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Establishing Leadership with Cultural Sensitivity

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What does it look like to be appropriately assertive while avoiding unhealthy dependence? And how should local leaders be selected and installed? Is the act of removing external authority itself an imposition of Western cultural values? Does it assume other cultures share a Western perspective on independence or self-governance?

People can be ready to take steps of obedience and responsibility in evangelism; yet still need external leadership to know where their authority comes from.

Alex Peterson observed that in non-Western cultures, people often expect strong leadership, and they’re not always comfortable operating as autonomous individuals.

We can’t assume that Western perspectives on authority will automatically translate into other cultures. When we release new believers to establish their own authority, we shouldn’t do so in a way that leaves them feeling like fish out of water. We should also try to avoid installing leaders in a way that undermines their confidence or the community’s respect.

He suggests that removing external authority isn’t culturally neutral—and perhaps not even culturally acceptable in many contexts. Instead, it’s rooted in a deeply Western perspective on individual autonomy, defined as the “capacity to be one’s own person, to live one’s life according to reasons and motives that are taken as one’s own and not the product of manipulative or distorting external forces, to be in this way independent” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

That’s a good description of how Peterson, as an American, prefers to behave and prefers for leaders to exercise authority over him in this way.

However, such a perspective only makes sense if one believes the individual is the most basic unit of society and determines themselves how he or she can be treated by the community or should interact within the community.

It makes less sense for someone coming from a community-oriented culture, where the most basic unit of society is not the individual, but the group.

“When a new church forms in a collectivist culture, there must be a connection to a wider body of believers and normal mechanisms for determining authority”, says Peterson. “Otherwise, the new church culture will be disorienting and confusing for new believers.”

Source: Rethinking Authority in Frontier Church Planting

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