity is godly wisdom and developmentally inherent in God’s call to be a light to all nations. A key dimension to developing this skill with godly wisdom is to do so in a multicultural community.

How can we design a cross-cultural experience to create a multicultural community? First, it takes creative, flexible, and determined educators and administrators to ensure that this habit is built into and required as part of the experience. Imagine, though, all the conditions and scenarios of our students’ experiences. Some students go as homogeneous groups from the same college making it challenging to connect deeply with believers from a diverse perspective. Other students go alone and seek out believers from across the globe. Some students are in reliable Internet communication and others are not. These diverse conditions and the need for this crucial pedagogical component require us to work with our students before, during, and after the experience to intervene in the students’ experiences.

Second, to work for these diverse conditions, the multicultural community must take various forms as well. They might include the following:

  • As appropriate, work with study abroad host organizations to require and provide students with regular exchanges with Christians studying Scripture together.
  • Require students to find a group of believers through a local church with whom they can worship and study Scripture on a regular basis.
  • Find and use theological and Bible study materials written by people of the host country and sold in the host location and written in their language.
  • If it is a host country with few to no Christians, develop for students a way to connect with believers in other locations through the Internet.
  • If there simply is not a way for the students to study Scripture with believers from the host culture, arrange for students from their own college who are studying abroad from across the globe to connect regularly with one another via the Internet and to study together the same passages. However, the requirement is for students to consider how the passage might be read and studied from their host culture’s perspective and to do some field research to find out.

This list offers only a few possibilities. As I said, this essential pedagogical component requires us to be creative and flexible as we consider the range of conditions in which our students find themselves. There is rarely a cookie-cutter approach for a consistent outcome. We must learn through research and our students’ feedback what can work in various settings and what the essential components are to create in our students the habit of seeking out and participating in a multicultural community for searching the Scriptures of what it means to be a critical and biblical ethnorelative follower of Christ.

Students Prepared to Engage in Cross-Cultural Relationships

How did I know that my Christian students would be able to navigate a conversation sensitively with their Muslim friend, Wáel, about what he observed and heard during the wedding ceremony? First, it was because the students were prepared for this experience. They had spent a month of deep and lively conversation that I deliberately designed to encourage and support relationship building across cultural and religious similarities and differences. They had a study abroad experience that was designed to offer them the opportunity for alterity. They were practiced in it. Second, because they were required to use a specific framework to reflect on the spiritual and religious tensions that the experiences presented to them, I was confident that they would use this same framework to work through the tensions that the conversations at the wedding might create. Third, I knew that they would critically consider what Scripture teaches about marriage, love, and family relationships. We had practiced this together in our month of study with Christians in Jordan to understand better the unexamined practices that we each had. I was deliberate to design an experience to support critical and biblical ethnorelative development. This is how I knew that at the wedding, they would be able to cross into one another’s most deeply held beliefs to navigate a respectful conversation about differences to seek to understand one another while also critically filtering it through their respective worldviews.

The conversations and friendship did not end when we left the airport in Jordan after our month of study. We created a Facebook group before we even left Minnesota. Upon their return they continued the relationships and conversations via Skype and other technologies. One Bethel student deliberately chose a research topic for his contemporary Christian issues course so that he could learn directly from his Muslim friend what the Qur’an teaches about the topic. Another group of students took a senior capstone course to learn about Arabs in America. One student was hired for a job because he had experience with and knew the cultural norms for Muslim immigrant families. Students in medical school are texting me that what they are learning in their courses about cross-cultural patient care are similar principles to what they learned in their experience developing relationships in the Middle East for the one-month course.

During the writing of this article, there was much Facebook dialogue between the students about the contention between Muslims and a film previewed in Hollywood that greatly dishonors Islam’s esteemed Prophet Mohammed. In the Facebook exchanges, our students were apologizing for Hollywood’s actions and our Muslim friends were affirming that they know that this is not what all of Americans believe. How do our Muslim friends know this? Because they know a group of Christians in Minnesota who would not knowingly be disrespectful toward them, and they can discuss this together in sophisticated ways. Together, they are learning how to be interculturally competent. I am honored to be among these young people as we continue to practice and shift our critical and biblical ethnorelative worldviews and the intercultural skills and mindsets needed in our increasingly interdependent and pluralistic world.

Cite this article
Naomi Ludeman Smith, “(Re)Considering a Critical Ethnorelative Worldview Goal and Pedagogy for Global and Biblical Demands in Christian Higher Education”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 42:4 , 345-373


  1. I would like to acknowledge anthropologist Dr. Doug Magnuson, my dissertation advisor, colleague and friend, for his partnership and mentoring. For two years, Doug has co-taught the course with me in the Middle East, generously sharing his expertise and life’s learning with the students. The success of this course is a shared success. Doug also gave me much feedback during the drafting process of this article, challenging me to reconsider my own assumptions and distinctions about the development of critical and biblical ethnorelative worldviews.
  2. David L. Smith, Learning From the Stranger (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 104.
  3. Ibid.,104.
  4. Max L. Stackhouse, Globalization and Grace: A Christian Public Theology for a Global Future, in God and Globalization: Theological Ethics and the Sphere of Life vol. 4, ed. Max L. Stackhouse, (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2007).
  5. Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Mission of the Christian College at the End of the 20th Century,” The Reformed Journal 33.6 (June 1983): 17.
  6. David Livermore, Leading With Cultural Intelligence (New York: AMACOM, 2010).
  7. Mitchell R. Hammer, “The Intercultural Development Inventory,” in Student Learning Abroad: What Our Students Are Learning, What They’re Not, and What We Can Do About It, eds. Michael Vande Berg, R. Michael Paige and Kris Hemming Lou (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2012), 116.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Why Students Are and Are Not Learning Abroad,” in Student Learning Abroad, 47.
  10. Doug Wilson reports a similar situation for missionary trainers and agencies in “The 2012 Christian Interculturalists’ Report.” In his study he interviewed and surveyed over 100 missionary trainers and agencies to gather information about the trainers, their education and professional development, their tools and training methods, and the measured effectiveness of their training. Wilson reports, “Since beginning work as a missionary trainer in 2005, I have had few opportunities to interact with other interculturalists and while going through the three days of training [to become qualified to use the leading intercultural measurement tool] I was able to interact with dozens of individuals who provide intercultural training including private consultants, corporate trainers, educators who supervised study abroad programs for a variety of colleges and universities, educators in public school districts and doctoral students pursuing degrees in intercultural studies. What I did not find were any other missionary trainers” (7). He reports the same after attending several years of conferences of the largest professional interculturalists’ society. See Douglas O. Wilson, “The 2012 Christian Interculturalists’ Report,” (unpublished report), April 2012.
  11. Ronald J. Morgan and Cynthia Toms Smedley, ed. Transformations at the Edge of the World (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2010).
  12. Kate Berardo, The Intercultural Profession in 2007: Profiles, Practices & Challenges. Unpublished paper, 2008, (accessed March 3, 2013).
  13. For a more thorough explanation of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitive, see Milton J. Bennett, “Paradigmatic Assumptions and a Developmental Approach to Intercultural Learning, ” in Student Learning Abroad, 99-114. For more about the companion measurement tool used with the Intercultural Development Continuum, the Intercultural Development Inventory, see Mitchell R. Hammer, “The Intercultural Development Inventory,” in Student Learning Abroad, 115-136.
  14. Paul De Neui and Deborah Penny, “Faith-Based Application of the IDI (or Who Really Needs Conversion?),” presentation at The Third Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) Conference A New Frontier: Using the IDI to Build Intercultural Competence (Minneapolis; September 21, 2012).
  15. Bennett, “Paradigmatic Assumptions,”103.
  16. Milton J. Bennett, “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity,” in Education for the Intercultural Experience, ed. R. Michael Paige (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1993, 2nd ed.), 46.
  17. Charles Kraft, Christianity in Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), 128.
  18. Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 30.
  19. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, 56.
  20. Robert C. Sutton, “The GLOSSARI Project: Assessing Learning Outcomes of Study Abroad” (paper presented at the annual conference of NAFSA, Minneapolis, MN, June 12, 2007).
  21. “U.S. Students Abroad Top 2,000,000, Increase By 8 Percent,” Open Doors 2006 Study Abroad, Institute of International Education, (accessed June 19, 2007).
  22. Office of Off-Campus and International Studies Programs, (unpublished report, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN, February 14, 2011).
  23. Kelsey Sheehy, “10 Colleges Where the Most Students Study Abroad,” U.S. News & World Report, February 26, 2013, (accessed March 14, 2013).
  24. Heath Arenson, Personal communication, January 9, 2013, Tanasuk Technologies, Amman, Jordan.
  25. Bennett, “Towards Ethnorelativism,” 21.
  26. Cynthia Toms Smedley, “Introduction,” in Transformations at the edge of the World, eds. Ronald J. Morgan and Cynthia Toms Smedley (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2010), 24.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Bennett, “Towards Ethnorelativism,” 22.
  29. Joel Frederickson, “Summary of Dogmatism Assessment at Bethel University” (unpublished report, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN, September 2006), 1.
  30. Naomi Ludeman Smith, “Assessing Cross-Cultural Competency: Worldview Changes in Bethel CAS Students During Spring 2008 Study Abroad Experience,” Abstract (unpublished report, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN, March 1, 2008), 3.
  31. Naomi Ludeman Smith, “Sojourn Through Spiritual and Religious Tension: A Quantitative Study of Intercultural Competence and Worldview Development” (DMin diss., Bethel University & Seminary, 2010).
  32. Student Learning Abroad, 3.
  33. Mitchel R. Hammer, “Intercultural Development Inventory v. 3 (IDI) Profile Report,” (2007-2011), 3.
  34. Doug Magnuson, e-mail message to author, February 18, 2013.
  35. Victor Savicki, ed. “Experiential and Affective Education for International Educators,” in Developing Intercultural Competence and Transformation: Theory, Research and Application in International Education (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2008), 74-107; Joseph G. Hoff, “Growth and Transformation Outcomes in International Education,” in Developing Intercultural Competence and Transformation, 53-73; Amy Hunter, “Transformative Learning in International Education,” in Developing Intercultural Competence and Transformation, 92-107; Mohammed Abu-Nimer, “Conflict Resolution, Culture, and Religion: Toward a Training Model of Inter-religous Peacebuilding,” Journal of Peace Research 38 (2001): 685-704; Hage et al., “Multicultural Training in Spirituality: An Interdisciplinary Review,” Counseling and Values 50 (April 2006): 217-234; Martin F. Bennett, “Religious and Spiritual Diversity in the Workplace,” in Contemporary Leadership and Intercultural Competence: Exploring the Cross-cultural Dynamics Within Organizations, ed. Michael A. Moodian (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2009), 45-57; Laurent A. Parks Daloz, “Transformative Learning for the Common Good,” in Learning As Transformation: Critical Perspectives On a Theory in Progress, eds. Jack Mezirow and Associates (San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2000), 103-123; Sylvia M. Asay, Maha N. Younes and Tami James Moore, “The Cultural Transformation Model: Promoting Cultural Competence Through International Study Experiences,” in International Family Studies: Developing Curricula and Teaching Tools, ed. Raeann R. Harmon (Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, Inc., 2006) 84-99.
  36. Doug Reilly and Stefan Senders, “Becoming the Change We Want to See: Critical Study Abroad for a Tumultuous World,” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, XVIII (Fall 2009): 241-267; Kathryn Sorrells, “Ethical Intercultural Praxis,” Eye on Ethics: A Conversation for Intercultural Professionals, eds. Maria Thacker with Naomi Ludeman Smith (Portland, OR: Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research, 2012) 27-29.
  37. Victor J. Friedman and Ariane Berthoin Antal, “Negotiating Reality: A Theory of Action Approach to Intercultural Competence,” Management Learning 36 (2005): 70.
  38. R. Michael Paige, ed. “On the Nature of Intercultural Experiences and Intercultural Education,” in Education for the Intercultural Experience (Yarmouth, MD: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1993), 1.
  39. Student Learning Abroad, 29-30.
  40. Ibid., 53-55.
  41. For a resource to prepare and support students for critical and biblical ethnorelative worldview development, see Ludeman Smith’s book, The Spiritual Cross-Cultural Sojourn: Seeking the Sacred and Peace With Others (self-published, 2007-2013).
  42. Paige, 1.
  43. Student Learning Abroad, 54.
  44. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, 53.
  45. Magnuson.
  46. Ibid.
  47. F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage, Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 19.
  48. Cornelius Grove and Ingemar Torbiörn, “A New Conceptualization of Intercultural Adjustment and the Goals of Training,” in Education for the Intercultural Experience, 2nd edition, ed. R. Michael Paige (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1993), 73-108.
  49. Monica Pagano and Laura Roselle, “Beyond Reflection Through an Academic Lens: Refraction and International Experiential Education,” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad XVIII (Fall 2009): 217-229.
  50. Ibid., 228.
  51. Karen B. Drake, “The Role of Short Study Abroad in the Development of Cultural Sensistivity and the Ability to Provide Culturally Competnet Care in Senior Baccalaureate Nursing Students.” Ph.D. Diss., University of Minnesota, 2004), 89-158.
  52. See Ludeman Smith’s The Spiritual Cross-Cultural Sojourner, 70-76.
  53. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, 88-91.
  54. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, 146.
  55. Andy Crouch, “The Importance of Knowing What’s Unimportant,” Christianity Today (December 2006): 38-39.
  56. Ibid., 39.
  57. Wesley A. Kort, “Christianity, Literature, and Cultural Conflict in America,” Special Issue, Christianity and Literature 56 (Spring 2007): 478.

Naomi Ludeman Smith

Presentation College
Naomi Ludeman Smith is Professor and Department Chair of Arts and Sciences at Presentation College.