The Cultural IQ of the Church

Super Bowl commercials for Go Daddy, Teleflora and other companies received a lot of complaints this week for their continued objectification and exploitation of women. But these major companies weren’t the only ones airing insensitive ads during the broadcast, as evidenced by Michigan Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra’s political campaign commercial.


When I saw it, those chicken wings I consumed during the Super Bowl wanted to come back up.

After watching it, the question arises: Is Hoekstra racist? No. And I’d rather not go there in this post because once you do, you miss the deeper conversations we all need to have. Was the commercial racist? One could debate back and forth, but one thing that’s absolutely clear is the complete lack of cultural sensitivity and cultural intelligence displayed in the commercial.

Why does this matter? Why is this so critical—including for the Church?

Because these portrayals will likely continue to happen. Imagine the pain of these incidents happening in the Church.

I recently spent some time discussing and sharing with my good friends Helen Lee and Soong-Chan Rah about the important but not often discussed topic and commitment of cultural intelligence. Helen Lee is a writer, journalist and author of the book The Missional Mom: Living with Purpose at Home and in the World. Soong-Chan Rah is a professor at North Park Seminary and the author of The Next Evangelicalism and Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church.

Here’s a summation of what we wrote together. It’s a must-read introduction to a very critical conversation for all:

What is your Cultural IQ?

Imagine this scenario occurring in your workplace. It’s your company’s annual corporate retreat, and in a misguided attempt to inject humor into the event, your leaders present a skit in which they all pretend to be disabled in some way.

They hobble around with awkward positions, as if paralyzed or unable to use particular limbs; they exaggerate their speech and behavior to grossly characterize those who have communication difficulties, and all these representations are done in a mocking and demeaning way, to garner a few laughs.

How about the Church?

No modern-day corporation would do this. And yet, in the context of Christian organizations and churches, similar situations still occur.

We recently witnessed a sermon video in which the pastor of a large, multi-site church in Minnesota brought an Asian man on stage representing a “samurai” and had him sit before the congregation, stone-faced and silent, while the pastor flailed his arms in a cartoonish imitation of karate moves while yelling random Asian-sounding gibberish, then banged a loud gong in an attempt to rattle the “samurai’s focus.”

As word of the video spread through the Asian-American community and beyond, the church took it down but chose to ignore repeated overtures for dialogue from Asian-American Christians. In our fictional scenario above, this would be equivalent to the company leaders hearing rumblings from people who were offended with their dramatic representations and responding: “It doesn’t matter what you think. We are the leaders, and it’s our choice how and what we want to communicate. If you didn’t like it, it’s not our problem.”

The church’s motivation may have been well intentioned; like many others before them who have co-opted another culture to serve their own purposes, they were aiming to be “relevant,” “engaging,” “creative,” “cool,” “hip.” But this sermon reflected none of those qualities, revealing instead an extreme lack of cultural intelligence.

We have a prediction: more so than “emotional intelligence” or cognitive ability, leadership prowess is largely affected by how much cultural intelligence an individual may possess and demonstrate.

What is cultural intelligence?

Our nation is moving rapidly toward racial, ethnic and cultural diversity, and American Christianity is bearing witness to these dramatic changes. Workplaces, congregations, conferences and readerships are all changing to reflect this reality, but Christian leaders are lagging behind in attaining the cultural intelligence they need in order to navigate through this multi-cultural reality.

Cultural intelligence is not merely gaining intellectual knowledge about another culture. Instead, an individual with a high cultural IQ has developed a sensitivity to other cultures and handles those cultural contexts with honor and respect.

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Without cultural intelligence, we run the risk of caricaturing other cultures, as in the church’s example above.You cannot appropriately represent a culture that you have not taken the time to know or understand. And when you attempt to do so, you not only dishonor those who are a part of the culture you are diminishing, but you also dishonor the One who has created every tongue, tribe and nation to begin with.

None of us can claim perfect understanding of the wonderful diversity that exists both around the globe and even within our own country. But Christians are called to be ministers of reconciliation.

What are steps that can increase one’s cultural IQ?

Here are three simple ways to begin:

Step out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to new cultural experiences that you have never tried—foods, styles of worship and entertainment, for example. As you normalize the discomfort of new cultural experiences, your sensitivity for those cultures will increase.

Examine your personal relationships. How often do you spend time with those from a different cultural background? If your relationships are overly homogeneous, how can you expand your relational horizons?

Ask someone from a different culture to mentor you. As you meet leaders who speak into your spiritual and emotional life from a different cultural context, your understanding of our changing world will expand.

Cultural change is not a possibility, but an inevitability. Those who will have the biggest impact in this shifting cultural landscape are those who possess a teachable spirit, flexibility and humility.

Eugene Cho, a second-generation Korean-American, is the founder and lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle and the executive director of Q Cafe, an innovative nonprofit neighborhood café and music venue. You can follow him at his blog, Twitter or his Facebook page. Eugene and his wife are also the founders of One Day’s Wages, a movement of people, stories and actions to alleviate extreme global poverty. You can follow Helen Lee @helenleeauthor and Soong-Chan Rah @profrah.

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