(Book Review: Sherwood Lingenfelter, Teamwork Cross-Culturally: Christ-Centered Solutions for Leading Multinational Teams. Baker Academic, 2022).
In a world where just a word (not to mention phrases, topics, or modes of interaction) may cause offense or even trauma, perhaps the safer course may be to keep to ourselves and at least do no harm. The very title of a new book by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Julie Green challenges this notion, encouraging and equipping those who work together across cultural boundaries to advance a mission.
Sherwood Lingenfelter is provost emeritus and Senior Professor of Anthropology at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Julie Green served with SIL International (the Bible translation ministry formerly named Summer Institute of Linguistics) for more than thirty-five years. This book is the fourth in a series that brings anthropology and mission together in support of cross-cultural ministry. The intended audience includes leaders and team members who seek to do “mission with,” not “mission for.” The book will be relevant much more broadly than those in cross-cultural ministry; I recommend it to all Christian college and university faculty and administrators.
The book begins by establishing a framework for understanding problems and solutions. Cross-cultural teamwork often involves “wicked problems,” that is, problems that are complex, difficult to describe, and that when approached spawn additional problems. Wicked problems do not resolve with quick fixes; they may be mitigated, lessened, or transformed rather than dispatched. Good solutions to wicked problems are both clumsy and Christ-filled. “Clumsy” is an interesting way of operationalizing the virtues of humility and patience, and “Christ-filled” is explored richly, not used as a gloss or cliché. Lingenfelter’s expertise in anthropology and Green’s experience in ministry at SIL shine in using concepts such as culture, power, authority, identity, roles, and rights to explain general dynamics of leadership and mission in global settings. They also name how these elements of culture are shaped both by sin and by Jesus’ redemptive presence.
The next part of the book includes chapters by contributing authors who share stories of cross-cultural conflict and the clumsy, Christ-filled solutions that moved teams forward. These case studies will inspire readers who work in global missions, but they apply powerfully to Christian college and university settings and everyday life in the digital age as well. We often stop short at the moment of offense. Dominant tropes even encourage the termination of relationship in the name of safety when aggressions occur, even microaggressions whose cause was unintentional or even unaware. This approach may bring a degree of something that approximates safety, but at the cost of whatever good might have been accomplished with ongoing interaction that would require negotiation, compromise, and reconciliation, and result in something much more like real safety.
In one chapter, contributing author Matthew Crosland described a joint venture between SIL and the Bible Translation Association of Papua New Guinea that brought together leaders from Western nations with Melanesian language experts.1 The Melanesians viewed SIL as their “older brother” and wanted to work from a stance of deference that would reinforce familiar power differences between the groups. Crosland wanted to shift toward a more mutual model, but without imposing mutuality from his group’s power position. Crosland describes how the team worked to surface the problem and to discuss it with cultural categories including power, identity, time, and production. The “clumsy” compromise was a planning model that guided translators over a number of years with a dynamic that didn’t perfectly fit the expectations of those from both groups, and that in fact caused a certain amount of stress. All of the case studies describe a spiritual purpose – in this one, having experienced “God love” for one another, the team sought to work selflessly for one another’s betterment and to expand God’s kingdom – and then show how God’s people incarnated their purpose in the real world, clumsily and imperfectly, but with humility, grace, and perseverance.
The book’s final part offers a leadership challenge grounded in hope. One quick fix to cross-cultural challenges might be to stop interacting in order to avoid harm. A second quick fix might be to revert to “mission for” rather than “mission with,” which would eliminate the need for mutuality, negotiation, and compromise by reimposing familiar power dynamics. Lingenfelter sees in Scripture the untenability of these solutions. Throughout the book, the authors toggle between three biblical metaphors that describe the church: one body, a household of faith, and the temple of God. Thus, we are called to be in Christ and yet live and serve within a world whose structures “distort and fracture” our daily lives and interactions. The Gospel is expressed not simply through avoiding harm but “through serving and suffering with one another in Christ” for the accomplishment of life-changing mission and service. “In every case, the power that keeps people loving, working, and witnessing together is God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and God alone brings forth fruit” (p. 188).
Lingenfelter concludes the book with a voice of proclamation: “Jesus invites us to resist the deceptions of that ancient serpent, Satan; to flee the temptations that overwhelm us ‘in the world’; and to open our hearts and ministry to him” (p. 188). In the “ministry for” model of the twentieth century, temptations led people to dominate, disempower, and hold others in a perpetual state of need. In the “ministry with” model of the twenty first century, new temptations abound. We may be tempted to avoid certain words and topics, or even groups of people, for fear of reprisal. We may be tempted to decline participation with culturally complex teams out of concern for being overwhelmed, anticipation of time-consuming problems, or sheer hopelessness.
As a professor, I came away personally challenged to renew my commitment to teaching and relating across difference, and to seek God’s renewal in my oft-flickering hope over discouragingly repetitive problems. This book speaks to challenges and opportunities of diversity and inclusive excellence in both domestic and global contexts. It offers a framework for understanding problems, a pathway for crafting solutions, and spiritual encouragement that grounds our efforts in the love of Christ, the source of steadfast hope.