The Common Good

Pete Hoekstra and Cultural IQ: Why It Matters to the Church

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you see Michigan Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra’s political campaign ad during the Super Bowl?

As you read in my previous post, I had some choice words about Go Daddy, Teleflora and other companies that continue to objectify and exploit women but I hadn’t seen Hoekstra’s ad.

Well, I just saw it … and I almost vomited in my mouth. Almost. Those chicken wings I consumed during the Super Bowl wanted to come back up. Check it out:

I know the questions you’re asking:

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. If you click on the actual website, it gets even worse. Yes, I said worse — as in “I’ve never seen anything like this from a public official, ever” — worse. Complete with caricatures that will make up for some great material for sociologists.  Absolutely mind-boggling.

And yes, I just did vomit that chicken.

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

Yes, it’s true: These portrayals will likely continue to happen. Incidents such as Lady Chinky Eyes sadly will continue to take place, but imagine the pain of these incidents happening within 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 & in the World. Soong-Chan Rah is a professor at North Park Seminary and the author of The Next Evangelicalism.

Here’s a summation of what we wrote together. It’s a must read introduction to a very critical conversation for all – but especially to leaders, pastors, and influencers:

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 sermon 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, but, 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.

For those who are passionate about the future of Christian leadership, for those who seek to or who already influence a group of followers, we have a prediction: more so than “emotional intelligence” or cognitive ability, your leadership prowess will be largely affected by how much cultural intelligence you possess and demonstrate.

What is cultural intelligence?

Our nation is moving rapidly towards 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. Just because you like samurai/ninja culture and have seen Kung Fu movies does not mean that you possess cultural intelligence. Instead, a leader with a high cultural IQ has developed a sensitivity to other cultures and handles those cultural contexts with honor and respect.

Without cultural intelligence, a leader runs 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, and Christian leaders are the ones who need to step forward in the hard work of developing cultural intelligence.

What can leaders do to increase their 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, 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 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. The leaders who will have the biggest impact in this shifting cultural landscape are those who possess a teachable spirit, flexibility, and humility.

You can be “relevant” or you can be a reconciler: make the intelligent choice.

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 stalk him at his blog, Twitter or his Facebook Page. Eugene and his wife are also the founders of a movement of people, stories, and actions to alleviate extreme global poverty. This post originally appeared on Eugene's blog.

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