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.