5 Ways To Grow In Intercultural Competence


MIKE AHN     |     APR 9, 2018     |     10 MIN READ


When the gospel is synonymous with the alt-right, something is wrong.

When pro-life means anti-abortion but not anti-racism, something is wrong.

When Bible verses are weaponized to discredit the marginalized, something is wrong.

It’s not hard to see that a lot of things are wrong in America today.

As Christians, we have an important responsibility to speak into the racial divide. And as Asian American Christians who’ve been largely invisible in the black-white binary of the diversity conversation, we have an amazing opportunity to speak toward a thriving multicultural America.


I don’t think it’s an accident that Jesus established the New Covenant (Luke 22:19-20) and the New Command (John 13:34-35) on the same night.

In multicultural America, loving others well means addressing the pink (e.g., white, black, Latin, Asian, American Indian) elephant in the room.

As he offered the bread and wine as his body, Jesus explained that the clearest sign of our obedience to him was found in the way we loved others. Jesus modeled that for himself as the Incarnation came full circle that night – He laid down his life in love, and he called his disciples to embody his love through loving others in their own lives.

In multicultural America, loving others well means addressing the pink (e.g., white, black, Latin, Asian, American Indian) elephant in the room.

Here are five ways to develop intercultural competence to love our neighbors well and begin advocating for a truly multicultural America.

1. Explore a New Culture

I can’t think of one cultural group that would want to hide its heritage from others. Instead people love to share and invite people into their cultural spheres.

Food festivals and cultural celebrations are meant for new audiences to engage with a new group and learn. If you prefer a night in, so much good content exists on books and Netflix.

It’s easy to do this with your current friends, and you don’t risk much by taking these onramps into another culture. It’s a small start, but it’s a way forward.

The following steps take more personal initiative, although you’d want to process with like-minded friends.

2. Practice Hospitality

Hospitality is an attitude marked by curiosity for other cultures and valuing the perspectives others can offer. It withholds judgment, not because we endorse everything from another culture, but because we enter a relationship with a spirit of discovery.

Make space to cultivate learning about cultural differences.

The best way to practice hospitality is to pursue a relationship. You know that person who looks different from you? Go find that person, ask him/her to lunch, and get to know him/her!

Make space to cultivate learning about cultural differences. Simply stepping out of your comfort zone by initiating a conversation is the starting place of healthy hospitality.

3. Develop Humility

Humility allows intercultural friendships to grow.

Humility develops as we learn to listen to others’ stories and relate with their trials and triumphs. It provides common ground, not because we experience similar circumstances, but because we connect at the level of empathy.

Developing humility will take a lot of challenging self-awareness.

Ask good questions and notice the reactions inside you. Listen well and refrain from interjecting your ideas or advice. Instead of placing them in your cognitive framework, permit yourself to enter their worldview.

Allow people to entrust their story to you, not because you’re entitled to it, but because you’re a safe person to process with (and be sure to become that safe person). Try to understand life from their perspectives, seeing what makes them tick.

Simply attending to another’s story develops mutual respect. This not only deepens the way you see people but also develops the humble flexibility in us to see others for who they are.

Developing humility will take a lot of challenging self-awareness, and it'll help to have unpacked your own story a bit by understanding your own cultural heritage and influences.

4. Validate Humanity

Christians are well-meaning but they say a lot of unintentionally hurtful things about race:

  • It doesn’t matter what color you are on the outside because we’re all red inside.

  • When I see you, I don’t see skin color. I only see my brother/sister in Christ.

  • Why do people of color talk about their pain so much when Jesus’ pain on the cross was so much greater? Just look to him for help!

Being a Christian never strips us of our cultural identities (see Eph. 2 and Rev. 7:9). Instead, learning how the Gospel takes root in the diversity of human contexts provides a deeper appreciation for the creativity of God and fullness of the Gospel. Grace doesn’t make us uniform, but it redeems aspects of our cultures as we’re united in Christ.

As we listen to others’ stories well, we’re going to be challenged by what we’ve come to view as right. We tend to normalize our own experiences, and our understanding of the gospel. It’s good to recognize that, but it’s important to start conversations from that place and not impose our worldview.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not promoting a relativistic, everyone-is-perfect-just-the-way-they-are Bruno-Mars-ian worldview. Sin is a real problem, but Jesus never pointed out the human condition until he validated the person’s humanity (see John 4).

When we value others’ perspectives well, we validate their humanity and connect them to the image of God within them.

5. Evaluate Cultural Values

Every culture has different habits and ways of doing life. These cultural values largely determine how we approach life.

For example, a lot of Asians are from event-oriented cultures, but most Americans are time-oriented. If I walk into a professional meeting five minutes late, I apologize for being late because my job is time-oriented. If I walk into my family’s New Year’s celebration one hour late, the party just got started.

When I was young, my family went to eat at Koreatown Plaza. At the KTP Food Court, there are various Korean food vendors selling food at different stalls.


I remember watching a lady struggle to carry her tray, topped with four different kinds of stew, side dishes, and drinks. She tripped and the food went flying all over the place.

I stood up to help her, and my mom grabbed my arm. “Michael, just ignore her,” she said.

“What? How can I ignore her?” I asked. “Shouldn’t I be like Christ and help her in her time of need?”

She repeated, “Michael, just ignore her.”

I just sat in my chair thinking, “Mom, are you really a Christian?”

The weird thing was this: Nobody helped the lady. Everyone in the cafeteria was Asian, and they were silent for about three seconds, and then they went back to eating and talking.

In honor/shame cultures, ignoring people’s shame is more honoring because noticing others’ shame is actually like rubbing salt in their wounds.

When we begin to understand how other cultures work, we start to communicate in another person’s cultural values so they can understand. This is extremely important as we begin to communicate not only with good intentions but with the hoped-for impact. This is like Paul becoming a slave or a Jew or weak for the sake of the Gospel (I Cor. 9:19-22).


As Asian Americans, we have a head start on toggling between minority and majority cultures. As Asian American Christians, let’s push beyond our somewhat monocultural communities and begin to live into multicultural America, for the sake of the Gospel.

Mike Ahn (Twitter: @mikeyahn) is a campus pastor at Biola University (Director of Worship & Formation). He oversees chapel worship teams, hosts The Biola Hour podcast, serves on the pastoral care team, and preaches occasionally in chapel. He graduated in 2009 from Talbot School of Theology with a Master of Divinity in Spiritual Formation.