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
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.