Hometown Cross-Cultural Ministry

Bob Zomermaand

(Article first appeared in the October 27, 2008 issue of the Christian Courier)

When a pastor hears the phrase cross-cultural ministry, his or her mind most likely thinks of the call to be involved in the mission of God in a place far from home. A place where one must learn a new language, become aware of cultural attitudes that are very different from one’s own, and grow acquainted with the local ideas of what makes for gourmet eating.  The challenge of this type of cross-cultural ministry can be great—so much so that a pastor may remind him or herself that, “God did not call me to that kind of mission. Praise his Name!”

Those who find themselves pastoring in North America normally find themselves engaged in ministries that look profoundly like themselves.  It is said that the gatherings of the church are more culturally homogenous than any other grouping in the North American cultural scene.  Yet I believe that if a pastor is committed to excellence in the cause of Jesus, he or she needs to get involved in local cross-cultural ministry.

Let me give you just two examples of cross-cultural ministry. 
•  Philosopher Leonard Sweet tells us that a great cultural divide exists between those
    who were born into the technological world we experience today and those who were not
    born into it.  Older folks, like me, are immigrants into a culture that is quite unlike
    anything we knew as we grew up.  For those growing up in recent years, the concept of
    the computer, the cell phone, and the internet have so completely dominated the culture
    that it is difficult to imagine an earlier time. 

•  I lived for over a decade in a state called the “Crossroads of America”. The city I lived 
    in had a large population of students from all over the world.  Young people from many
    different nations had gathered in that city to study together and to learn from each other
    intriguing ideas drawn from their cultures.  Most every city in North America has a recent
    immigrant population—people who were living in a different country twenty years ago.
    These immigrants have brought cross-cultural ministry to our North American
    doorsteps—a challenge undreamed of a generation ago.

In the face of how fast our culture is changing around us, we as pastors are urged to learn how to minister cross-culturally even within our church families.  If we are going to minister effectively and with any hope of excellence, we need to be conversant with, and in, a variety of cultures or risk being alienated from those who inhabit a different world than we do.  Younger pastors need to examine the outlook on life that the retiree in their churches have due to the older person’s cultural assumptions.  Older pastors need to open their hearts to the youth culture in order to avoid being totally out of touch with those under 25.  We all need to rise above our own culture centric assumptions about the appeal of the Gospel in order to excel in bringing the Good News to other cultures living right next door to us, or even under our own roofs.

It seems to me that many of us are only comfortable with those who are like us.  We hesitate to open a dialogue with someone whose native language is different from our own.  Our faltering attempt to find something to say to the stranger next to us comes to a halt after a comment about the weather. We return to an uneasy silence as we drop our stare to our laptop.  The discomfort of the silence seems easier to bear than trying to find a way to speak to someone different from ourselves.  The curse of Babel has managed to keep us apart for another day.

Yet when I turn to the Bible and read the book of Acts, I find Babel being overturned on Pentecost. I see people sharing the Good News with people unlike themselves.  The result is a dynamic new community of people dedicated to Jesus Christ and the mission of God to the world “out there.”  The idea of there being a culture to which the Good News did not urgently need to be brought would not have occurred to the church about whom we read, “And the Lord added daily to their number those who were being saved.”  Even the emperor’s household was not safe from the Gospel. When Paul was a prisoner there, he found a way to bear witness to Jesus even when there was reason to be silent and just try to stay alive.  The jailor in Philippi had placed Paul and Silas into the inner prison and secured them firmly in stocks but he was privileged to hear the Good News that has echoed over the centuries, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved and your household.”  He and his household were baptized and welcomed into the body of Jesus that very night.

Over 20 years ago I had the privilege of casting a vision for a church in a large North American city. The church would be a place where people from all over the world would find a spiritual home in community—with each other and with Jesus as Lord.  The neighborhoods around our commuter church were made up of people from all over the world but the church was largely of a single ethnic extraction and was culturally homogenous.  Living in the church’s parsonage, I was like many of the commuters who were immersed in an economic culture totally different from that of the community surrounding our building. As we studied the Word together, we knew God was stirring us to become a church, an ecclesia, called out from all the peoples in our community. In the Scriptures, he called us to dream of a church that reflected the community in which we found ourselves.

While it took over 10 years for the dream to even begin to become a reality, today the people who dared to dream a God-sized ideal of a multi-cultural church are amazed at what God has done.  They look around the sanctuary and see people native to five different continents. Their mother tongues number more than a dozen.  Their cultural assumptions bump up against one another most every week. And yet, they are God’s family together.  It is a place of great joy in Christ.

Suppose you would dare to dream a God-sized dream in each of your cities and towns.  What would a church made up of people from every nation and culture found within your city, your town look like?  In the book of John’s Revelation we read of the kings of the nations bringing the splendor of their nations into the city of God—the New Jerusalem come down from heaven.  Suppose we were to dream of a church led by a pastor who saw with God’s eyes the splendor of the nations and cultures right there in your locale.  Suppose those cultures were all found in your congregation because God added to your number every day those who were being saved! 

Are you a dreamer?  Then begin today by initiating a conversation with someone very unlike yourself.  This honors God and builds a healthy church—which is a little taste of heaven right here on God’s good earth!