Communication theory sheds light on how the church can effectively engage immigrant and refugee communities by explaining the process of communication between people with differing cultural backgrounds. Communication theorists have carefully investigated intercultural interaction in a broad variety of contexts, and their findings can help the church build better relationships with immigrant and refugee communities, both corporately and individually.
Culture can be analyzed according to several distinct criteria. Theorist Harry Triandis describes four “syndromes” that provide a basis on which one can effectively compare cultures. These assessments include the following: the complexity of a culture’s social distinctions (the “complexity syndrome”), how much importance a culture ascribes to the individual (the “individualism syndrome”), how much importance a culture places on conformity, interdependence, and tradition (the “collectivism syndrome”) and how strictly a culture adheres to its behavioral norms and roles (the “tightness syndrome”), according to “Questions of Communication” by Rob Anderson and Veronica Ross.
These “syndromes” act as spectrums onto which cultures can be placed to better understand them. By understanding someone’s cultural heritage, it becomes much easier to interpersonally relate and interact. When a church identifies an immigrant or refugee community with which it desires to connect, it must learn as much as possible about the values to which that particular ethnicity (or group of ethnicities) holds. Knowing how their cultural norms resemble or differ from conventional American culture can help church members interact more sensitively and make more sense of what could otherwise be perceived as rudeness, intolerance or insurmountable differences had these values not been properly understood beforehand.
Another widely applied communication theory that can aid in the understanding of unfamiliar communities is the concept of high-context and low-context cultures. As quoted by Anderson and Ross, communication researcher Edward T. Hall distinguished the difference between these two culture subtypes: “A high-context communication or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message.”
Conversely, a low-context message consists primarily of the explicit message itself because it should contain all the information necessary for its receiver to understand it. This concept applies to intercultural differences because some cultures communicate primarily through high-context messages while others rely on low-context messages to interact. Understanding this concept can also help us evaluate our conversation and communication with immigrants and refugees by making sure we explain the implicit elements of our messages that might have been easily understood by someone from our own culture but might be misunderstood or missed by those from different cultural backgrounds. Knowing the ways in which cultures differ from each other and the aspects that make them unique can help the church body build better relationships with immigrants and refugees and foster greater participation from both communities.
The Fruits of Intercultural Interaction
Migrant communities face numerous challenges as they attempt to acclimate into American culture. Biblical mandates behoove the church to engage these communities in a more active and intentional way than it has previously. Though potentially difficult, uncomfortable and strenuous, the benefits of intercultural engagement outweigh its costs. Intercultural interaction can broaden the cultural horizons, awareness and appreciation of all who participate. According to Anderson and Ross, “When cultural practices mix vigorously, we can expect extraordinary communication.”
Intercultural interaction can also expose us, as Americans who may never before have experienced multicultural settings, to different ways of thinking about the world around us. Intercultural interactions expand our horizons and provide fresh perspectives, which ultimately allow room for rich relationship. “When we enjoy the time we spend with others and honestly value their wisdom, we don’t gain only new knowledge. We gain something far more valuable: a friendship that wasn’t possible before,” according to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in “God’s Economy.”
By simply utilizing resources to which it has access in the form of money, time and (most importantly) community, the church could make a world of difference for the immigrant and refugee communities in American neighborhoods and cities. By taking the time to foster relationships with immigrants and refugees, any church body can greatly impact the immigrant and refugee populations within its community. The most exciting prospect of this type of ministry is that whatever the church can provide for immigrant and refugee communities will be more than reciprocated in the ways it will be strengthened as a result. According to Wilson-Hartgrove, “Friendship across the dividing lines of our world may be just what we really need to know the abundance of the life that we were made for.”
Immigrant and refugee communities are in desperate want of a helping hand, a listening ear and a body of people that will embrace them for who they are. It is time for church members to roll up their sleeves and get involved.
Lauren Schwaar is a 2013 graduate of Greenville College. While a Greenville student, she wrote an honors thesis on the role of the U.S. church in caring for immigrant and refugee communities.
- Do you interact with people from other cultures?
- How could you and your church increase intercultural interaction?