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The essential role of cultural intelligence in youth ministry

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

As a youth worker, your average day likely includes some or all of these kinds of interactions:

  • Responding to a senior adult who thinks the youth group’s music is too loud.
  • Revising your spring break mission trip plans after the pastor of the church you’re going to serve sends an email with a different agenda for your team’s work there.
  • Meeting a parent of a student over lunch and attempting to understand that parent’s frustration over the different vision of life your ministry has been casting for his daughter.
  • Talking by phone with a customer service representative from India to investigate why your cell phone has been acting up.

While these might seem like disjointed fragments of a random day in youth ministry, they actually are pieces of a puzzle that mystifies many of us: cross-cultural relationships.

In the past, cross-cultural communication was primarily relegated to the realm of interacting with people outside of your own country.  But now, given an increasingly multicultural United States and the globalization of nearly every technology, industry and service—not to mention ministry—our ability to bridge language and other divides has become critically important.  So important, in fact, that some argue that youth workers must develop new skills for encountering the multicultural realities of ministry today.

One of these voices is Dave Livermore, Executive Director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and co-founder of Intersect.  For the last few years, Dave has been raising awareness about an emerging field of study with radical implications for our work with students known as Cultural Intelligence. [David A. Livermore, Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence (Grand Rapids : Baker, 2012)]

A CQ Snapshot

How do you begin to understand the cultures of the twelve different high schools, five ethnic backgrounds, and diverse subgroups that represent the collective “culture” of the kids in your student ministry? How do you take students from all of those subcultures and create authentic community?  And if that’s not enough of a challenge, how on earth do you help these radically different students engage people in yet another—sometimes totally unfamiliar—culture when you take them on a short-term mission trip?

Cultural Intelligence (CQ) assumes that you are constantly engaging in a process of observing and responding to cultural cues and encounters.  Similar to IQ or EQ (emotional intelligence [See Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (10th ed., New York: Bantam, 2006).]), CQ can be understood as a gage of your ability to effectively reach across cultural gaps in appropriate and respectful (and in ministry, we also hope transformative) ways.  It’s a multi-disciplinary framework that draws from anthropology, sociology and psychology as well as literature from the fields of business, missions, and education. [CQ was initially developed by Soon and Earley in Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). Soon and Earley built upon Howard Gardiner’s research on multiple intelligences at Harvard, as well as James Paul Gee’s work on social linguistics and the theory of multiple literacies.  See Howard Gardiner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983), and James Paul Gee, Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology and Discourse (London: Routledge, 1996).] There are four primary interrelated dimensions to this meta-model: knowledge, interpretation, perseverance and behavior.

1. KNOWLEDGE CQ: How are we different?

Knowledge CQ, or learning about cultural differences, often marks the first basic step toward cultural interactions.  We increase our knowledge CQ when we try out new foods from the local ethnic market, learn some of another language, ask about a cultural way of dressing, check out international news stories, or watch movies like Hotel Rwanda, Trade, or Crash.

And though increasing our information about culture is the most-emphasized feature of the majority of cross-cultural training, knowledge by itself is not enough.  In fact, knowledge alone can be downright dangerous.  Learning Tagalog is not the same thing as being able to interpret the actions and words of a Filipino, let alone the particular Filipino who happens to pastor the church where your group is taking a short term mission trip next summer (or the Filipino family who just moved in across your street).

2. INTERPRETIVE CQ: What’s going on under the surface?

The other side of the knowledge coin is interpretation—how do we use knowledge, and how accurately do we discern what it really means? Hopefully this ability is growing alongside our increase in knowledge about a culture. Interpretive CQ is the degree to which we are aware of what’s going on under the surface of cultural expressions or interactions.

The process of Interpretive CQ is a bit like discovering an iceberg.  On the tip we see things that perhaps are common to human nature—what we all share as people created in God’s image.  Down near the water’s surface we see cultural artifacts—about 10% of the story, but the stuff we notice most (clothing, gestures, food, language, etc.).  Then there’s everything that’s under the water: the massive chunk of what’s really going on in terms of values, scripts, assumptions, and the many individual differences within a cultural or subcultural set.  Interpretive CQ means looking beyond a smile and assuming “They’re so happy” to asking deeper questions about why someone might be smiling at us, and whether we’re correctly interpreting that smile.  Asking “WHY?” is our biggest friend in the process of increasing Interpretive CQ.

Interpretation begins with really good observation skills.  Either on your own or with students, one way to practice this is to simply look around you carefully.  Use a journal and observe what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.  Be as specific as possible.  Then dialog with your observations.  Why are people standing where they’re standing or walking the way they are walking? Why are they wearing what they’re wearing?  You will likely come up with a lot of questions you don’t know the answers to, which means you have great questions to ask in dialog with someone from that culture as you get to know them!

3. PERSEVERANCE CQ: Are we committed over the long haul?

Perseverance CQ is all about motivation and persistence.  Perseverance is the difference between learning the stereotype that all Koreans love to eat kimchi (spicy cooked cabbage) and actually building friendships with people from Korea to learn more about kimchi and the way it functions culturally in meals and social interactions.  Ultimately it means eating different kinds of kimchi and maybe even learning how to make it alongside my Korean friends.  The first approach requires very little of me and in the end is only a token way of increasing my knowledge CQ.  The second and third approaches require deeper levels of intentionality, relationship, vulnerability, and probably a lot of my time.  But in the end I have a very different sense of what kimchi, and more importantly some of the people who make and eat it, are all about.

Jeff, Mayra, Albert, and Curt are modeling perseverance CQ for me right now in the way they approach youth ministry together at one church.  Their ministry staff is intentionally diverse in a number of ways (most obvious is the fact that they represent four different ethnic backgrounds among them).  Moving way beyond tokenism, these youth workers daily face the struggles inherent with attempting to communicate, make decisions, and serve kids and families as a multiethnic staff.  They will be the first to admit that this is incredibly difficult and time-consuming.  In fact, the temptations often arise to skip over the hard work and undercut their commitment to serving as an integrated team, largely because of the overwhelming amount of time it takes to live this out.  But as they and others attest, their ministry and their lives are changing as a result of this radical decision to persevere for the long haul.  What’s more, the opportunities for transformation increase exponentially as they model this perseverance for students.

4. BEHAVIORAL CQ: Are we living it out?

We can know, understand, and interpret a lot about another culture, but can we actually apply all of this when we interact with a real person?  Does it appropriately impact our words and behavior?  And how do we walk the tightrope of authentically being ourselves versus flexing to the cultural expectations or norms of others?  These are the questions that filter our adeptness at Behavioral CQ.

Probably most of us have known a youth pastor who “tried too hard” to fit in with kids: buying the same clothes, using all the same words, and stepping over the line from “incarnational ministry” to becoming ridiculously adolescent (maybe it’s even been us at times!).  Stretching our Behavioral CQ means we want to faithfully be ourselves, but do so in ways that are not offensive to others.  On a short-term mission trip this might mean balancing my desire to be the opposite of the loud, obnoxious American with being able to share genuinely about myself when appropriate.  In our youth groups this might mean becoming conversant with kids’ music without playing it all the time in our car and office if it’s not really our preference.

Behavioral CQ is the most difficult—while at the same time being the most rewarding—aspect of the CQ journey.  Ultimately this becomes a whole-person process of inward transformation, which Livermore argues must be our primary goal.  CQ is not simply a method to help us “do better ministry”, but a personal transformation as we shift from practicing cross-cultural skills to actually becoming multicultural people.  As we do, we reflect the God who crosses every culture to meet us in the midst of life as we live it, wherever we are.

Going Deeper into CQ: Ten Questions for Dave Livermore

Recently I asked Dave to help us flesh out CQ for youth ministry a bit more.  Here are some thoughts he shared in that interview:

1. What sparked your work to apply CQ to youth ministry?

I think cultural understanding is something most youth workers do naturally and almost subconsciously. We’re called upon to be the interpreters among parents, boards, and students, between jocks and techies, between rural and suburban youth, between Latino and Asian youth, and between our youth group and the locals with whom we serve on our STM [short-term missions] project. In some ways, its almost second nature. Youth ministry has been talking about “culture” for years. I think youth ministry is uniquely positioned to lead the way in helping us apply cultural intelligence to the ways we serve. So in part I was most interested in starting with application of CQ to youth ministry because I have the most hope for it being embraced effectively here.

2. What’s been most eye-opening to you from your own research with Christian leaders crossing global contexts?

In many regards, ministry leaders from the U.S. seem far less alert to the importance of cultural sensitivity in their ministries at home than they do in their STM work. So at times the cultural blunders are even worse.  For example, some leaders in my research made prejudiced statements about different generational or denominational cultures that they wouldn’t think of saying publicly about different ethnic groups. I’m not trying to say racism isn’t still a big issue too. It’s just that this issue of being culturally intelligent has far-reaching implications for us even if we’re ministering in a mostly white, suburban youth group.

3. You insist that CQ is an inward transformation rather than simply behavior modification.  Can you explain how this is different from some other approaches to cross-cultural ministry that tend to focus on changing behavior?  Can you give an example of both approaches?

Diversity training in the business world or training for how to have more culturally-diverse ministries often focus upon the things we should avoid saying or doing to keep from offending people. Often the primary motivation is simply to avoid offense or worse yet, to manipulate people to get them to do what we want. This is obvious in the business world when cultural understanding is pursued in order to sell more products to a particular market. But it happens in ministry contexts too. For example, many STM training programs primarily emphasize cultural taboos as a way to be sure we “sell” Jesus to the locals. While avoiding taboos can be a helpful starting point, it does little to actually change the ways we relate and serve.

In contrast, an inside-out approach to cross-cultural interaction focuses less upon behaviors or words and more upon how we actually view the other individual. It explores whether or not we truly love and respect the culturally different person and then determines how to best express that love and respect. As a result, we begin to realize that transformation of who we are and how we relate may need more of our attention than merely altering a few labels we use for people.  If I merely avoid calling my Latino friend a derogatory term but still view him as inferior, I’ve done little to truly live in the way of Jesus.

4. What draws you to CQ theologically?  What theological values do you see lived out through practicing CQ in youth ministry?

There are a few really central theological ideas connected to CQ, starting with Jesus’ incarnation. We’re told God had spoken through all different ways to reveal himself to his people, but then at last God spoke “in Son” (Hebrews 1:2). The most Holy-Other reached across the greatest chasm of cultural difference to become one of us. So when I extend myself to love students, parents, or others who are different than me, I’m giving them a brush with Christ.

Second, every human being is created in the image of God. When we start by seeing one another first as fellow image-bearers, rather than first as a cantankerous elder who doesn’t like hip hop music, or as someone from a culture that doesn’t share our value for using deodorant, we have the basis for why relating with love and respect matters.

And finally, loving God and loving others is central to CQ. Businesses are interested in CQ to make more money. Governments are being consulted in CQ in order to succeed with their political agendas. For youth ministry, CQ allows us to better love others, which in turn expresses our love for God.

5. If we have good motives in our cross-cultural encounters in ministry, does it really matter if we practice CQ?  Won’t people be thankful even if we miss their cultural cues?

This is a fair question. The challenge is that our motives get communicated through behavior, which is understood differently depending upon one’s cultural background. My daughters have very different personalities and love languages. As a result, I relate to them very differently. As a husband and father, I know full well that it’s NOT “just the thought that counts”! That’s a nice start. But they can’t read my thoughts and motives. I want to express my love for them in ways that communicate it effectively to them.

I can’t possibly interpret all of the cultural cues of all the people I encounter in ministry. But CQ becomes one step toward making sure my motives get expressed in ways that really communicate my love for the Other.

6. You note in your upcoming book, CQ Leadership: Looking in before Reaching Out, that the skill set of Interpretive CQ tends to be most lacking in ministry leaders.  Why do you think that is true?

Reflection and contemplation aren’t typically things we’ve celebrated in ministry leadership. I think that’s changing, but we still place a high value upon action, results, and making it happen. Obviously results and action matter. But informed action and thoughtful compassion hold much more promise than just action for the sake of being busy for Jesus. And reflection is hard work.

7. Perseverance CQ sounds like a huge time commitment.  What ideas can you share with youth workers who hope to develop CQ but are feeling a bit overwhelmed at this point?

We have to get beyond trying to master perseverance CQ before the next STM trip or before the next parent-teen conflict we mediate. Instead, we need to see CQ as an ongoing growth curve for our leadership portfolio. It’s as much a commitment to continually reforming our perspective as it is setting aside gobs of time to master CQ.

For example, when we interact with a customer service rep whose accent is different than ours or when we hear the way newscasters frame the immigration debate, all of that can be part of how we move step by step toward developing perseverance CQ.

8. Can’t CQ just be another slippery slope toward theological relativism?  In contextualizing the gospel for different groups (including adolescents in the U.S.!), how do we navigate the waters of over-accommodation versus inflexibility?

This is an important tension. Surely kingdom values trump culture. But the values of the kingdom have to live in dynamic tension with the values of particular people in particular places. One of the beauties of the Christian faith is that we’re the most multicultural movement in the world. The beauty of the gospel is that “whatever your language, God speaks it!” So together, with the community of faith, we have to hold kingdom values in tension with cultural values and together discern what that means. In youth ministry, we’ve known for years that living out the gospel among 13 year-old girls looks differently than doing so among 18 year-old guys. The same is true for how we live out the gospel among varying ethnic cultures, organizational cultures, and generational cultures.

9. Why do you argue so strongly that CQ is essential for youth ministry?  If I love kids and love Jesus, isn’t that enough without adding another layer of requirements or training?

In a perfect world, I’d love to see churches where everything happens intergenerationally—worship together, small groups together, service projects together, etc. And I’d love to see all the ethnic groups in a community worship and serve together. But the language and cultural differences in the 21st Century world make specific ministry in and among different cultural groups essential. The way we live out the gospel among youth is deeply embedded in culture. That’s why CQ is essential to the youth worker today.

10. Can you give an example of a youth worker who is really living out CQ in her or his ministry? What makes them stand out?

Kate, a youth worker at a Presbyterian church in Alabama, has made some great strides in living out CQ during the last few years of her ministry there. She came to Alabama after having worked in Rwanda for a couple years and she felt like she had more culture shock coming to Alabama than she did when she moved to Rwanda from Boston.

One of the ways she really exemplifies CQ is she’s so brutally honest about the frustrations she feels with herself and with others as she comes up against cultural differences. Everything from dealing with boomer leaders to Alabaman quirks and Presbyterian traditions have been sources of frustration for her. But as she began to apply the same kind of intentionality she tells her students to have before going on a STM trip, she found she was making progress in more culturally intelligent leadership. Before getting totally frustrated, she sought to understand first (knowledge CQ), asked what was going on inside herself (interpretive CQ), persevered through difficult conversations (perseverance CQ), and as a result, behaved in ways that expressed a greater degree of love and respect (behavioral CQ).

Application and Action Points

  • Perhaps the most important first step in understanding CQ is that it starts with me first. Self-discovery is the necessary process that we live out as we simultaneously learn about others.  In the end, as Dave suggests, it’s our own transformation that makes us more effective—and loving—multicultural Christ-followers and youth workers. Below are some ideas and questions to help you take some next steps on your CQ journey.
  • Find a “conversation partner”—someone who is different from you in some way (or multiple ways) who can help you recognize your own biases and assumptions that might need to be confronted when communicating cross-culturally.  Commit to talking and listening to one another for a period of six months or more, meeting regularly to ask questions about what it’s like to live in the other person’s shoes.
  • With what youth subculture group are you most uncomfortable?  Is it the skaters, the athletic kids, the gamers, or the academic team whizzes?  What is it about their “other-ness” that makes you so uncomfortable?  What steps can you take to engage the kids who are hardest for you to naturally connect with? What might need to change inside you to begin to understand them more deeply and compassionately?

Here’s a list of helpful resources:


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