Cross-Cultural Servanthood by Duane Elmer


Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 2006.


Duane Elmer has traveled and taught in over seventy-five countries, serving as a cross-cultural missionary and teacher. After hearing him lecture on the topic of cross-cultural servanthood, many people have asked Dr. Elmer if his material is in print (14). Cross-Cultural Servanthood is his attempt to put his knowledge and experience into publication after fifteen years of “reading and researching the topic, gathering stacks of articles and ideas and interviewing people in numerous countries” (14). His book “focuses on relational and adjustment competency so that the servant spirit we wish to portray will, in fact, be seen and valued by the local people” (14). Cross-Cultural Servanthood, by Elmer’s own words is a book that “examines the process of becoming a cross-cultural servant,” drawing from his personal experience to include his failures, the experiences of others from many countries, research, and Scripture (19). In three parts, Elmer addresses a basic overview of servanthood in general, the process of servanthood in other cultures, and a consequences of mixing leadership and servanthood with the previous two parts. His other publications include Cross-Cultural Conflict, Cross-Cultural Connections, and Cross-Cultural Partnerships. Elmer earned a Ph.D. at Michigan State and presently is the G. W. Aldeen Professor of International Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His wife, “born and raised in Zimbabwe with a Canadian mother,” offers additional insight and is present in a number of illustrations throughout the book.

In what follows, an overview of Elmer’s work will be offered. Significant points and arguments of servanthood and culture made by Elmer will be summarized as they develop through the three parts of the book. Following the summary is an examination and analysis of the author’s work proceeded by a brief conclusion.


Cross-Cultural Servanthood is ultimately about servanthood in the form of mission and evangelism work. From the first page of his book, Elmer opens with an illustration of understanding cultural differences. It may have been his first real understanding (or lack there of) servanthood. His new bride asked what he would like for breakfast and he suggested eggs. But when he sat down for breakfast, his expectation of over-medium eggs was sitting face-to-face with poached eggs. Of the resulting conversation, Elmer writes, “My wife’s desire to serve me in this simple but meaningful event was misinterpreted and badly handled by me. I was not thinking servanthood” (12). Elmer uses this simple and easy to understand example to express the simultaneous difficulty and simplicity that is cross-cultural servanthood. Elmer continues, “Servanthood is revealed in simple, everyday events. But it’s complex because servanthood is culturally defined—that is, serving must be sensitive to the cultural landscape while remaining true to the Scripture. That is both the challenge and the burden of servanthood—and of this book” (12). After using himself as the poor example, Elmer seizes the opportunity to confess that for much of the first part of his missionary life, he was culturally insensitive and did not have the correct servant attitude he feels is necessary for missionary work and evangelism, and subsequently this is also the primary topic of his book (15-20).

“Serving,” according to Elmer, “is the ability to relate to people in such a way that their dignity as human beings is affirmed and they are more empowered to life God-glorifying lives” (146). Servanthood however, is an attitude of serving. And proper servanthood should be Christ-like, modeling Jesus’ method of connecting with others as we serve them (21). Elmer argues early in the Part One,
"If we set out to become a servant, it can become mechanical and appear artificial or forced. If, however, servanthood is seen as our deepest identification with Christ and inhabits our being, then serving others will be a natural, often unconscious, expression. At this point servanthood is not only what we do but what we are" (22).
The remainder of the first part of the book sets out, mostly through examples and illustrations, to make the case for servant evangelism and cross-cultural awareness.

Matthew, Luke, and John are the three primary biblical sources used by Elmer to make his case. Outside of the very fact that Christ entered our culture to serve us, Jesus provided the best picture of servanthood when he washed his disciples’ feet (13, 22-26). Christ gave up of the robe, that is, the appearance of his Kingship, and took on the towel of the lowly servant to wash his disciples’ feet. As Elmer implies, Christian servants are also to give up the position of honor for the position of servanthood in the name of Christ, following Jesus’ example.

Secular examples from various fields of social studies and practical observation are also used throughout the book. In the opening part of the work, Elmer shares a parable of a monkey and a fish. The monkey, seeing the fish struggling in the current, grabs the fish and lays it on the bank. Eventually the fish is motionless and the monkey thinks he did a good thing for the fish (27-28). Elmer’s point is summed up in his statement: “The fish likely saw the arrogance of the monkey’s assumption that what was good for monkeys would also be good for fish. This arrogance, hidden from the monkey’s consciousness, far overshadowed his kindness in trying to help the fish. Thus good intentions are not enough” (28). The monkey is the Elmer’s focus; through the remainder of the book, the reader is encouraged to be more culturally aware.

Part Two is loaded with examples of people from one culture entering into another with incorrect assumptions. Generally, the most glaring examples are when Western culture meets Eastern, or when either enter the “Two-Thirds world” culture, as Elmer often calls most of African and other improvised nations. Elmer’s goal of Part Two (and really much of the other two parts as well) is to keep the reader from being a monkey (37). To encourage his reader to have a true attitude of servanthood, Elmer spends a great deal of pages working on cultural awareness. He writes, “Therefore, let us intentionally, everyday, ask what we have learned about how a servant looks and acts in this culture. Otherwise we may be deluded into thinking we are serving when others may not see it that way at all” (37). It is in this section that Elmer identifies a linear model to help one integrate into and understand a culture other than his or her own.

Although he best explains it in reverse order, Elmer’s model for entering and serving another culture starts with Openness. “Openness with people of other cultures” Elmer says, “requires that you are willing to step out of your comfort zone to initiate and sustain relationship in context of cultural differences” (151). The next step is Acceptance. In this step, there must be a comfort and feeling of safety around one another (151). Acceptance is followed by Trust. On trust, Elmer writes, “You can’t build trust with another person until they feel like they have been accepted by you—until they feel that you value them as human beings” (151). Then comes learning. After trust is established, there is a greater likelihood that people will share important information (151). And finally, there can be understanding. Understanding requires that one “learns from them and, eventually, with them” (150-151). However, immediately after outlining this linear model with the help of six chapters of illustrations, Elmer provides a diagram from the Eastern, non-linear approach. In this model, all of these area point toward servanthood and one would not have to work through all of them before serving others (152). Elmer shows the model with a diagram and explains it in two paragraphs; then he writes, “Use the model that works best for you” 152).

Moving into Part Three, Elmer attempts to synthesize the first two parts with the idea of Christian leadership. Part Three introduces the new topic of leadership (which more will be addressed in the subsequent section). The question becomes, “How do we combine the concept of service with that of leadership?” (155). Much of Part Three shifts into advice about the dealing with challenges and struggles often faced by missionaries. And then Elmer concludes first with the idea that cross-cultural servanthood requires practice and second, that all are called to something that will require servanthood. He states, “God has a significant role for you in his global mission. But it can be significant only if you are able to follow the servanthood of Jesus, which is difficult in the best of circumstances but especially challenging in the places that are foreign to you” (198).


Dr. Elmer’s effort to share his knowledge and skill set should be appreciated by those desiring to serve a mission or plant a church in a culture different than their own. The book is a strong contribution to the topic of evangelism and should be included on many a missionary or church planter's bookshelf.  Elmer's background has a trustworthy feel and his illustrations make what might seem complex understandable. Part One is valuable and a solid introduction to his overarching point. The style and tone of the book are such that the reader feels simultaneously encouraged and convicted.

Part Two is where the bulk of the book’s value is found. The liner model leading up to service is both informative and practical for not only work in a foreign culture, but for working in the nuanced differences within cultures closer to home. A practical application guide or workbook to assist in the teaching of a church missionary team the tools for serving in different cultures could accompany Part Two. However, the shortcoming of Part Two is the focus on cultural understanding over services, and even more so, the lack of sharing the gospel. The topic of understanding the cultural drowns out the reason for understanding the culture in the first place.

Part Three, while helpful and informative, did not seem to fit the purpose of the book. Prior to introducing leadership into the picture of servanthood, there were not logically surfacing questions in the area of leadership. Elmer, in the opinion of this author, should have concluded without the introduction of the new topic of leadership.

Elmer’s model for cross-culture servanthood can be applied to local cultures, but none of his examples demonstrated anybody reaching differing cultures within the boarder of the United States, or even Western cultures. He did not address situations like service on a Native American reservation, or into the inner city, or in a poverty-laden area. Modern trends are encouraging missionaries and church planters to go into cultures different then their own but still closer to home—be it rural or urban, east or west, New York or LA or Portland or Salt Lake, or even differing cultures within their same area. Given the large number of those reaching into these different cultures, Elmer might have served a broader readership had he included some of the aspects of subtle cultural differences. Or maybe this should be the topic of an additional book that places the focus of serving the different cultures within our own communities.


Cross-Cultural Servanthood is a valuable book for anybody taking the gospel into any culture different than his or her own. Working through Elmer’s model of servanthood should help Christians in most relationships. Elmer is correct when he says, “The following pages will unpack the idea of cross-cultural servanthood. While not being easy, it is the calling of every person who wishes to follow Jesus, whether in your home culture or beyond. The principles in this book apply to a wide range of Christians—in one sense, to all who want to serve others” (12-13). This author believes that Elmer is also correct in saying that all who desire to follow Jesus must desire to be servants. We must put aside the robe and pick up the towel (22-26).

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* This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website. 
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