Last week I began a description of the eighth strategic principle I have observed in effective disciple-making churches: Culturally Appropriate. Did you notice that the first part came out a day later than normal? I was trying to be culturally flexible and not my typical American Type A personality self. To be perfectly honest, the constraints of my calendar forced me to try and be “comfortable” with being late.
In my July 6th article where I introduced the eight principles, I pointed out that I have observed them in very diverse contexts: church planting, church revitalization, international missions, and inner-city ministry. I return to that reality to share with you that in these diverse cultural contexts application of these principles looked very different. A few weeks ago I was visiting with an effective disciple-maker who works in an inner-city ministry setting. He had recently been exposed to several individuals who were serving in a suburban context. Not knowing I was doing an article on culturally appropriate, he shared with me an “aha!” moment he had as he realized that how he was making disciples was—and needed to be—very different from how others were doing it. God’s timing is always perfect.
As we all seek to minister more effectively among our new immigrant communities, let me describe some missional concepts related to the culturally appropriate strategy.
● An important concept we have to keep in mind is Worldview. In this case I am not speaking of specifically of having a “Biblical” worldview. Here, I am referring to the reality that every culture will differ in how they do life. Worldview is a profile of the way the people within a specific culture live, act, think, work, and relate. It is a "map" of a culture's social, religious, economic and political views and relationships. A person’s worldview is so deeply engrained that we assume it is “the right way” to do life. There are issues that can and do impact how we relate and share the gospel with individuals whose worldview is different than ours. Understanding what is cultural and what is Biblical is not easy. Too often in our missionary enterprises we have exported as much culture as we have Gospel.
● A big issue for Americans is one I “jokingly” referred to above: We are a time conscious culture to a fault. When I add a personality quirk that requires me to maximize every minute, I end up doing time and motion studies to make sure I’m not too early (wasting time) but never late to appointments (disrespecting people). Contrast that with the majority of cultures in the world where they are just a little bit more laid back. As we are working with immigrants, we have to be willing to slow down, be genuinely interested in knowing who they are, understand why they are here, ask how we can pray for them, and ask how we can help them adapt in our country. In short, we have to practice Relational Evangelism.
● Another biggie is that cultures will vary in how they balance individual rights and responsibilities with the rights and responsibilities of the group. In America, that balance has historically been heavy on the individual rights side of the spectrum. For us rugged American individualism types from Wyoming, we are struggling as that pendulum has been swinging slowly but consistently towards the needs of the whole. An all too fresh—and very controversial—example is the tension between an individual’s right to go without a mask and without a vaccination versus the desires of the group to live without being exposed to another person’s germs.
A few years ago, I flew to a meeting and took a taxi to and from the motel. On both trips I had drivers from Eritrea and as you would suspect, I engaged the drivers in conversation. In response to what they found different in America, I will never forget that both of them talked about how hard they had to work to make a living. One expressly stated that at home he had a wealthy uncle that provided for family members. To make disciples in cultures which place a very high value on caring for family and friends it will help if we understand there will be individuals in those cultures who serve as Gatekeepers.
Missionaries sometimes call these individuals a Person of Peace (Luke 10:6). In the book of Acts we see that the centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10), and the seller of purple, Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), were individuals who opened the door to the gospel in their cultural settings. Gatekeepers can be spiritually open to the gospel themselves as were Cornelius and Lydia or they can be uninterested but non restrictive permission-givers granting us access and favor with the people in that culture.
Another excellent Biblical example of a Gatekeeper is that of Crispus in Corinth. Paul encountered significant resistance from the Jewish community (which was not unusual) but Crispus’ acceptance of the Gospel opened a significant door for belief.
They opposed him and blasphemed, he shook his garments and said to them, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he departed from there and entered the house of a certain man named Justus, one who worshiped God, whose house was next door to the synagogue. Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized. (Acts 18:6-8)
● Along with the concept of “Person of Peace,” missionaries are taught to look for Bridges and Barriers to the gospel within a particular culture. A Bridge is something within in a culture that provides a natural and easy avenue for sharing the Gospel. Barriers can be either cultural or political and at times will include both. I will share some specific examples of each in next week’s article.
In the last two articles I have pointed to some of the Biblical passages and some missional concepts related to the culturally appropriate strategic principle. Next week I will give some specific examples of how these can be applied in our day-to-day world
So far we have discussed the relational, transformational, accountability, self-sacrificing, equipping/reproduction, alignment, and intentional/proactive principles that I have observed in effective disciple-making churches. This article will focus on the Culturally Appropriate Principle. This was the last strategic principle I encountered. As a preacher, I was more than content with seven, after all it is the Biblical number of completeness and perfection.
However, when I had the privilege of sharing my list of seven principles with Jim Slack over dinner at a missions conference in central Missouri, he was very affirming of my list, but he also very quickly (and appropriately so) said you missed one: culturally appropriate. Slack passed away in late 2018. At the time he was described as “An unassuming man always in good humor, who became one of Southern Baptists’ most influential missiologists during a 50-year career with the International Mission Board.” A phrase he often used was “Hello World!” It was his enthusiastic greeting to coworkers and his exclamation whenever he learned something new.
“Hello world” is an appropriate introduction to the culturally appropriate principle. Not since the late 1800s has the United States experienced the level of immigration that we have seen take place in the last twenty years. The earlier immigration peak shifted the Christian culture in America as Catholics and Lutherans flooded into the country. In particular, they shaped the upper Midwest where they homesteaded and established (platted out) city after city and started hundreds of churches. Baptist churches existed in Nebraska long before a single Catholic or Lutheran church was established, but by the early 1900s Catholics and Lutherans made up the vast majority of our residents. Prior to that immigration period, the US was overwhelmingly Protestant. By the end of that period, the Roman Catholic Church was the largest denomination in America.
Current immigration patterns along with cultural shifts are quickly transforming us from a Christian nation into a secular, religiously pluralistic country. That reality will only expand as we bring a huge number of Afghans, who are predominantly Muslim, into our nation. Those of us who grew up in Christian culture are being faced with the reality that we must adopt the practices of the Apostle Paul.
To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews…to those who are without the law, as without law…to the weak I became weak…I became all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I Corinthians 9:20-22
A question we need to be asking is, “How do these significant changes impact our disciple-making process?” Let me suggest a couple of answers.
1. We have to realize that we will connect best with those who share our cultural background. Part of the strategy Paul used in the book of Acts was to begin at the local synagogue where he told his Jewish brethren that their long-awaited Messiah had come (Acts 13:5-6, 14-15, etc.). He built upon the foundation of a common culture and saw God establish churches everywhere he went.
2. But we can’t stop there. We have to develop a heart for all people. Acts describes the slow shift that took place as the early church began to slowly and hesitatingly understand
Jesus’ statement, “You shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
4. We must also be willing to adapt when we find ourselves in a cross-cultural setting. Paul did this in Athens where he addressed the elite on Mars’ Hill using an inscription on an altar that read “to the unknown god.” As is true of every encounter with someone far from God, Paul had a mixed response: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘We will hear you again on this matter.’ So Paul departed from among them. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (Acts 17:18-34).
Although it is the last principle I will discuss, it is definitely not the least important. In fact, changes in our culture demand a further expansion on this point. So stay tuned as I expand my comments next week.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Mark is in his twenty-seventh year of serving as an Associational Missions Strategist. He served in western Iowa for almost eight years, and is in his nineteenth year with HCN. He has a passion to see pastors and church leaders grow in their abilities to lead their churches. He continues to have a heart and desire to see new churches planted and God continues to use his strategic thinking skills in this area. Mark also has a wealth of experience in helping churches clarify who God has created them to be, and what they can do best to reach their community. He has had ample opportunities to help churches in times of conflict, and has seen God do exciting things to restore a spirit of harmony, returning churches to a time of fruitfulness. He also helps churches in transition by working with search committees. Mark and Phyllis who were married in November of 2018 have four children and three grandchildren. They will enjoy their combined 87th anniversary in just a few days.