Teaching Cross-cultural Classes - Challenges & Solutions

Donald Moldstad (Mankato, Minnesota, USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Donald Moldstad is Chaplain and Director of Campus Spiritual Life at Bethany Lutheran College, Mankato, Minnesota. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and is a 1985 graduate of Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary. He served for 20 years in the parish ministry and has been on the Religious Studies faculty at Bethany since 2005. He teaches a course in basic Christianity to numerous international students. At one time he served as director of the Thoughts of Faith VBS - Ukraine program.

One of the greatest joys for a Christian is to be used by the Holy Spirit to bring the knowledge of Christ to others. The jailer at Philippi, the woman at the well, and the shepherds were all excited to make known abroad the Good News of Christ — that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our sins against us. God could have made evangelism a hardship, but chose instead to make it a joyful work. An added happiness comes from seeing the Gospel take root in the hearts of those who have never heard it before.

In this presentation I will address the challenges of cross-cultural teaching, and provide some guidelines that may help, including the use of media. I have gleaned ideas from many talented missionaries. As a college religion instructor for eleven years I have sometimes learned the hard way. I have had the privilege of teaching Ukrainians, Chinese, Buddhists, atheists, Muslims, Mexicans, Ethiopians, Koreans, a Saudi, a follower of Wicca from England, an Australian, Congolese, a Peruvian and a Latvian. As I write this, I am teaching a class of 11 students from 6 countries. They are all different, and yet, in most ways they are all the same. Paul instructs us to not see people from a worldly viewpoint but rather a heavenly one, as those for whom Christ has died to win heaven (2 Cor. 5:14-17).

At the start you may notice students are less inclined to speak in class or ask questions. In many countries classroom discussion is discouraged. It may take students a longer time to feel "warmed up" toward an American teacher and each other. Don't expect immediate classroom interaction. Some of my students have taken about a month to adapt. The use of media can help break down this barrier. Look for images or video clips that connect with your audience's homeland or cultural background. This may help them to feel more comfortable with you and the subject matter. For instance, there is a variety of images of Christ that appear more Asian, or African, or Hispanic (we may forget that Jesus was not German or Scandinavian as some artists portray Him.) Utilize scenes from their own background to identify with the biblical concepts you are teaching. Ask them to explain how things work in their own culture, as a way of connecting them to the wonderful truths of Scripture.

Many students today are very tech-savvy. Use their familiarity with electronic devices to your advantage. Ask them to look up certain things in class, or for homework assignments. Encourage them to find examples from their home country of teachings you are explaining. For instance, when discussing signs of the end times, have them find similar signs from the recent history of their country. Post these images in future classes for all to see. This helps to make the subject matter very relevant.

Cultural differences are interesting to explore, but can possibly cause difficulties. I once pushed a Bible on a table toward a Muslim student. He asked, "Why would you treat your holy book so carelessly?" Other students were offended that they were asked to purchase a Bible, because in their homeland a Bible is considered too important to buy; they come as gifts. At times, you may have to explain yourself more thoroughly.

If teaching in another language, the accuracy of the translation is obviously crucial. Today we have access to a variety of translations of the Bible. According to experts, there are three major gaps that show up when trying to communicate cross-culturally:

  1. Language Gap — It is a challenge to translate from the biblical languages into English, but then to convert the material into another tongue for your class, this adds an entirely new dimension. It is essential to keep the context and translation as close as possible to the Bible's wording and intent.
  2. Cultural Gap — Once again conveying a biblical thought from the first century to our own culture is enough of a challenge, but then to convey this thought faithfully into another culture presents more difficulty. Learning things about the culture of your students will help in this transition.
  3. Spiritual Gap — Due to our sinful nature none of us understands the things of God on our own, unless the Holy Spirit enlightens us (1 Cor. 2:9-16). As St. Augustine once said, "How do you defend a lion? You don't. You let him out of his cage." We must remember that the power to convert the heart to faith in Christ is in the Word of God alone. It is "the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16). Your role as an educator is simply to place this before your students, get out of the way, and let the Holy Spirit carry out His work through God's Word.

Avoid the use of American colloquialisms, such as "Step up to the plate," "That's for the birds," "Shoot the breeze," "Monday morning quarterback," or "Take a rain check." Think through the metaphors or illustrations you will use, or be sure to explain them thoroughly. The same is true when it comes to imagery or movie clips. Use things that you know will transcend cultures. Certain movie images or songs from our culture are well-known to others. For instance, while teaching children in Ukraine I found that some lines from Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were an instant hit and gave me an immediate sense of familiarity with junior high-age students. For some of them it was the only English they knew. You can make wonderful use of the Internet in this regard. Search for things that make a connection with your students.

Many students come from places where soccer is popular, and they know little or nothing about American football or baseball. Discovering something about teams in their homeland helps make a connection. Occasionally make use of soccer images or illustrations in class to help keep their attention or teach a concept. Another way of connecting with them is through Facebook. Establish a page for your class that helps them stay in touch with each other, and use it as a regular opportunity to inject spiritual messages. If they come from multiple countries, break students into smaller groups to interact so they see how much they have in common.

Some foreign students are frustrated by how little Americans know about other parts of the world. For instance, not everyone who lives in Africa or Asia lives in poverty. Preconceived notions may be wrong. Many of the foreign students we encounter in the US are highly educated, tech-savvy, quite knowledgeable of American culture, and even know some of our history. A common complaint is that American students seem to care little about getting to know foreigners and their homeland. Spend some time in class asking questions about their home country.

A retired college professor from my church, who was voted the top teacher at a large university numerous times, gave me this advice: "The key to good teaching is this: Make sure your students know you love them. That's it." Missionaries will tell you kindness opens the door to evangelism opportunities. Jesus said, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father who is in heaven." Talk to your students about their lives. Show interest in their country and culture. Let them know you care about them. Think of yourself as a living sermon of Christianity. How you interact with them is a reflection of Christ.

I hope this presentation has generated some interest in teaching students from a variety of cultures. Give some feedback or other ideas that would help in this special work. There is no greater gift that you can give than sharing with others the wonderful news that they have a Savior from sin and death. How wonderful to represent Him who has paid for our guilt by His sacrifice, and gives us the promise of eternal life in heaven through faith in Him. May God bless your work in His Kingdom.

Illustration: The Night Visitors copyright 2015 Janet McKenzie www.janetmckenzie.com
Collection of Mepkin Abbey, Moncks Corner, SC

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Chaplain Don Moldstad 29 days ago
Thanks for clicking on this page. I hope the articles stimulates some discussion on spreading the Gospel cross-culturally. I look forward to your questions, comments and suggestions.
Judy Kuster 26 days ago
Nicely written, Don, and I'm sure your students are blessed to have you as their teacher. I'm curious about the level of English in the class of students you were teaching. I assume English was a second language for all of them. When we were teaching in China, it was surprising that the students were familiar with more technical words but some had pretty significant deficits in vocabulary that is typically learned at a younger age. Also, the differences in pronunciation caused some problems in understanding. One word I remember was 'anchor' and students thought I meant 'ankle' because of the different sound system in their language. Are students comfortable enough to ask clarification of vocabulary in class? Have you ever considered passing out note cards where students jotted down words they weren't familiar with on one side and a question of the day on the other or something that they didn't understand? It was pretty revealing to me how confusing I sometimes was to some of my students who wouldn't ask in class, but were willing to hand in an unsigned card with everyone else that could be discussed and clarified in the next class meeting. Frankly, I used to do that with classes without any second language learners as well and it gave students (and me) a chance to clarify concepts they misunderstood.
Don Moldstad 25 days ago
What is often challenging is that some "foreign" students may know certain English words, and others not. I daily find myself checking with them to make sure they understand a phrase or term. I also have explained to them that I am amazed at their level of English. At the same time I want them to clearly understand me, and to be sure to ask if I use a term unfamiliar to them. Some will do that, but not all. I don't want to offend them by implying their knowledge is lacking, but also want to make sure everyone is on board. This may take a bit more time in a class period, but is always worth it. I like the note card idea. I may have to try that. Thanks.
Jim Radloff 26 days ago
Cross-cultural ministry is very fascinating and I appreciate all of your comments, suggestions and ideas. "Love" is universal and the number one principle in doing cross-cultural ministry....love of Jesus for us, our love for Jesus in a spirit of gratitude and praise and love of others in our thoughts, words and actions.. Love also covers a multitude of sins and mistakes when we make cultural mistakes. . Humility and eagerness to learn from them is first step toward also teaching them.
Don Moldstad 25 days ago
Jim... Great comments. I especially like the "learning from them" idea. I often bring that up in class. Part of the fun for me is finding out more about them and their country/culture/customs. This also helps you connect with them on the human level and find common ground.
Nadiya Borshch 26 days ago
Great Article, Prof. Moldstad. I loved your examples of Ukraine. As one of your students, I can say that you do a great job connecting with students, whether they are from a different country or from the US. God has given you a very special gift. Thank you for sharing God's Word at Bethany.
Don Moldstad 25 days ago
Thanks, Nadiya. You are a treasure in our Bethany student-body.
Deb Uecker 24 days ago
What a great article! I can relate to many of the challenges you describe in my own classrooms. What always frustrates me is the lack of awareness or interest among the US students toward international students. The US students are not unkind, just often uninformed and seem to come off as lacking empathy with people that are different than themselves. The joy of teaching at Wisconsin Lutheran College is that I have been able to directly confront, and sometimes that is what it takes, the class with the fact that we were created by God as relational beings. We are designed far more similar than different. The differences are interesting and offer an opportunity to learn from each other, and see how the body of believers truly represent to the world his love of all his creation!
Don Moldstad 22 days ago
Deb, Great comments. Yes, that is a concern. The class I am presently teaching consists entirely of internationals. As you know on a college campus, there is a tendency for the foreign students to become a "ghetto" unto themselves, just as American students would if studying abroad. This is a constant problem, and I know Bethany tries a variety of things to stir them into our student body, but the more of them there are, the less inclined they are to mix.
Dan Kroll 23 days ago
thanks, Don
- you do have a gift for openness and a real ability to laugh at yourself. Not everybody can do that, but for anybody doing anything in cross-cultural ministry, I think those gifts are necessary and you are greatly blessed to have them.
Don Moldstad 22 days ago
Thanks, Dan. I agree that having a sense of humor is very helpful. I think it is also so important to help them to see that we are all the same when it comes to the core issues of life. I think it is so helpful to listen to presentations from foreign missionaries. They have so many insights into making connections with people who are "different" from us.
Don Moldstad 22 days ago
A while ago, I had a very interesting thing happen in my international Religion class one day. One of my students was not paying attention, and for a number of days in a row had made it very apparent that he did not want to take a class in Religion. He was often on his cell-phone, while sitting in the front row. Other students were also bothered by his attitude. I finally had enough, and sort of snapped at him. I later thought about it, and realized I had humiliated him in front of others. The next class period I started by publicly apologizing to him in front of everyone and asked for his forgiveness, which he gave to me. Since then we have had a much better relationship, and he has been much more attentive. It was a tough lesson for me.
Don Moldstad 15 days ago
An African American friend of mine once told me that he wishes pastors and teachers would be a little more careful not to use the word "black" to describe sin. I have also read this in other books by black authors. I do think it is something we need to guard against. For some people those little comments can become a barrier. My father once said that we should exercise caution to use only positive stories in sermons when speaking of someone of a different race. Something to think about.
Jim Harries 14 days ago
Thanks to Don for taking the trouble to share his insights. Some great thoughts! I guess my comment would be that, and I guess this is pretty inevitable but not necessarily therefore not a problem, the thing is America-centred. It's about reaching from America to others, incorporating them, educating them and so on. It's not about throwing in your lot with 'others'. That is, it is not about 'when in Rome do what the Romans do' (if they are Romans), but about 'getting people to be Romanish' (if we are Romans). (Perhaps this is the issue in another part of this conference?)
Don Moldstad 10 days ago
Jim - Excellent point. That is an important aspect to keep in mind, but also difficult to always "screen out." If one is faithful to God's Word, connecting students to Christ, and teaching them all things that He has commanded us, that should be the primary goal. The more you not only understand their culture, but try to incorporate it into the lessons, the less "Americanized" it may come across. In my American college classroom context, this is probably more difficult to accomplish. To someone who is out in the the mission field of a foreign country, it is certainly essential to "throw in your lot with others," as you say. I am wide open to suggestions.
Tom Kuster 7 days ago
Jim's information-rich website focusing on mission work in Africa is worth a look. Go to