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
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.
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