Category Archives: Cross-Cultural Ministry

Points to Ponder #4 – In God’s Image

(Click to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this 5-part series.)

Continuing to share the Points to Ponder we are presenting to our mission trip teams this summer:

In whose image does the Bible say we are created? God’s, right? So whose idea was it to have so many different languages and cultures in this world? It was God’s idea, wasn’t it? God created every single different people group, with its distinct language and culture, in His own image. Together, all people and cultures on this earth display the image of God.

This places a great premium on honoring and preserving other cultures at the same time we are looking to see them transformed (or fulfilled, perhaps) by the truth of the gospel. Over the past couple of centuries, Western missionaries have not always been strong on this point of honoring and preserving cultures. The same type of imperialism that led Europe to trample tribes, civilizations, and entire continents in the colonial era has crept into our mission work. We have tended to require people to change their culture, becoming more like Westerners, in order to follow Christ. Instead of delivering the gospel message and allowing people to apply it in their own context, we assume that their application of gospel truth should look the same as our application of it.

Think about what happens when we do that. If a group has to lose part of its culture in order to follow Christ, they are losing the unique way in which they could have responded to God. If God created all people with their distinct cultures and customs in His image, the world is losing a unique representation of God we could have seen in that people group. We never get to see, for example, how a particular tribe would have worshipped God or passed on biblical truth to younger generations. We miss out on how one group may have observed communion in a unique way that would have emphasized some characteristic of God we tend to overlook. God doesn’t get prayed to in languages that may have hardly ever been used to say one respectful word to Him.

Our job as cross-cultural missionaries is to be ambassadors. We have a message to deliver on behalf of Jesus Christ. It is not our job to tell people what their obedience to that message should look like. That is the Holy Spirit’s job. If we can help people respond to God in a way fitting to their context, the world will gain an ever-growing display of God and his glory as more and more nations come to worship Him. This will finally culminate in that unimaginable worship service foretold in Revelation 7:9,10, when all nations are before the throne, worshipping the Lamb of God.

Points to Ponder #3 – Can you find…in the Bible?

(Click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)

It’s high time I resumed my Points to Ponder series. Points to Ponder is a new element in our mission trip program this year. We take about five minutes each day and share with the mission trip participants some thoughts we’ve been chewing on lately, allowing them to do the same. As I mentioned when I started this series, it would normally cost you a $450 mission trip to come to Mexico and hear these, but just for being a reader of my blog, you get them absolutely free!

This third Point to Ponder is adapted from a blog post by David Watson.

The easier something can be reproduced by new believers, they better the chance that a disciple-making movement can multiply. Our job in making disciples is to teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded us – nothing more, nothing less. One of the frequent errors of the modern church is teaching traditional church culture and practices as if they were biblical truth. Tradition is not inherently wrong, but it is of secondary importance. People do not need traditional Christian culture in order to have a changed life; they Jesus and His gospel of the kingdom.

Cross-cultural church planters cause many problems when we require our disciples to adopt our extra-biblical practices. We should, rather, deliver the gospel message as the ambassadors that we are and then help new believers apply the truth of the gospel in their own cultural context.

With that in mind, can you find in the Bible where we see the following things?

Can you find a place in the Bible where…

  • it tells us to bow our heads and close our eyes when we pray?
  • it tells us not to drink alcoholic beverages?
  • it tells us not to dance?
  • it teaches that a person must be ordained in order to baptize a new believer?
  • it teaches that a person must be ordained in order to serve the Lord’s Supper?
  • it teaches that a person must be ordained in order to lead a church?
  • it instructs us to perform ordinations?
  • it tells us we have to dress in a special way to lead or attend the assembly of believers?
  • It tells us how often to have meetings of the church, how long those meetings should be, or on what day they should be?
  • it says that the church should have a special building to meet in?
  • it says that church leaders or pastors have to be seminary or Bible school trained?
  • it says that the pastor is the supreme leader of the church, or the only leader of the church?
  • it says that one form of music is superior to any other form of music, or that some form of music is not acceptable for worship, or that a particular form of music is required for worship?
  • it says the dead must be buried in the ground? (As an example, Hindus in India usually cremate their dead. They have been told by most Western missionaries, though, that this is wrong and the dead must be buried.)
  • it says that a man who has multiple wives before becoming a Believer should agree to divorce all but one of his wives after becoming a Believer or in order to become a Believer? (This issue is tricky, too. We have a tribe near us that practices polygamy. When Paul gave the qualifications of an overseer, he said he should be the husband of one wife. How do you raise up church leadership in a place where everyone has multiple wives?)

Contextualization: Can a Muslim or a Hindu be a Christian?

Contextualization was the word of the week during our time in Chandigarh. We spent 3 days with a good Hindu-background brother who is doing contextualized church planting, which got us thinking and talking a lot. The idea behind contextualization is that people’s response to the gospel and the life of the Body will never look exactly the same in different cultures. The less the Church contextualizes, the more it will look exactly the same in any culture in the world. The more it contextualizes, the more it can take many different forms.

The challenge for us Westerners in understanding contextualization is that we tend to divorce religion from culture. In our minds, Hinduism and Islam are religions people must leave in order to follow Christ, and we often presume they can do so without leaving their culture. The problem is that, for many people in the non-Western world, religion and culture cannot be separated. When people say they are Hindus or Muslims (or Catholics in Mexico, perhaps), they are not just stating their adherence to a particular religion, they are telling who they are. For non-Westerners, the physical and spiritual worlds are not separate; everything in life has a spiritual aspect to it. Westerners separate the two, and can therefore make a distinction between culture and religion, but for most non-Westerners, the two are inseparable.

If we understand this, is the only option for a person in India to cease being a Hindu or a Muslim (Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, etc.) and become a Christian? Or can a person be a Hindu or a Muslim who follows Christ and serves the one true God alone? Before jumping to any conclusions, let’s consider the matter.

Our host in Chandigarh, who oversees several house fellowships, is contextualizing his work in the local Hindu and Sikh cultures. In other words, elements of Hinduism or Sikhism find expression in the lives of these churches. In saying this, I do NOT mean the people worship false gods–the elements of culture present among them are part of their commitment to Christ, rather than compromising it. This leader is sometimes criticized by ministers from more traditional churches, who would like to see him completely break away from anything having an appearance of Hinduism or Sikhism.

An example of this contextualization is the name by which the believers call their fellowship. They call their community a satsang, which is a Hindu word for a gathering seeking truth. Some say it is wrong to use this Hindu term, arguing that it is a pagan concept. The brothers and sisters we met, though, believe the use of the word helps those of a Hindu background draw near to God. Another example is the use of a coconut for the Lord’s Supper. Coconuts are often incorporated into Hindu worship; therefore, Hindu-background believers break them open and take the flesh and the milk to represent the body and blood of Christ. Something really neat we learned is that, for Hindus, a coconut means fullness of life. So Christ’s body was broken, and through him comes fullness of life.

It can be easy to criticize such contextualization of the gospel in other cultures, and those practicing contextualization have faced their share of attacks. I’m not sure it’s right to criticize, though, until we have had the opportunity to live for an extended period of time in the culture in question, gaining a good understand of the practices and worldview of the people. How else can we understand whether a cultural expression is pagan or not? In our short time with our brothers and sisters in Chandigarh, as far as we could tell we found them to be full of the love of God and committed to Christ and the work of the kingdom.

Ministry in a Muslim context provides some significant contextualization questions that other cross-cultural church planters have had to deal with. Here are a few of these questions:

  • By what name do you call God? Do you tell people that Allah is not God and then try and introduce them to the one true God, giving him some other name? Or do you say that Allah is the one true God and then try and help lead people to a clearer understanding of his true nature?
  • Can a believer worship God in a mosque? Or should s/he never go to a mosque again after beginning to follow Christ?
  • Muslims customarily kneel and pray five times a day. Is this an okay practice for a follower of Christ to continue, or should a Muslim-background believer be encouraged to avoid it?

For the conscientious cross-cultural church planter, questions of contextualization are difficult. If one decides to contextualize, then the question arises of which cultural elements should be practiced as part of obedience to Christ. A good guiding question here can be, “Does this practice help people access God, or does it restrict access to God?” Many traditional churches here in India are quite contextualized in a way. People meet in big “temples” where they come to hear the teachings of a spiritual “guru” who everyone recognizes as being on a higher spiritual level than the common people. But you can make the argument that this model promotes a temple-and-priest Christianity that is closer to the Old Testament than the New, and it restricts access to God. Flowers, candles, incense, and coconuts, though, may all be elements of Hindu culture that can help people draw near to the one true God and worship him. They can especially be powerful when Hindus realize these elements can be part of accessing God personally, rather than having spiritual gurus as mediators between the gods and man.

So what thoughts do you have about contextualization? Can you think of ways the gospel has been contextualized in our Western culture?

Points 2 Ponder #1 – Jesus and acculturation

During our mission trips this year, we’re sharing thoughts to chew on with trip participants during a segment of our program called Points 2 Ponder. These are things we’ve been learning/wrestling with/thinking about over the past year or so. Normally, you would have to pay US$450 for a 10-day mission trip to get to hear these sound bites. Now, though, just for being a reader of my blog, you get them in written form completely free! What a deal, huh?

Here’s the first installment of Points 2 Ponder:

One of the most important jobs of any cross-cultural missionary is to be a learner. Consider this: Jesus was on the earth for about 33 years, but his public ministry only took place in the last three years of his life. That means he spent 30 years, or over 9/10 of his life, not in public ministry. To quote Alan Hirsch in a recent post, we should find that “profoundly disturbing”. For 30 years of his life, no one really noticed Jesus. He didn’t stick out. He didn’t do anything spectacular. He was part of his culture, working a normal job, doing normal things. Only when the time was right did he begin his public ministry.

In a talk at the 2006 National Short-Term Mission Conference, Paul Borthwick pointed out that, while Jesus waited 30 years to engage in his public ministry, when we get into cross-cultural mission settings, we often can hardly wait 30 minutes to get going. After all, we’ve raised a lot of money, people back home are expecting to hear great reports, and “we’re on a mission from God”.

When we think about the humility and servanthood exhibited by Christ during his life on earth (Phil. 2:1-11)–his cross-cultural ministry, you could say–how does that impact our ministries? What if to be Christ-like ministers we have to get past having all the answers for everyone from Day One and simply become learners? Tom and Betty Sue Brewster, in one of their excellent books, drive home the point that “language learning is communication is ministry”. In other words, even when we’re not saying anything, we’re already communicating. Working hard to learn the language of the new culture communicates something–the kind of humble love that characterized Jesus’ ministry. Being ready to teach and having all the answers from the get-go also communicates something. Unfortunately, the drift people catch from that strategy is usually the air of arrogant superiority the rest of the world sees in the Western world. Like it or not, that’s how people perceive us when we don’t first establish ourselves as learners.

Will there be a time for public ministry and for providing answers to problems? No doubt. But that time may not be during the first week or month or year. The wait didn’t seem to bother Jesus too much or hinder his ministry. We cross-cultural ministers in the name of Jesus would do well to take note.

The loss of culture

Stepchild writes in this post about the immigration problem in Western Europe, where the flood of immigrants threatens the extinction of traditional European cultures:

Gone are the days of leaving one’s home culture to adopt a new way of life in a new place. Turks are moving to Frankfurt and living as though they were still in Turkey. Moroccans in Paris are setting up Muslim prayer rooms and markets. The Chinese in Barcelona aren’t bothering to learn the local language.

These issues are not new in North America. The number of Mexicans (among others) immigrating to the United States and Canada is astounding. Those of us from the U.S. know this is causing a great deal of angst in our country. Many share the fear of Western Europeans that our culture will be diluted with the tide of immigrants from Mexico and other countries who are keeping much of their own culture. I am often amazed, though not surprised, at how often I meet Mexicans who know very little English, even after living in the U.S. for 5 or 10 years. The reason is simple – they live and work with other Mexicans, thus preserving their culture.

Stepchild’s post got me thinking more about our missionary methods as Westerners in other cultures, though. We missionaries are also immigrants, aren’t we? Here’s the problem: Missionaries in Mexico are building U.S.-style church buildings. Equippers in India are opening Western-style Bible schools. Church planters in southeast Asia aren’t bothering to learn the local language. Cross-cultural workers everywhere are holing up in compounds, preserving our cultures. And the more we preserve our own culture, the less we adopt the local culture. (My family and the missionaries we work with are not immune to this accusation, by the way. We have a problem on our hands, which we have recognized and are taking steps to correct.)

We as cross-cultural missionaries have good intentions, but do we threaten the extinction of indigenous cultures in the Body of Christ through Western dilution? To the extent that a valued cultural distinctive is lost in favor of Western practices, an ethnic group will never be a complete expression of responding to and following God in their own, unique way. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but that’s because we can’t possibly conceive what it is like for a non-Westerner to try and relate to God in a Western way. I have seen Christians in nearby villages struggle through services in Spanish, though their first language is a tribal language very different than Spanish. This is because those who brought them the Gospel never learned the heart language of the villagers. They brought the gospel in Spanish, and now the people think that Spanish must somehow be God’s language.

The great danger here is an underlying sense of superiority that we Westerners tend to have towards other cultures. We are pretty convinced that we have figured out the right way to do things. I know I was. It has taken living in and being exposed to other cultures over a period of time to slowly begin to be broken of this attitude. This attitude is so engrained in us, that I think we often hardly recognize it’s there. We need to be oh-so-careful when we relate to people from other cultures if we are to be effective ambassadors of Christ. This is a big deal.