Nearly a decade has passed since I first heard the United States referred to as “the most multi-cultural nation state in the world” during an evangelism presentation. That phrase sent my mind racing back to biblical times to the church at Antioch. Unlike Jerusalem, the epicenter of Jewish Christianity, Antioch was mélange of diverse cultures. While the presence of the temple and Torah imposed a strong Jewish influence on Christianity in Jerusalem, Jewish and Gentile cultures shaped Christianity in Antioch.
Paul and Peter pioneered the terrain that lay before infant Christianity. What had been a religion exclusive to Jewish converts was expanding to believing Gentiles. When diverse cultures and ethnicities huddle around religious matters, had questions come.
What is essential Christianity and what is cultural preference? On what can we compromise? Who mediates? Who decides? Who has the final say?
Paul, with his cosmopolitan background, handled diversity better than Peter did. Galatians 2:11-14 reveals a classic Christ versus culture clash.
11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
The believers at Antioch were beginning to learn how to bridge the cultural divide. We must remember that believers at Antioch were the first to be called Christians. Unfortunately, voices of dissent (“men from James”) gradually persuaded Peter to promote culture first and then Christianity. For this acquiescence, Paul “opposed him to his face” (Galatians 2:11b NIV).
Becoming Culturally Bilingual
What transformed Paul from zealous “Pharisee of the Pharisees” to “Apostle to the Gentiles”? The answer lies in Paul’s life-changing confrontations to his personal beliefs.
First, the Lord confronted Paul (then Saul) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-5). The converting encounter with Christ begins the transformation necessary to do multicultural ministry.
Next, Paul had to rely upon Ananias, a Christian, for help when Paul was struck blind. In both cases, Paul experienced humiliation that ultimately led to personal humility and openness toward others different from himself.
Paul also endured death threats by Jews in Damascus (Acts 9:23-25) and rejection by Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26). Finally, at Pisidian, Antioch, Paul accepted a ministry focus to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46-47).
Learning to become culturally bi-lingual takes time, intentional interactions and self-imposed humility.
Contact with Fellowship
Curtis DeYoung, noted author and professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University, is a European American who learned how to interact with people different from himself by attending an African American church in Harlem. DeYoung states, “The key experiential transformation for me was attending an African-American congregation and learning about church in another kind of way and from another perspective. It so enriched my life that I simply didn’t want to go back” (Faith and Leadership interview, http://www.faithandleadership.com/qa/curtiss-deyoung-the-early-church-reconciliation)
Following his church experiences in Harlem, DeYoung attended Howard University at an historic African American institution. These encounters enabled DeYoung to learn to function cross-culturally with integrity. DeYoung practiced what renowned theologian/philosopher Howard Thurman called “contact with fellowship”.
The Power of Personal Encounters
Paul’s personal encounters undoubtedly influenced him and sensitized him to the plight of the marginalized. Each experience prepared Paul to relate to Gentiles with authentic care and concern. The same can be said of DeYoung and his experiences. Personal encounters—particularly ones in which you are the minority—prepare you to see the world through different lenses. Just as you can learn a foreign language through immersion, you can learn to be culturally bi-lingual through immersion.
What has Prepared You for Cross-Cultural Ministry?
Before diving headlong into multi-cultural ministry, read Acts 9 and ask yourself some hard questions.
1. What life-changing encounters with Jesus Christ have prepared me for multi-cultural ministry?2. How have I changed because of these encounters? (Be specific.)
3. How often do I interact with people from different ethnic groups?
4. What is the nature of these interactions?
- Work—as co-workers or supervisor or subordinate?
- School—as classmate or teacher?
- Personal—acquaintance or close friend?
- Dating or marriage relationship?
5. What have I learned from these interactions?
6. What barriers do I think exist within a particular ethnic group with regard to people from my ethnic group? (Choose a specific group for discussion.) How might I overcome these barriers?
7. What bridges (commonalities) exist between my ethnic group and another ethnic group?
8. Am I committed enough to multi-cultural ministry to endure rejection, personal suffering, and sacrifice?
Discover Your Cultural Preferences
Much of what we call culture revolves around what we value and how we do things. Terms such as style or method can also help us discover what our culture deems important. Some cultures value spontaneous worship while others prefer tradition and contemplation. Some cultures prefer teaching that emphasizes fact and empirical data, while others prefer personal application and transformation. Some cultures prefer apolitical sermons, while others prefer social commentary and activism.
When one culture dictates the sole terms that govern Christianity, multi-cultural ministry stalls. Ask hard questions whenever you reach an impasse.
Multi-cultural ministry poses great challenges and tremendous rewards. It also requires us to determine whether we are promoting more culture than Christ. Peter and Paul stand as constant reminders of how to fail or succeed at multi-cultural ministry. Encounter Christ, immerse yourself in another people’s culture and ask the hard questions; then evaluate your readiness to lead a multi-cultural ministry.