One of the most difficult principles of New Testament Christianity to communicate is a cross-cultural ministry. We’ve bought the lie of church growth ‘experts’ that it is impossible to crossover cultural lines and build a church that is a picture of diversity. Most believers would agree that God divided the races at the tower of Babel. At Pentecost, God allowed people from many nations and dialects to hear the gospel in their own language. People who were once divided and separated were now united to hear the good news.
Paul said in his letter to the Colossians, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” (Col. 3: 10,l1). The greatest example I know of a cross-cultural ministry in America is the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Pastor Jim Cymbala, who is white, has built one of the great churches of America. If you visit the church, you’ll see thousands of believers in a church that looks like a Biblical rainbow coalition. You’ll meet people of all races, and economic backgrounds. Visiting Brooklyn Tabernacle is the closest that I’ve come to getting a small glimpse into the book of Acts.
Go to any community in America. Start with yours, or mine. You’ll find an all white church in one section of town. You’ll find an all black church on the other side of town. You’ll probably be able to find a Hispanic, Korean or Vietnamese church. Some of these churches are growing. There’s only one problem. There’s no Biblical basis for it. I can’t find one place in the Bible where God said His church is supposed to be culturally or racially divided. That makes no more sense than starting one church for Democrats and another church for Republicans. The church is not about preferences. It’s about principles.
While we’ve learned to work together during the week, rarely do we worship together. We have grown accustomed to relating to people of other races in school and at work. We cheer for athletes of a different color. We attend sporting events with people of all races. But on Sunday morning, we go our separate ways. The Sunday church service in America is the most segregated hour in the week.
A cross-cultural ministry is nothing new, at least it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, in many parts of our land, it’s on the extinction list. To even suggest it could cost a minister his job. In one part of the country, the issue might be blacks and whites. In another section of our land, it could be Native Americans and whites. Name the region and you can name the cross-cultural issue. In God’s Word, you find what the church was supposed to be like in the book of Acts. Yes, there were problems bringing two cultures together. In Acts six we read of the problem with the Greek speaking widows. They didn’t think they were being treated fairly. The apostles did not recommend that the church split and start, “First Church of the Greek Speakers” and have another congregation, “Harmony Church for Our Kind.” No! They appointed godly men, full of the spirit and wisdom and faith to work out the issues and deal with the problem. The result? The church kept growing. They learned to live with one another. They learned to get along. There’s a novel idea…People in the church getting along. Imagine that! The church in Acts chose deacons who were equipped to fix problems.
Forgive me for sounding naive, but I still believe in the Word of God and the power of the Spirit to change lives. I think Acts was given to us for a reason. It’s more than a history lesson. It’s a guidebook. It teaches us that in Christ there is no slave or free, Jew or Gentile. In Acts six, you have the Jews and Hellenistic Jews worshiping together. In Acts eight, Philip goes to Samaria. Now you’ve got two groups who hate each other worshiping the same God. Then Philip shares the gospel with an Ethiopian, an African.
Peter shares the gospel with a Roman centurion, Cornelius. God didn’t ask Peter if he liked Romans. He didn’t ask him if he wanted to pray about it. He told him to go! God is not interested in debating this issue. He simply wants obedience.
If that’s not enough, God saved Paul on the Damascus Road. Now the church is stuck with a former persecutor. God has the audacity to expect these new believers to sit on a pew with one who formerly persecuted them. It’s possible Paul would sit in worship beside someone he had once persecuted. Maybe he sat by Stephen’s family. Do you think the church was comfortable those first few Sundays? I doubt it. Amazing isn’t it.
God didn’t ask for their opinion on the matter.
That may not sound practical to people who believe sociologists more than the Spirit, but it is Biblical? It may sound unreasonable, unless you believe in the power of God to change lives and hearts. I believe the Holy Spirit empowers us to move beyond our prejudices and preconceived ideas. After all, it was a Jew who saved me.
When Paul entered a city to begin a new church, he never said, “Okay, Jews meet at this building and Gentiles meet over there. Slaves, you go to church here. Masters, we’re starting a church where you will feel more comfortable being with your own economic and social group.” Pardon me for trying to read Paul’s mind, but here’s what I think he taught – and led the new Christians to do. “Okay, Jews and Gentiles, Slave and free, rich and poor, let’s worship. I know you aren’t use to socializing and fraternizing, but now that the Holy Spirit has come, you can figure it out.”
Maybe that sounds a little radical to you. Maybe it is. Some would say it’s unrealistic, Others would call it impractical. Why? I believe because we are scared to get out of our comfort zone. If we were honest, we carry the baggage of social prejudice and profiling into our churches. I’ve heard all the stuff about how people of similar backgrounds and interests are better suited to worship together. There’s a Greek word for that mentality, “Nonsense.”
You do your own study, but let’s take a brief walk through the pages of the Bible and see what God has to say about cross-cultural ministries. I’m not trying to play Holy Spirit here, I’m just asking you to read the Word and see for yourself how God has, throughout history, crossed lines for the sake of the gospel.
Go back to the gospels for a moment. Samaritans and Jews hated each other. Jesus said, ‘I must go through Samaria.’ It was the greatest revival of his three-year ministry. The Jews considered Samaritans as half breeds. When they would travel from Judea to Galilee, they would go around Samaria. Jesus went through it. He upset the culture, He didn’t let prejudice keep him from a divine appointment.
Over and over we see examples of people who were willing to take a risk. We find those who were determined to obey God and cross man made barriers. It required that they move out of their comfort zone. Why? One, they were obeying God. Two, they were being used by God for His glory. The facts are in black and white. God has, throughout history, chosen to color outside the lines and cross man-made barriers to reach people.
What is it that keeps us from being cross-cultural in our thinking? You’ve probably heard something like this: “I’m from the old school. I’ve been this way all my life. I’m too old to change. It’s just the way I am. I don’t hate other folks. I just don’t want to go to church with them.” Ken Hutcherson, an African American pastor responds, “I know the name of that ‘old school,’ because I took some classes there too. It’s called Flesh University! You can rename sin anything you want, but it’s still sin. It’s time we stopped making excuses. It’s time we stopped throwing up a smoke screen of ‘tradition’ and started being obedient to God’s Word.” By the way, his church is 60-70% white.
The church I presently serve is located in the deep south and is predominantly white. Over the last ten years, we’ve begun to cross lines and build bridges. Ours is a divided community but we are seeking to build a church that brings people together. It was a milestone moment when we ordained our first African American deacon. We now have people of other cultures on our praise team and in leadership. While our numbers are few, we’ve broken the barrier. This is not an overnight process, but it is a process that can be started. The church needs to line up with Scripture not sociology.
Now, I’ll be honest. This type of ministry is not easy. This attitude is not easy. I was raised in Mississippi. I witnessed people of other races being refused service. I don’t know what it’s like to be told you can’t use a restroom because of your color. I do know this — that’s not Jesus! That’s nothing but fleshly arrogance, pride and self righteousness.
Peter thought he was too good to go to a Gentile, until God got his attention. God needs to get our attention on this issue.
To get your church involved in cross-cultural ministries will take time. Let me make a few suggestions before you rush out and tell your church, ‘Starting today, we’re going to be a cross-cultural church!” You can be Biblical and naive. This kind of change will not happen overnight. God’s timing is everything, in the book of Acts and now. This is no time to make excuses. This is the time to make an impact, to seek the Lord and to find your direction in the Word. Let me make a few practical suggestions.
One, go slow. Don’t push people into this kind of change, People resist this thinking by nature. Only through time and allowing the Word of God to speak to their heart will they see the picture. Two, seek the wisdom of your godly leadership. You can’t take people where they don’t want to go. You can’t roll a boulder uphill by yourself. Three, ask God to make the need obvious. Survey your community. Study the area around your church. Four, learn how to relate to other cultures. Get to know a fellow pastor of another nationality or race. Five, talk about missions. You can’t justify sending monies to save the lost in third world countries and at the same time, be closed minded to cross-cultural ministry.
As a leader, you will have to decide where you stand on this issue. My goal here is not to play Holy Spirit. My goal is to simply throw out an idea and give you some Biblical support for the idea. I’m glad the mother of Moses didn’t say, I refuse to trust Egyptians to take care of my child. I’m glad Jonah came to his senses and said, “I’m going to Nineveh.” I’m glad Peter didn’t say, I don’t do Gentiles. I’m glad Jesus didn’t say, I don’t do Samaritans. I’m glad the Samaritan didn’t say, I don’t help Jews. I’m glad Hudson Taylor didn’t say, I don’t talk to Chinese. I’m glad Jesus didn’t say, I’ve come for the Jews only. Aren’t you glad our God is color blind? What if the sovereign God of heaven had a built-in prejudice against people like you – or me? We would be lost and without hope!
©2001 MCC This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use.
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Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.