Cross-Cultural Ministry

January 2010

Well, I would just like to share some thoughts today with everyone. I was thinking the other day about how ministry is to be conducted in a cross-cultural setting (in our case the Alaskan Eskimo villages). I was listening to a podcast the other day that looked at how the apostle Paul’s writings explain his approach in cross-cultural ministry. In Acts 17 Paul reaches the postmodern idolatrous city of Athens. By the way, it is interesting that our whole postmodern society today is not something brand new, but has existed in our history past. As Paul enters the city, his heart is torn with a burden for the people who are riddled with a myriad of vain, idolatrous religious beliefs. The Athenians were a group of people who were extremely interested in new thoughts, philosophies, and religious ideas.They seemed to encourage a setting of tolerance in these matters.  I would imagine it to be something like today’s urban university coffee shop setting where a multiplicity of philosophical and spiritual ideas are read and openly discussed all under the blanket of peace and tolerance. So here we have Paul coming to these people as he uses some of their own writings and ideas to proclaim to them the error of their ways and the hope they can have in the gospel. The podcast then explained how cross-cultural work should continually be concerned with areas of culture that must be received, rejected, and finally redeemed.

I thought this was a helpful for our future Alaskan ministry, but really for all of us as we are continually confronted with varying cultures. I mean, how many of us can sit down and actually explain some defining characteristics of our own culture (wherever we live)? What aspects of your culture can be received and need to be identified with…and what aspects need to be rejected and ultimately redeemed? Does that make sense?

Here’s what I mean: As Paul went into Athens there were aspects of that culture to which he was able to identify. Identification with some aspects of culture is not only acceptable, but is necessary for any ministry endeavor. It shows the people of that culture that you genuinely care about their perspective and their heritage. It is also very logical as God’s universal Word is carried throughout the world to people living amidst the world’s various cultures. God’s Word must not be compromised, but it also can and must be contextualized to the culture and people group where it is being taught. Some are hesitant about that term, contextualization. By contextualization I do not mean adapting doctrine to culture, but rather the non-doctrinal rudimentary levels of life to culture. In this way we as Christ-followers should seek to be culturally relevant. Learning the common language of the people is one obvious example of identifying and receiving aspects of your targeted culture. Understanding and even partaking in certain cultural festivals would be another form of contextualization. Knowing and taking the time to understand their writings, their stories, and the way they communicate and think is also essential in contextualization. By Paul using the Athenians’ own poetry writings (that was central to their well-schooled society), he identified with them on their terms. Now, obviously there were aspects of their idolatrous culture that needed to be rejected. These are the aspects that Paul could not identify with nor condone, and in fact, these are the very aspects that needed to be redeemed.

As we prepare to enter the Eskimo villages of Alaska, it will be absolutely critical for us to identify elements of their culture to which we can receive and contextualize our lives and our message. Rather than just moving into a village, hanging up a sign, and starting services, we are passionate about taking time to identify ourselves with the local culture of the people (where we become active in the local community). Of course, holding services and doing typical ministry things is vital; however, we also want to do ministry in a way that makes sense to the local people and where the church is not viewed as our church, but their church.

The second crucial aspect to ministering to a target culture is identifying those areas of culture that must be rejected. When Paul entered and observed the idolatrous aspects of Athenian culture, he did not try to receive and contextualize the gospel in this regard, but instead rejected their idolatry. As we endeavor to be ambassadors in Alaska (or wherever really), we must guard against the tendency to receive and contextualize everything or at least too much. All people everywhere have earned wages that fall short from God’s standard of holiness. Therefore, all cultures will fundamentally have some aspects of depravity, aspects that we must be very careful to identify and reject. The core doctrines of God’s Word must not be compromised. There are some things that are just worth fighting for…God as Creator of all things, Christ’s death, His resurrection, His Deity, salvation by faith alone, sealing work of the Holy Spirit, the eternal state, etc. Satan is the father of all lies and we as fallen humanity are deprave in our sin apart from our God. We therefore are naturals of creating our own fallen versions (or beliefs) of salvation, eternal life, or purpose in life. It is these kinds of core doctrinal issues that we must be willing to uphold. We must learn to continually be on guard and willing to reject our target culture’s elements of depravity.

As we enter the Alaskan Eskimo culture, we must continually be aware of areas of culture that need to be rejected. These areas are then not just rejected for the sake of rejecting, but for the ultimate purpose of redemption. For example, in America the individual is king. We are told that we can have it our own way and that if we believe in our heart enough, then anything can be possible. This is a crucial aspect to the rugged American individual culture. This would be something in American culture that must be rejected and ultimately redeemed through pointing people beyond themselves to Jesus. It is these kinds of cultural aspects that we all must continually be aware (whether in the Alaskan bush or in Chicago).

The final aspect to contextualizing ministry to a target culture is the need for redemption. The redeem aspect flows right out of the reject aspect. Notice how the apostle Paul rejected the idolatry of Athens, but simultaneously fought for redemption of these same rejected aspects. In the latter half of Acts 17 Paul points out their well-intentioned, but wrong worship of religious pluralism. He noticed that they were very religious and tolerant, almost to a superstitious point (so much so that they had an altar to the unknown god). He then attempts to redeem their idolatry by proclaiming God as Creator, man as sinner, and salvation as exclusive through faith in Christ’s work of righteousness, death, and, resurrection.

This final aspect of redemption is vitally important because it is the culminating goal of the entire process. So whatever cultural context we live in, we must learn to develop this kind of 3-point study in our attempt to bring God’s message to the cultures of the world. What aspects of our culture need to be received, rejected, and finally redeemed? The goal of all things: redemption back to our Holy Creator God through the His grace and the salvific work of Christ!

Note: for more information on receiving and identifying with culture, Jeremiah 28 & 29 is fascinating. I am planning on studying these texts more in the future, but I think they would be beneficial for us all. Boy, that’s a profound statement…any text of Scripture is beneficial! Seriously, though they seem cool. In a nutshell, God instructs His exiled people (suddenly now living in a foreign culture) to do life in the midst of their new setting. In fact, they were to seek the welfare of the city and in so doing, their own welfare. Now, God also balances things here by warning Israel about intermarrying and mixing with Babylon’s idolatrous beliefs and practices. There is a great balance seen here between contextualizing and contending. Anyway…food for thought and study.

I know this got a bit long, but I hope it is helpful,

Derek