The Church unanimously believes and understands that the purpose of Christians is to fulfill the great commission: to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28.18-20). There are a variety of interpretations of what exactly that means, but Jesus clearly stated that
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
– Matt 24.14
“The gospel must first be preached to all the nations.”
– Mark 13.11
We know from the Psalms, Old Testament prophecies and also from Revelation that there will be people from every tribe, tongue and nation present in eternity with Jesus (Rev 7.9).
Recently I have been reflecting on the dichotomous position that we, as American believers, hold when we think about how our churches should look and how we approach missions abroad. Most missionaries endeavor to reach a specific “People Group” or tribe. You will often hear people talk about their love for the people of a specific country like Nepal, Argentina or Kenya. And within those countries there are typically multiple languages, tribes and cultures. Wikipedia tells us that there are 122 languages spoken in Nepal, 40 in Argentina and 69 in Kenya. Many missionaries set out with a vision for a country and then pick a specific tribe or two when they arrive at their host country.
When missionaries enter host culture, they spend time learning the language, traditions and norms from that culture, and preach Jesus in a culturally contextual way. Missionaries do not try to make the host culture American, they help new believers understand their own culture how Jesus would redeem it. If a culture has a tradition that is morally neutral, it is redeemable for Christ, but if it has traditions that are of a false religion or sinful, these attributes must be surrendered to follow Christ.
We plant contextual churches, specific to language, culture, habits and geography. We even help nationals write music that sounds like their traditional music using the Psalms as lyrics or help them put their testimonies to music.
In many settings around the world, the church model is a house church. A small group with a maximum of fifteen to twenty people who love Jesus, study the word and often times meet illegally because it is against the law to follow Jesus in their countries, or meet in non-governmentally sanctioned groups.
But here in America we try to force everyone to come together, regardless of language, culture or habits. We are extremely concerned that our churches represent every ethnicity and culture in our cities or communities. We want our Sunday morning gathering to look like eternity.
Which way is right? Should we help everyone try to honor Jesus in their cultural traditions and lifestyles? Or should we try to unite everyone under one roof and build a community of diversity?
I do not have the answer.
In fact, I am not sure that there is an answer. But I do wonder why we have polar opposite vantage points when it comes to church in the west and church in the rest of the world.
The United States is a unique bird in the sense that we mostly speak the same language. So one might argue, “We all speak the same language, we are all Americans and we all have the same culture (apart from recent immigrants and refugees)”. But anyone who has moved more than a few hours from their hometown will quickly affirm that there are distinct and different cultures regionally and even throughout the variety of demographics within cities and smaller communities. Having always lived North of the Mason Dixon Line, when I started grad school in Kentucky, I was told that people thought I was rude and arrogant because I did not practice the art of small talk. Apparently in the South it is expected that you speak with everyone. You greet everyone that you pass on the street, you make small talk with cashiers, you joke with strangers in line at the store. And I, since I would go to the grocery, pick up what I needed and check myself out at the self-check out lane, was rude.
Not only that, but there were occasions when I would speak with someone and not understand the words coming out of his or her mouth. Yes, we were both speaking English, but this Philadelphia-born girl had not yet mastered the art of hearing and understanding the Kentucky draw.
This of course is news to no one. We have all enjoyed listening to and trying to imitate accents from all around the world.
So how does Jesus redeem these differences within the church?
The key is making disciples. Gathering together on Sunday morning does not make a church. A church is a group of people who are seeking to know God, pushing one another on to love, know and obey Him, and reaching the lost. Attendance on a Sunday morning does not guarantee that one is a believer or disciple. This is why most churches that are bigger than a house church have small groups where people are supposed to actually act out the disciple-making process. Yes, we learn when we sit under solid teaching. But we need the small groups to help us apply and hold accountable the teachings that we learn academically under the preacher. And in these small groups, we must be able to relate to one another culturally. We may be close-cultured (having cultures that are very similar to one another: like Philadelphia and back-woods Kentucky) or far-cultured (having extremely different cultures, like England and Saudi Arabia), but either way we must redeem our personal habits and norms for Christ, and others to do the same.
“YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.” And “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”
– Matt 22.37, 39
Loving your neighbor as yourself means understanding their culture, valuing them, and helping them to serve and honor God well. It means helping to meet their needs, encouraging them and building community with them.
We cannot build this deep community with everyone, however. We each have a limited amount of time, energy and ability. Therefore, we should each ask the Lord with whom we should connect on all levels. We must have those close relationships that hold us accountable and push us on to know and love God more. Ask Him if it is the neighbor next door, if it is a person of close or far culture, of the same color and background or vastly different. And dig in. Then, in our broader circles, we must be intentional with our outreach. We must help people understand their own cultures and how they can honor God in their lifestyles: removing the sin and glorifying God in the ways He has created them. Let’s not try to force everyone to look, sound and smell the same for the vain sake of diversity. Let us unite as we are able, and let us rejoice in the establishing churches of different cultures celebrating, loving and honoring God in their own ways.