Bicultural groups as bridges to communities

Lack of understanding, suspicion and divisions between people and communities are real.

In our society there are diversity and cultural differences which cause people to live alongside each other without actually making real contact. This often happens regardless of the fact that they are in the same locality and spend time in each other’s presence. In reality many people experience a distance between themselves and others who differ from them in language, background, sexual orientation, level of education etc. What happens is that people from a specific group have no spontaneous or natural contact with people from another group due to sociological, economic, geographic or historical reasons. If this is true in the case of individuals, it often also applies to larger groups or communities. Between groups there may be uneasiness, suspicion, wrong perceptions, destructive attitudes and notions of superiority, of fear and lack of love. These may caused by the fact that people do not really know each other and do not communicate properly because there is not enough informal personal contact.  Many people simply do not have the inner motivation to try to bridge the gap because they do not like the “uneasiness” it may cause for them. It is much easier and more natural and safer to draw back into “known territory” and serve their own interests.

But Christians and congregations may not just accept this situation passively. We have been reconciled to Christ and also to other people by his sacrifice and so we may not restrict our love and our service to our own group or circle only.

Bridging the gap between individuals and groups demands leadership and examples that will motivate people and guide them to move out of comfortable and well-known situations and to explore the unknown together with “strangers” in order to enhanced a blessed life for all.  Christian believers should be such role models in their various groups. But often Christians are also among those who are unwilling to reach out and build relationships with “strangers” in their vicinity. Therefore leaders of  congregations need to set a dynamic example to help their members to bridge the gap and to reach out to the “strangers”. The leaders themselves should develop healthy relationships with people from a different background. In this way the leader can be a role model to help his people in building bridges to others. It is only when leaders themselves have developed intercultural relationships that they will be able to guide others in this kind of outreach.

 “Live and work among people” is God’s model to serve and reconcile people

The fact that Jesus became a human being and serve people in their circumstances is the model which children of God should follow when they want to minister to people of other cultures or communities (John 1:14;17:18). The ideal strategy for Christians (church) is to live among the people they want to serve with love and reconciliation. The example of Jesus asks from us to leave our comfort zones and our privileges and to cross geographical, language, sociological and ethnical barriers in order to meet people where they are. The challenge is to meet the unknown people as fellow human beings, to learn from them, to enjoy and to utilise their gifts in joint opportunities for service and witness.

Henry Nouwen described the need to meet and to move among people as Jesus did as follows:

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”

 A statement of the Ting Hsien Experiment who ministered among poor Philippians reads:

Go to the poor.

Live among the poor.

Learn from the poor.

Work with the poor.

Start with what the poor have

and build upon what the poor possess.

Teach by showing; learn by doing.


Not a showcase, but a pattern;

Not odds and ends, but a system.

Not piecemeal, but integrated;

Not to conform but to transform;

Not relief, but release.

It is often, for various reasons very difficult if not impossible for Christians (church) to go and live among the unknown people they want to reach and serve with the love of Christ. Bridge communities is a method which may assist such Christians to give some expression to the ideal to meet the people where they are, to learn from them and to serve the community with them.

 What is a bicultural relationship or bridge community?

 Bicultural relations or groups are formed when two individuals or two groups who differ noticeably from each other come together regularly. The result of these regular meetings is that the people who are involved in this new relationship, get to know each other better, learn to trust one another and gain better understanding of each other. Regular contact leads to effective communication and co-operation.  In this way a new relationship or community is formed having cultural characteristics of all those involved. In actual fact this is more than merely gathering aspects of different cultures together. From this kind of interaction new cultural things are born which can only be found within this new bicultural group, for example new habits and ways of doing things, communicating styles, unique perceptions of themselves and of the two communities from which the participants originally came.

The term “bicultural” is used to describe this group because the group is formed through the interaction of two individuals or groups who came from different cultural backgrounds. The two individuals or two groups belong however also to a bigger multicultural community. Sometimes it happens that the two individuals or groups who are part of the new bicultural relationship, also represent two bigger multicultural communities which do not have meaningful contact and interaction with each other.

Graphically a bicultural relationship or group could be illustrated as follows:

bicultural 2


bridge relationship 2

               A bicultural group as bridge between two communities

The bicultural group can form a bridge between different communities because its members have gained knowledge, insight, skills and sensitivity which they learned in their bicultural group. This makes them sensitive to things which can be valuable to their own community whenever there is direct interaction between the two communities. If their own community realises what role these individuals can play and makes use of them, they can be valuable in enhancing understanding and co-operation between the two communities. Similarly, if one community wishes to expose the other community to certain information or skills or any sensitive matter, the best way would be to first present it to the members of the bicultural group who are from that community. Those individuals can then communicate the information or other matters to their own community. The communication of information or the teaching of skills or the handling of sensitive matters will probably be much more successful if introduced by members of their own community. If members from one community would try to do this directly in the other community without this bridge, the chances for success would be much less. Members of the bicultural group who are from community A will have a greater chance of working effectively among group B than others from group A who are not part of such a bicultural group.

Whenever we want to make contact with “strange” people from a community we do not know, it is best to form bicultural groups which can act as a bridge. The same process of forming bicultural groups can also be employed when it is necessary to make contact with a subgroup within a community. If a bicultural group is larger or more representative, it can play an even greater role in the society by serving two communities.

 summary 2

  How to establish bicultural bridge communities

Bicultural groups and relationships are usually formed by two processes. It can be when communities create formal treaties of co-operation and appoint structures or committees of representatives to meet regularly according to the terms of their agreement. Or it can be when individuals from various communities meet informally on a regular basis.

A formal treaty of co-operation or a joint committee may lead to functional bicultural groups or communities, but usually it does not. A bicultural community or group cannot be formed unless there is regular contact. Even where a bicultural group does develop, there are often shortcomings. In such cases the new culture of communication and contact and co-operation may develop on the formal level, but there is no real in-depth understanding or communication between the people of the different communities. Thus to create such a formal bicultural group in order to form a bridge between the communities will have only a limited effect. But if deliberate action is taken in time to enhance the informal personal foundation of such a bicultural group, the group can function much more effectively. This can be done by honest open minded contact and discussion between individuals in their various contexts

When individuals from different backgrounds meet each other informally and visit each other and do things together, the chances are much better that bicultural groups will develop. So it would be preferable if formal structures will grow out of personal relationships which include understanding and mutual trust. So although it is preferable that there should be personal contact before specific joint programs are established, this should not be an absolute rule. If we only focus on existing personal relationships at the beginning, a bicultural group may never develop properly. Sometimes relationships develop more speedily when something is undertaken and done jointly. So the challenge would be to begin with smaller projects in such a way that relationships can be emphasised and not only the impersonal official project.

Most people experience discomfort and anxiousness during the process to make the first contact and establish relations with unknown people. This is understood. However, we need to “embrace” this vulnerability because it will prevent us from walking over the very people we want to befriend and serve with might and power. Vulnerability leads to an attitude and willingness to learn and receive from the people we want to befriend and serve. Vulnerability can open unexpected doors to unknown people. Christians who believe and know that the Lord is also at work among the unknown people and them call to participate in his work, will trust Him to introduce them to a “friendly host” in the community (Luke 10). This friendly host will also introduce them to other people in the community.

The forming of such a bicultural group is not a simple matter and needs enough time. For instance members from each community would need to learn about the communication style of the other community so that together they can work out a style acceptable to both.  They will have to make sure of how authority is to be exercised, how decisions are to be taken, how remuneration and other benefits are to be fixed, how much time to be made available for social interaction during and after working hours (including tea-time, meals and social occasions). It is also crucial that the process for conflict resolution be determined early. If an intercultural worker or committee are the first to enter a strange new cultural group, it could take considerable time to establish a bicultural group. But such a new opportunity for contact opens the way for creative initiative and the establishing of values and structures and examples that will affect all future word positively.  But it is also possible that there could be failure and disrupted relationships because there are no established relationships or sources of support to fall back on. Where an intercultural worker initially joins an established bicultural group, there is less room for initiative, but also less chances of failure.

In most cases it would be helpful for congregations or its members to remember the following  in reaching out to “strangers”:

Communicate an attitude of unconditional acceptance and a teachable and servant spirit

Members should try to show the “strangers” that they want to accept them unconditionally and want to learn from them and find ways of ministering to their needs. This type of communication is not achieved by adopting a conscious attitude or by saying certain words. It happens rather on the unconscious level of nonverbal communications like body language, spontaneous gestures, tone of voice and physical contact. The true feelings of a person’s heart are communicated unconsciously and nonverbally. It carries much more weight than verbal communication or intentional gestures. The key to communicating acceptance and a servant attitude does not lie in learning certain skills but in living out the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

People from the unknown community will find the unconditional acceptance and the servant attitude on your part more credible:

  • if you meet them where they are ─ in their physical environment, but also in their emotional and sociological environment etc. It will mean that you take the trouble to meet them in their circumstances and on their own terms;
  • if you spend time with them socially, especially in eating together;
  • if you listen to them sincerely and take trouble to hear what they say and try to understand;
  • if you take note of their circumstances, their way of life and their troubles without judging them or giving advice immediately;
  • if you take note of their knowledge in a respectful way also their own judgment of their community  and situation and things that are happening;
  • If you pay attention to the needs they express even although it may not be their most serious needs;
  • if you leave the decisions taking to them;
  • if you tell them that you rely on them and then show it also.

Ask people from the target community/group to tell you more about themselves

If you really want to know an unknown community or group, you should learn to look at the people and their circumstances through their eyes. You will only come to know them if you can listen to their  heartbeat. So you should take extra trouble at your first encounter with them to identify someone from their group who can guide you in your making close contact with them. It could be someone who reacted positively in some way to your presence with members of that community. This person could be your willing host even although he or she is not a leader or influential person in the community.

When you have identified such a person who is willing to be your host, you can ask to be introduced gradually to the target community. You need to make it clear that you will be dependent on your host in this process and make sure that your host accepts this role positively. At the same time you need to identify yourself as a Christian and a member of a congregation which is serious about closer contact and involvement with the target community. The first person you need to know better is of course your host. The most natural way to achieve this would be to visit this person at his or her home and to take time for socialising. Sometimes it may be better to first meet you host in a neutral setting like a place where you can eat and drink something together and then later to go to your host’s house. The relationship you develop with your host will be the first bicultural bridge between your congregation and the target community.

Without making it too difficult for your host, encourage him/her to open up his/her community to you. This means that your host will:

  • Expose you to the real physical world of the community (walk with the host in the geographical area).
  • Introduce you to members of the community as someone who wants to know more about them.
  • Explain to you the firmly established traditions of the community, what their needs are, and describe to you how they experience things.

If the culture of the target community differs substantially from your own, the host will have to be your interpreter, not only for the language, but also for the culture. It is clear that one person will not be able to help you with all of this, but through your host you will meet others who may be available and be willing to help you by introducing you to the community. In such a case, you will have to work on the new relationship until there is greater trust and understanding between you and the new helper.

It is clear that entering a new community is a process that needs considerable time. Meaningful contacts cannot be developed overnight. So it will be necessary from the very beginning to resist the urge to take shortcuts in making conclusions about the community or to begin with projects.  People who go for quick solutions in this case, will be forced to depend on the opinion which “experts” have formed about the community, but these experts are usually outsiders. Looking at the target community through the eyes of outsiders means that you will also be making decisions based on the opinion of outsiders. When this happens, the relationship will be damaged and mutual trust broken down. Any action emerging from such a situation will not be sustainable. So do not deny yourself the opportunity of being informed by the community members themselves about their hopes and fears. It may be true that their understanding of themselves will be biased and limited or even wrong. But for them it is the truth and you will come up against their opinion again and again. The contribution of experts can be introduced at a later stage.

Interacting socially with the community

Personal relationships need time to develop. Moreover, stereotypes and suspicions cannot be broken down overnight. The best way of strengthening these processes is by social informal social contact between groups who do not know each other. But there are various reasons why such informal contacts usually do not take place spontaneously. It is necessary to consciously set aside time for social contacts and to create the opportunity for initiating such contacts. Examples of such informal contact could be:

  • You could attend social events on the calendar of the particular community;
  • You could celebrate special occasions together with this community;
  • Mutual invitation to meals;
  • Trying to stay with someone from the community for at least two days so that you can observe and share their movements.

The greater the ethnic and social gap between communities, the more difficult it will be to effect the attempts mentioned above.

The formation of bicultural groups does not mean that knowledge and insight about a particular community or group must be obtained only from the group. Valuable knowledge and information can also be obtained by demographic information, literature and discussions with experts. However, the primary source for knowing and understanding a particular group should be the group and not these more impersonal resources.

 How can viable bicultural groups be maintained?

 Bicultural groups thrive on healthy relationships. So to protect and strengthen the good relationships should be a priority in every bicultural group if the group is to remain viably and to form an effective bridge between two communities. The same rules that enhance and strengthen personal relationships will also be effective in the case of bicultural groups.

  • Create time that can be spent informally in the physical presence of each other;
  • Be involved in the important personal occasions like birthdays, achievements, misfortune, or crises;
  • Relax and play together (Do not underestimate the importance of playing together);
  • Create opportunities where members of both communities in the bicultural group can lower their masks and unburden their hearts of stress. Everyone in the group should be allowed to reveal their emotions,  – even negative emotions against others in the group;
  • Regular times to worship together.

 Stress factors to be aware of in a bicultural group

Maintaining a bicultural group will inevitably cause stress and discomfort, especially if there are big differences between the two communities.

  • The initial contact and being together with people of a strange community may be difficult and uncomfortable. In such cases the local congregation should deal with the culture shock and the emotions arising from it.
  • To develop bicultural relations, a give-and-take attitude is needed where individuals from both communities have to adopt new ways of doing things and stop doing some other things which were culturally very important to them previously. This may include perceptions, attitudes, habits, fixed customs, style of worship etc. It means that a person has to deal with the friction between two different worlds of culture in their personal life. Such a give-and-take situation may involve intense emotions or disruption. So congregations will have to accompany their members in this venture and create opportunities of unloading stress. (To attend such debriefing sessions of members of the other community from time to time could also be helpful)
  • Members who have managed to build strong intercultural relationships may become disappointed by certain aspects of their own community or culture.
  • Members participating in the bicultural group may experience isolation or suspicion-mongering or even rejection from their own community because they have changed in the process. This will happen especially where some members become permanently involved in intercultural work and by doing so become part of the bridge between two communities.

Bicultural groups stimulate community controlled ministries

A bicultural group has the purpose of establishing sustainable ministries in a community. One of the requirements of a sustainable ministry is that the ministry should at all times be directed and be influenced by the target community. This is different from stating that the target community should assume full responsibility and control of such a ministry. Actual control and taking responsibility for a project does not guarantee that the project will succeed as far as sustainability is concerned. The chances for success are greater if the congregation that initiates the project and the target community together supervise and guide the ministry without the need that each one of them should manage directly all the processes and the people involved. A sustainable ministry will be one where the target community has the decisive influence, regardless of which individual or group has the executive management, or what structure or form the management takes. While the influence and involvement of both communities are necessary, the influence and involvement of the target community should be on the foreground. In such a situation it is the bicultural group which plays a decisive role to ensure that both communities with their expectations and reservations and influence remain involved in the management of projects.

The bicultural group which forms the bridge between the two communities, should ensure that the voice of both parties area heard and understood by the management. The bicultural group should therefore concentrate on the participation of the target community from the very beginning. They should be involved in every aspect of the ministry in such a way that their participation will affect and influence the whole ministry. In practice this will mean that the congregation initiating the project will do the following with the help or through the bicultural group:

  •  They will acquire information about and gain a better understanding of the target community with the help of  the community itself.
  • They will be guided by the target community in determining their felt needs and their actual basic needs.
  • Together with the target community they will determine the character and aim of the ministry.
  • They will take note of and make use of existing projects initiated by the target community
  • Any expertise and knowledge available in the community will be seriously considered and used where possible. The strengths and resources of the community will guide the process and not the needs and problems.
  • They will respect leaders of the community and cultivate friendship with them and follow their guidance wherever possible.
  • In the development of structures and making of agreements they will allow the target community to have the effective right and authority of taking decisions.

When the influence of the target community is effective in all aspects of the ministry, it opens the way for shared leadership (by the congregation who initiated the outreach and the target community). Neither the congregation nor the target community becomes a puppet which moves by strings pulled by someone else. Although members of the congregation may take independent decisions in specified matters, it will not threaten the community or take ownership of the ministry away from them.

To summarise the development of bicultural groups to be effective bridges for service in various communities:

  •  From informal to formal
  • From a learning process to capability and skills
  • From individual/small groups to large group
  • From informal leadership to formal leadership
  • From relationships to projects and ministries



This entry was posted in Intercultural communication, Intercultural ministry, New faith communities and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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