Multicultural Issues

I was asked recently to reflect on some issues that I have seen over several decades of working with foreign church communities in Australia and abroad.

Here is my initial reflection on multicultural issues I have noted.

Having worked in various ethnic churches and some where the congregations are multicultural I have observed a number of issues that need management.

A simple issue is that of the local people (Aussies) learning to accept and respect the different cultural issues of the migrants.

Foreign Names

Aussies react to trying to pronounce foreign names, such as Chinese names, and many migrants find it best to just take a local name that might or might not sound like their real name, to avoid all the reactions they get when they say their strange foreign name.

However, some migrants are proud of their culture and expect the locals to change.

A funny example is a man from India who was a high caste Brahmin, so was used to being treated as special. When he was newly arrived he met a friend of mine and told them his name was Susie. My friend suggested he choose a different name to use in Australia. Susie scoffed at that idea as he was quite proud of his name and what it meant back in India. But he soon learned that the Aussies were only going to laugh at a man named Susie and he chose a local name to use quite quickly.

Among the wealthy Chinese, and among migrant groups which stick more closely together, native names are used. Gradually Aussies are getting used to calling people by their real name, even if it sounds strange to the English speaker.

Cultural Styles

Another issue that needs to be kept in mind is the difference of approach to working together. Many Asian cultures emphasise politeness and protocol, where the westerner is much more direct and pragmatic.

Directness can be offensive to an Asian, while indirectness seems silly and clumsy to Aussies.

Many Asians defer to others as a gesture of politeness. In their culture the offer would be declined but appreciated as a sign of respect.

Pastoral staff need to help the cultures understand these differences, and that directness is not intended to be rude, and that indirectness does not mean the people don’t know their own mind.

A classic case of this confusion happened when a Chinese group joined an Aussie church group for a joint camp. The original plan was to share the camp, such as the speakers and the music bands, so that both churches took equal part. This apparently worked OK with regard to the speaking sessions, but a problem emerged with the young people in the worship groups.

On the first night the Aussies asked the Chinese which band should play for the first session. The Chinese were gracious and allowed the Aussie band to play for the worship.

The next morning when the Aussies said, “So you guys are doing worship this morning”, the Chinese responded by asking “Would you like to do it?” This offer was supposed to be appreciated but declined.

Instead the Aussies thought, “Why are they offering for us to do it again? They must have thought we did a better job and are too embarrassed to do it now, or something like that.”

So the Aussies did the worship again. Before the next session the Aussies went to the Chinese and said, “So, will you do the worship for this session?” The Chinese responded politely, by asking the Aussies if they would like to do it again. The Aussies said they’d be happy to do it.

By the end of the camp the Aussie band had led music in every session.

The Aussies went away saying, “The Chinese are hopeless. They knew they were supposed to lead half the worship sessions and they didn’t seem keen to do it at all.”

The Chinese went away saying, “The Aussies are so rude. We kept being polite to them but they were never polite to us. They are just take-over types who want to push in and do everything.”

Pastoral staff need to become the buffer between the seemingly hard and thoughtless western approach and the seemingly weak and compromised Asian approach.


Once the cultures become more accustomed to each other, with the Asians feeling more confident to assert their ideas and their position, and with Aussies more respectful of the spiritual standing of the Asians, good cooperation is possible.

It helps when Aussies will apologise for seeming to be brash or pushy.

It helps when Asians can reveal that they do know what they believe and that their ideas are very worthy of respect and being listened to by the Aussies.

People experienced in cross-cultural issues are much more ready to give respect to new cultures. Those who have been in a mono-cultural setting all their lives do not know how to read the other cultures and to properly interpret how to relate to them.

Reading the Other Culture

A white man from South Africa shared with me how he had no problem relating to the different African tribal groups and the various groups of white people, such as those with Dutch or English backgrounds in South Africa. He said, however, that when he visited London where most of the people were white he felt quite insecure, because he had not learned how to read the cultural signals and to know who could be trusted or related to with openness, and who he had to watch out for.

Interpreting that, different cultures can get along well once they understand each other and they know how to interpret each others words, actions and expressions, such as smiles, frowns, and body language.

Multi-cultural worship works best when the different cultural groups both understand and respect each other. If there is understanding, but not respect, such as by one group looking down on the other, then the connection does not work so well.


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