MALPRACTICE IN CROSS CULTURAL MINISTRY
There are ways we can fail in our pursuit of cross-cultural ministry. I refer to this as “malpractice.” I am not speaking simply of not achieving our goals but of going about ministry in ways that actually hurt people, hurt the reputation of the church, and possibly bring slander to the name of Christ.
Cross cultural ministry has to be defined by the cultures one is trying to cross or bridge. There are ministries that are multi-ethnic, and that is (merely, or only) what they want to be. Sometimes these groups think of themselves as “multi-cultural.” That is they don’t really want to “cross” over into someone else’s culture but they do want to have a mixture of kinds of people in their group or church. They would prefer everybody to be comfortable in “their own skin” and not force anyone to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”
MISSIONAL VERSUS DOMINANCE
To settle for this model usually means there is a dominant culture for worship, or a dominant culture for leadership, or an acceptance of cultural assimilation in some form. There is usually compromise on some things, for some time, until some particular thing brings the friction or competition. The option is always for separation into cultural groups. This is not what I mean by cross cultural ministry, and to insist that this is the only way (i.e., multi-ethnic or multi-cultural) for people to become part of one body is malpractice.
If cross cultural ministry is more missional, where a person or group intentionally seeks to become like the other, or give up their personal or cultural rights so as to win others to Christ, or to become one in unity, there are some things one should bear in mind to do so with some integrity, honesty, and humility.
Cross cultural ministry done biblically is intentional servanthood (slavery) to others. Therefore it cannot be done with arrogance or superiority lest it be malpractice. We have some powerful spiritual weapons to help us when it comes to culture but I think all of the various pieces of ordinance come under one main heading and that would be love. Part of love is telling the truth, but one can tell the truth without love. A scalpel can heal you or kill you, it depends on how it gets used, in what circumstances, and with what skill. Obviously, if a doctor uses a scalpel carelessly he commits malpractice.
SEEING THE LAYERS OF SIN AND SINFUL OPPRESSION
I will use two scenarios with which I am somewhat familiar. The first scenario: If I as a white man come into the poor black community (and please notice that I am specifying that there is a “poor” black community as opposed to wealthier parts of the black community) and want to serve Jesus there by serving the people there, then how do I approach it? The way we approach things begins with the way we see it, and that very act of failing to see things properly, or truthfully, can result in malpractice. Take the case of a surgeon who is losing his eye sight but wants to operate on my nervous system; scary thought.
There are debates about what created the poor black community, or the typical inner-city neighborhood. If I arrive as a preacher and I see pathology, I see sinful behavior, and think the answer is a prophetic voice to call people to repentance for their wicked lives I might be seeing an aspect of the truth. I can pretty much guarantee you that the people there won’t be feeling much love from me. For me not to love the people to whom I seek to minister means I am guilty of malpractice. At the same time, to deprive the people there of inherent dignity by excusing their sinful choices, of not recognizing individual moral responsibility, and blaming everything that happens in that community on racial history and present racial injustice then I would be equally guilty of ministry malpractice.
Fundamentalists seem to have gone one way with the blame game, social action folks seem to go to the other extreme of blaming others who are somewhere else. As someone who grew up in the projects of Newark, NJ I would have to admit that if I had kept going the way I was going I probably would be dead or in prison, or living off what I stole from you, (I might have been a success in crime, one never knows). I was culpable in my own dysfunctionality.
My father abandoned me, so my failures must be his fault. The city was corrupt and the way they administered city housing was corrupt so my failures must be their fault. The schools weren’t that good so it was the fault of the Board of Education. I am not reticent to say that some of the blame might belong to them, but my soul and heart’s condition could not have been changed by them. I am white, and would later find that I had white privilege in other places, but at that time I wasn’t aware of any privilege except to try and earn the respect of the gang I ran with and stole with. I needed Christ, I needed a change of heart, I needed to be born again and converted, I needed to repent of the way I was living and the way I was headed.
Did my city need to be fixed? Oh yeah, it needed justice and just government. It still does. Maybe if my heart was changed by grace I might actually get to be part of that change, might help to be a conscience to the forces that make a city what a city should be. For the church to neglect my soul’s salvation would have been malpractice. For them not to have called me to care for the values of the Kingdom of God, such as justice and mercy, would have been malpractice. For me not to have compassion on the misery of the people who suffer from economic injustice (racial and/or simple economic exploitation), or to stay silent about it when I become aware of how it operates, would be malpractice.
My point is that the way we approach things, the way we see things, has a lot to do with whether or not we are ministering appropriately. I first have to see the city with compassion, the way Jesus did, as sheep without a shepherd. God had compassion on Nineveh, that wicked city, where people did not know their right hand from their left. The Ninevites were morally responsible for their sins and that is why God sent Jonah to proclaim judgement yet God had compassion on them and recognized their ignorance.
Is there immorality in the inner cities of America? Way too much sexual immorality, pregnancies without marriage, abortions, drugs, gangs, violence and sexual violence, a collapse of family, a satisfaction with ignorance, a loss of aspiration and thus a poor work ethic. Too deny these things and not see the exercise of personal choice at work, or to excuse them as merely by-products of history or oppression, is to rob human beings of moral agency. To not preach a redeeming character changing Gospel to people who desperately need to be born-again is malpractice. At the same time to see these things as if they all just happened overnight by the choice of the people and that there aren’t historic and systemic forces that perpetuate it and not seek to change those forces; that would also be malpractice.
The second scenario: If a white person seeks to be reconciled with black people, to stop worshiping and living in a segregated by choice church and community, and seeks friendships and relationships that are deep, meaningful, and honest then how should that be pursued, and how is that achieved? If this particular white brother (and let’s begin with the idea that he is saved) comes to a cross cultural church, or a black church seeking to learn, how is he to be treated?
We go back to what and how one sees as an approach is made. What are the assumptions we make when someone attempts reconciliation? If we see this white person as simply a victim of his raising or his culture, that he doesn’t know any better about being a racist because he learned from a racist family, we deprive him of the responsibility of moral agency. He is responsible for what he thinks, says, and does, no matter where he comes from or how he was raised.
ANGRY VERSUS PIERCING ANALYSIS
If all we do is bombard people with the rhetoric of angry racial analysis (and I am an advocate for piercing racial analysis), hold them off from friendship until they admit to or make some steps to dismantle white supremacy (or worse not even care if they should make such an effort but just blow them off), mock them for their white privilege, and ridicule them when they seem confused or disturbed by what they are hearing by referring to their white fragility then we are committing cross cultural malpractice as well.
BRIDGES OR BARRIERS?
Racial rhetoric carries emotional power, but is not always substantive especially when disconnected from biblical foundations, and not usually nuanced enough to help people know where the bridges to healing might be. Depending on how it is delivered it doesn’t always hint at an invitation to relationship but rather a sad inevitability toward segregation.
If we allow, and even encourage, people to come to emotional closure over feelings of racial and social guilt without repentance, without pragmatic strategies for peace making, and without commitment to a justice that mends, heals, and restores, then that too is malpractice. Cross cultural ministry has to face the realities of history, of race, of oppression, or a purposeful racial economic disparity, and of social science statistics in the various fields of urban sociology, the criminal justice system, and the role and activity of the church in that reality.
It is cross cultural ministry malpractice to simply dwell on the failures of humankind and not to remember that reconciliation is God’s work, beginning at the tearing of our relationship and alienation from him in the Garden of Eden. It is malpractice to forget the healing of the cross, between God and people, between Jews and Gentiles (and thus all sub-ethnic groups) and our becoming one new man in the body of Christ, through the work of Christ. It is malpractice to despair of the hope of reconciliation, as if it is an effort on one group to simply feel better about themselves, and not to remember it is given to all of God’s people as a message and a ministry. It is malpractice to dismiss the reality that reconciliation, especially cross cultural reconciliation, takes a conscious choice to be another people’s servant, and requires a death to self. It is also malpractice to give up the hope that it is possible, and wonderful, and the future of heaven.