POSSIBLE REASONS WHY CHURCHES DON’T PURSUE BEING CROSSCULTURAL
As I was ruminating on cross-cultural ministry I began to articulate several reasons why it is not more assertively pursued by church leaders. I will not claim that the reasons I give are comprehensive. These are some problems or obstacles that I have noticed.
1. RACISM – It would be naive to think that this is still not a problem. It would also be in error to think this is the only reason or always the reason for the avoidance of inter-racial and inter-cultural ministry. Many folks do not pursue reconciliation between races and cultures for other reasons, some of which I will soon articulate. However, racism still exists in our hearts and minds and affects our decisions.
Racism is a sin, and it is the sin of (racial)pride and thus becomes idolatry. It is the dehumanization of others by despising the image of God in people and this becomes the sin of hate, (thus murder), and the failure to love. Some folks are racist and know themselves to be so and speak and act with hatred. Others are racist and don’t know it, but speak and act with a sense of racial superiority and entitlement and often fail to realize how hurtful their words and actions might be. Recently I have read comments from some white Christians with the implication that black people were happier or in some way better off in slavery. This said alongside the complaint that they voted for Obama and thus they are causing trouble for the whole nation. It seems to me that this is racial arrogance, that one can declare slavery better for another group while glorying in one’s own heritage of fighting for our nation’s freedom, laying claim to all the slogans of the Revolution as if feeling the oppression from the British king. I don’t confine racism to any one race of people although racism tied to power is far more dangerous. All of it is equally stupid and disgusting.
2. CULTURAL AFFINITY OR ETHNOCENTRISM – there is a reason people don’t jump ethnic lines to go some to other ethnic church. They feel comfortable with what they know, there family and friends are still in their home church, they understand the language, if not linguistics they get the cultural language. The music is usually in their “heart language.” This is true for most every ethnic group when it comes to religion.
I often tell white pastors that black folks in this country were forced to create a unique cultural kind of worship service since they were shut out of white churches. Without going into a commentary on ethnomusicology let me just say that most black folks who come from the traditional or even contemporary black church find most white churches to be utterly boring. Most black folks don’t like stilted or even Celtic music styles, they don’t get into lectures that pose as sermons, they don’t appreciate a worship that seems to stifle emotions and is almost martial in approach. While many black believers have been blessed by coming into a deeper ministry of the Word, when they come from congregations that neglected Biblical teaching and pursued simple emotionalism or prosperity preaching, there is no doubt that black religious experience in America has been rich with depth and feeling; and often relevant to their social condition.
So why should any minority come to a majority race worship where their concerns are either neglected or even despised? Why should they make the effort, and why should anyone do that which is uncomfortable in crossing cultures? I think there are several sound and good reasons, but they are not always apparent.
It is difficult for any ethnic or cultural group that feels oppressed or marginalized by the majority to be confronted with an invitation to join the majority religious culture with the requirement to give up all of their own cultural identity.
3. SPEED OF GROWTH AND CONVERSION – This was a sociological reality that Dr. Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner articulated with a concept known as the Homogeneous Unit Principle. Conversions seem to come faster when you reach people in their own cultural context using their own cultural affinities. Leadership, language, music, and methods that are familiar, safe, (and might even seem heroic in opposing assimilation), help to bring about conversions within an ethnic group at a faster rate than if it is attempted going across ethnic or cultural barriers. If we are going to plant churches and win people to Jesus why shouldn’t we do what is faster and frankly more palatable? What is of course shameful is to use this apparently truthful sociological analysis as an excuse to continue with our own racist proclivities. One of the things church growth students have also realized is that is not simply homogeneous affinity that helps churches grow but something called “cultural congruity.” When a given culture thinks it is a high value to be cross cultural, than those kind of churches grow quickly as well. When churches think they have a right to step over one racial group near their church to reach their preferred demographic target they may think they have a “missional” mentality, but it still looks racist to others.
4. THE LACK OF A COMPELLING BIBLICAL VISION – When Christians are not confronted with the Biblical teaching of justice, mercy, reconciliation, (or concepts of what social righteousness ought to look like in the Kingdom of God) then it is no surprise that we continue in the isolation, self-satisfaction, and cultural stagnation of our separation. If we don’t recapture the passion of the Apostle Paul to “by all means win some” and are not willing to pay the price of “being a slave to all men” then we will not achieve reconciliation. If the majority race population isn’t willing to be servant to the minority population, and pursue them in their own cultural forms, then all the minority will hear and see is assimilation (and thus disintegration) and not love.
If Christians aren’t caught up in the passion of Jesus that we be “one” they will continue to be many, and not demonstrate the power of the Gospel to build us together as living stones. If minority population believers cannot trust God to preserve them, and guard their dignity, and give them complete fulfillment in who God created them to be as they worship with the majority population, then their fears will deprive them of a fuller unity in Christ. Without that unity we lose the strength and care we would have for one another, not just as individuals, but as people groups and thus we leave the marginalized at risk of further injustice.
It is the Word that ought to trump everything, but I continue to see people who claim it as their authority simply interpret it through a cultural and racial lens, and it usually has to do with ego and power, or the illusion thereof.
5. THE LACK OF CROSS CULTURAL SKILLS – These of course come from learning and experience and intention. Most minorities learn such skills in order to survive while living in a majority context. Missionaries learn these skills intentionally in order to serve the people group to which they are called. We speak here of learning cultural cues, language, the history, glory, hopes, and fears of a people group. We speak here of “friend making” across racial or cultural lines. In a country that is filling up with minority groups for the majority Christian population not to pursue these skills by intention reveals a lack of concern or love. Might I also suggest it reveals a lack of common sense nor a will to survive by failing to accommodate to reality.
6. THE LACK OF LEADERSHIP – Pastors, College Presidents, Seminary Presidents, Mission organizations, Sessions, and leaders at all levels are the ones who need to cast a compelling Biblical vision and to lay out a plan by which cross cultural ministry should and can take place. Leadership, when done well, enables people to make sacrifices for a greater goal; it does not simply pander to their fears or comfort.
Leadership sees the future and is able to integrate the past into a progressive plan that preserves Biblical principle and values while engaging new opportunities. Good leadership looks around their institution and sees what he or she doesn’t have and who or what is missing. Good leadership will pursue the recruiting, the training, giving of scholarships, the inclusion, the raising to partnership levels of leadership, the proactive pursuit of door opening for gifted minority individuals. In cross cultural ministry we are forced to love our neighbors as ourselves and as John Calvin said there is no such thing as loving your neighbor without sacrifice. Everybody gives up something to gain something more in ministries of reconciliation.
7. BENIGN GEOGRAPHICAL SEPARATION – There are people who cannot readily participate in cross cultural ministry because they live in a place where there is just “them” Sometimes of course this is not really true because they have refused to see the Indian reservation or the trailer park or the migrant camp not too far away. Yet, we know there are those folks who are not going to start a bus ministry that goes two hundred miles. If you live in a place where no one is different from you, and you didn’t go there to get away from the rest of us, well then please pray for the rest of the church of Jesus Christ. Pray that we would stop running away from our future, which is to be with all these other kind of folks around the throne of heaven, where all our fears of losing, or desires to win against others, or to be self-authenticated will finally be eradicated, expiated, and propitiated from and for us by the blood of the Lamb who was slain.