This is part 3 of a series of blog posts entitled “What is a Missions-Minded Church?”
If you visit a number of fundamental churches, you will encounter a nearly equal number of definitions for the term “a missions-minded church.” None of them are necessarily bad, but many of them are just based on human opinion. Does the Bible give guidance on what it takes to be missions-minded? It is the purpose of this series of seven blog posts to look at Acts 13:1-4 – the first mention of a sending church and its missionaries - to compare it with other Scripture, and to attempt to give this phrase a Biblical definition.
In parts 1 and 2, we examined two facts that ought to be obvious, but are worth examining because they are put to practice far less than we imagine. Combined together we can say that a “missions-minded” church is a LOCAL CHURCH that captures that mindset from the BIBLICAL PREACHING AND TEACHING on the heartbeat of God for world evangelism.
This post will examine the idea that a "Missions-minded church" is…
INTERCULTURAL IN ITS EXPERIENCE
Acts 13:1 – “…there were in the church that was at Antioch … Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.”
Where do we get the idea of INTERCULTURAL EXPERIENCE from this passage?
First of all, Antioch of Syria (also called Antioch on the Orontes) was the 2nd largest and the most culturally diverse city in the Roman Empire. It was culturally diverse because of its geography and history. It was the most northeasterly port in the Mediterranean and was at the crossroads of two major highways coming from Europe, the Silk Road coming from China and India, the Persian Royal Highway coming from Mesopotamia, and the Kings Highway coming from Egypt and Israel. All of this made for a very culturally diverse city which certainly affected the church there.
From its history, we find that there was an original settlement in this area of a Semitic tribe possibly related to either the Canaanite or Assyrian culture. The city itself was founded by a Greek general, Seleucus I, after the death of Alexander the Great. It was named for his son, Antiochus, and was the capital of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire until its capture by the Romans. As a side note, seven generations after Seleucus I, Antiochus IV (“Epiphanes”) was the Seleucid Emperor that defiled the temple and was resisted by the Maccabees during the intertestamental period.
From Acts 11, we learn that Jews, who were chased out of Jerusalem by the persecution following the stoning of Stephen, went as far as Antioch. It is interesting that this passage specifically lists that the Jews that went to Antioch were from Cyprus and Cyrene (proselytes?) and that they witnessed to Greeks. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke specifically mentions three differing cultures present at the foundation of this church! We also learn from Acts 11 that this is the birthplace of the word “Christian” (“little Christ” or “Christ follower”). Furthermore, we read that the church of Jerusalem sent prophets to the church of Antioch, adding another cultural element in the mix.
Because of the importance of the church of Antioch for many centuries, church historians often call it, “the cradle of Christianity.”
What a great variety of cultures in this city because of its history and geography! And what a great variety in the original church there, guided by the sovereign hand of God Himself!
Secondly, we see that the leadership team of the church was itself was culturally diverse. We have:
“Barnabas”—a Hellenistic Jew from Cyprus. (Acts 4:36)
“Simeon, that was called Niger” – Niger means “black-skinned one.” Most likely, he was of African descent with either a sub-Saharan or Nubian (southern Nile) cultural background.
“Lucius of Cyrene” – Cyrene is a coastal city in what is present-day Libya. It was a Roman colony founded by Greece and a combination of Greek and Egyptian in culture.
“Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch” - . Herod, the tetrarch (also known as Herod Antipas) was the son of Herod the Great, an Edomite, and a Samaritan woman. Therefore, he and Manaen were probably a unique blend of these two cultures.
“Saul, of Tarsus” – He describes himself in Philippians 3 as a Jew of the Jews and a Pharisee of the Pharisees. Yes, a Roman citizen born in Tarsus, but a Benjamite Jew raised in Jerusalem and taught by the great Jewish rabbi, Gamaliel.
This group in and of itself would have had some great intercultural problems to overcome were it not for the grace of God. Pharisees considered Hellenistic Jews to be compromisers. Jews hated Edomites and Samarians. Talmudic law, a big part of Saul’s upbringing, would have prohibited him from being in a room with an Arab. Then throw an African into the mix!
And not just the prejudices, but all the cultural differences – heart languages, foods, greetings, etc. – implied by the diversity in this leadership team would have presented some unique challenges. Challenges many would refuse to face.
But because of the grace of God and a dedication to a higher purpose—the glory of God and the spread of the gospel – they overcame these prejudices and differences to forge a strong leadership team which allowed the church at Antioch to become one the strongest churches of the day, a church with a truly multicultural experience, and the first center for missionary activity.
Yet sadly, in modern day America, “the melting pot of the world,” we don’t see cultural diversity in our churches! Could it be that we are not allowing the grace of God and the higher purpose of His glory and the spread of the gospel to impact our lives the way it should? Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked in the early 60’s, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, the same hour when many are standing to sing: "In Christ There Is No East Nor West.”
In 2015, Lifeway Research, Christianity Today, and even secular institutions like Virginia Tech did follow-ups on this statement by MLK, Jr. and found that over 50 years later most American churches were still extremely homogenous, ethnically speaking, and satisfied with that state.
(inclusion of links to these articles does not imply the agreement of the author or of Adelphos-USA with everything these articles say or what the represented institutions stand for, or do. It is done to demonstrate that scholarly research has been done on this topic)
It is not the point of this post to examine whether this is ethnic superiority (active racism) or ethnic complacency (passive racism) at play. It is the point of this article to say that our churches should be multi-ethnic in composition and outreach because we should believe the Bible when it says:
1. “And [He] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth…” (Acts 17:26)
There is only one race, the human race. Albert Barnes comments, “It follows also from this, that no one nation, and no individual, can claim any pre-eminence over others in virtue of birth or blood. All are in this respect equal; and the whole human family, however they may differ in complexion, customs, and laws, are to be regarded and treated as brethren.”
2. The Greek word “ethnos” occurs 152 times in our New Testament and while it is most commonly translated “nation” in the KJV, it is not referring to a political unit as we think of “nations” but it rather speaks to cultural groups. God commands us to publish the gospel in ALL “ethnos” (Mark 13:10) and make disciples of ALL “ethnos” (Matthew 28:19), et al. Our heart and mind should be focused toward the evangelism of EVERY culture because that is God’s heartbeat.
3. Ephesians 2:14 says, “For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us…”
The context of Ephesians 2 is the wall between Gentile and Jew, which was erected by the Jews in spite of clear direction throughout the Old Testament (see post 2 in this series). God’s truth should break down the walls of prejudice, xenophobia, racism, etc., that we have created.
And I believe the pattern of Acts 13, as well as what we see of the other churches in the New Testament, demonstrates that all churches should be multicultural in their approach to local evangelism as well as world-wide missions.
To intentionally avoid this multicultural experience is sin.
But I hasten to say that a lack of multicultural experience is most often not caused by an intentional avoidance, but rather by oversight. We’re either comfortable where we are or we just don’t know any better. We haven’t educated ourselves in cultural anthropology. But doesn’t the preponderance of the word “ethnos” in Scripture behoove us to become students of culture so that we can reach out to ALL “ethnos?” Yes, as in any area of biblical obedience, we must be intentional.
We must intentionally:
A. Strive to reflect the cultural mix of our area
We planted a church in an upper middle class section of Santiago, Chile. In our "suburb," AND in our church,we had Chileans, Argentinians, Peruvians, Germans, and of course, Americans. We intentionally tried to reach all of these groups.
This last March, I had the privilege of attending an intentionally multi-cultural church in the Dallas Metropolitan area of Texas – Ethnos Bible Church. It is in a multi-ethnic neighborhood comprised of whites, Hispanics, and Mandarin Chinese. The pastor, Pablo Morales, is a Chilean (the son of Adelphos’ first missionaries) who lived in Mexico, and came to school in the United States. His wife is an American who grew up as a MK in Thailand. Pablo is finishing up his doctorate and the dissertation is on an intentional strategy for being a multi-ethnic church. It is full of great ideas. I hope to be able to share a review with you when it is published and I hope it becomes available for all to purchase.
Again, I think the key word here is INTENTIONAL. This doesn't happen by accident or even just because we wish it would. We must be intentional in having a multi-cultural congregation. Here are a few ideas on how to do this:
1. Do some cultural studies. Apply them to the way you think. Teach your people to do likewise.
Just as one example, as you know, our (American) culture emphasizes time and punctuality. Another culture in your area may emphasize relationships and greetings. How would you handle this situation? Insist on the American "be seated and ready to go at 10:45 sharp.?" Let the greetings go and lose all of your Sunday School time? Or come up with an alternative satisfactory to everyone? Your answer reveals your level of understanding of cultural differences and sensitivity to a multicultural approach to ministry.
For your studies, may I suggest the following books:
From Sherwood Lingenfelter – Agents of Transformation: A Guide to Effective Cross-Cultural Ministry, Transforming Culture: A Challenge for Christian Mission, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships.
By Duane Elmer – Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry
By Paul G. Hiebert – Incarnational Ministry
By Eugene Nida – Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions
This is just a starter list. This is a broad subject that must be studied and built into our churches.
2. Look at your church and determine which practices are biblical and which are cultural…and what cultural embellishments do our biblical practices have attached to them?
Be willing to get rid of, or at least modify some of the cultural baggage that the church has.
And as a person who grew up in, and has never left Independent Fundamental circles, may I say that we have a terrible time with dumping tradition and cultural baggage? There is a difference between cultural baggage and biblical practice. I am NOT saying compromise on doctrine or change biblical practice. I am saying that after studying culture we need to examine ourselves and dump or modify cultural practices in a way that helps doctrine and biblical practice be more open to a variety of ethnicities in our area of ministry.
3. Do some demographic studies of your area. Unless you are a recent arrival, you should already know your area, but still avail yourself of the studies that are available. The census bureau and other government and civic organizations in your area will have demographic information about the local “races” and ethnicities.
Please remember that there are many ethnicities within a "race." For instance, don't assume that all Hispanics think alike. Chilean culture is distinct from Mexican culture in many ways, even though they speak the same language and have some similarities. Don’t be insensitive and lump everyone together just because they look the same, speak the same language or the government classifies them in the same "race."
4. At the very least you need to learn how to be truly welcoming and affirming to different ethnicities. Some churches say, “everyone is welcome” when they really mean “anyone can come as long as it’s on our cultural terms.” That is not being welcoming. We sing, “Just as I am," but we say, “meet up to our cultural standards first” with our actions and attitudes.
5. Celebrate the differences! For instance, at the church in Dallas, many of the songs we sang, we did in all three languages represented in the congregation. They also had live, real-time translation for the different languages other than English.
One thing we did at our church in Santiago was to theme our fellowship dinners, which we had one a month. For instance in July (American Independence), we had an American Cookout with hamburgers, hot dogs, etc. In September (Chilean Independence), we did an all-out Chilean feast and so on. We would also sing in the different languages from time to time. We would also talk about famous Christians from each of the countries represented in our congregation.
Celebrate the differences, don’t just tolerate, and definitely don’t ignore.
Please take note that doing the suggestions here, without a true overall change of heart is merely tokenism. And many cultures can smell tokenism a mile off. I am just trying to give a few tangible ideas to jumpstart the thinking process.
But what if your area is pretty much homogenous culturally speaking? I know this happens. I live and attend church in Pekin IL, a city of around 34,000 in the Greater Peoria Metropolitan Area. In Pekin, 82% of the residents were born in Illinois and 95.22% of the population is Caucasian. You don’t get much more homogenous than that! There are many factors that go into this, but the point is our town is almost as monocultural as an American city can get.
Well, I believe that we need to be even more intentional in order to be able to reach out to the 4.78% that aren’t “like us.” They are already uncomfortable being in the vast minority in this community. And for that very reason, we need to intentionally show them the unadulterated (read "unencumbered with cultural trappings") love of Christ. We need to make them feel welcome to our church and by the Lord.
The Local Church must also intentionally…
B. Keep the world's variety of “ethnos” (cultures) in front of the church
In order to keep the church praying for, and being interested in, missions we need to keep the different ethnicities of the world in front of them. And would it not be logical that at least some of this effort should concentrate on the over 6,600 cultures that are still unreached?
Some ideas for this:
1. Use missionary stories, especially culturally related stories as illustrations. Peace Child by Don Richardson and The Pineapple Story by Otto Koning are just a few examples. Can you think of others? Add them to the comments below.
2. Related to the previous point – When a missionary talks about “culture shock” take some time to discuss it with the people, without condemning or ridiculing either the other culture , or the missionary (unless, of course, one or the other is unbiblical). Culture shock, in and of itself, is not a failure to depend on God. It is real and it reveals just how deeply our cultural roots are ingrained, which, logically, should drive us to an even greater determination to be intentionally multi-cultural.
3. Use a prayer guide, such as one that is provided by Operation World, to help the church see the vast number of ethnicities there are. For instance, Operation World lists 488 distinct ethnicities in the United States!
4. A good way to get people to think about cultures and culture shock is through simulations. Simulations are fun activities that can be used in Sunday School or fellowship times. There are many on the internet, and a cross-cultural class or cultural anthropology class from a Bible college or missions agency might be able to steer to you some others. One example of a relatively short simulation is an exercise called Anthropologist. Click on the link in the text then click on the link that says – “The Anthropologist- A Cross Cultural activity.doc” on that page and you will get a free simulation to use.
5. Have guest preachers from different ethnicities in the church. I am not talking about American missionaries who are culturally adjusted; that should be a given. I am talking about a preacher from a different ethnicity. Then after the meeting, humbly ask that preacher the hard questions about how your church can improve in being intercultural in its mindset.
Again, these are just a few ideas to help you get started. It is not easy to wrest a church from its comfortable ethnic homogeneity and make it INTERCULTURAL IN ITS EXPERIENCE. But it is biblical and I believe results in a church with a great missions mind and heart.
Perhaps your church is already intercultural in its experience. I would love to hear from you by sharing in the comments below what you have done. Perhaps you realize the need and want to start down the road. I would be happy to pray with you and help you in any way I can. You can leave a comment below or email me.
A missions-minded church is a church with INTERCULTURAL EXPERIENCE. Are you ready to take on the challenge?
Part 4 will discuss A Church (and its members) that are Busy in the Ministry.
Endnote: I would like to thank Hyatt Moore for giving me permission to use his painting, "The Last Supper with Twelve Tribes" as the main art for this article. Hyatt Moore is a former missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators and has dedicated much of his artistry to missionary and Bible related themes. There is a hyperlink in the picture to his website and more information about his work.