The Biblical imperative for Intercultural Ministry


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I was recently invited to submit a chapter for the wonderful book project Intercultural Ministry, co-edited by Dr.’s Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jann Aldredge-Clanton. The topic I was asked to address – and the one that I subsequently shared with our staff and elder teams at River City – was how to address power dynamics within a cross-cultural leadership team. I believe this topic is of the foremost importance within this subject matter, as it is the hardest but most necessary component of nurturing a culturally/racially diverse community. While diversifying the stage can play a helpful role in communicating a vision for a more integrated community, nothing speaks to an organization’s seriousness more than an honest assessment of shared power dynamics.

In the next couple of posts I will highlight some of the concrete principles our team articulated, but before doing so I wanted to dedicate a post to why churches should even care about being intercultural in the first place. If there is not a defined, theological precedent for its importance, then even the smallest of speed bumps can derail momentum. Conversely, when a congregation comes to believe that this call is core to the very nature and identity of being the Church, a willfulness forms that carries the community through even the most challenging barriers.

There are many places throughout the Bible where one could make a clear case for the importance of intercultural faith communities. For the purposes of this post, I would like to focus primarily on the book of Acts. The Evangelist Luke wrote the book, which is important, because he was the only non-Jew whose writings are included in the New Testament. As such, he seemed to wonder aloud as to whether the Church of Jesus Christ was for Jews alone, or was going to become an intercultural community that welcomed Gentiles outsiders as well.

His early writings show a clear fascination with the vision. In Acts 1 he paid close attention to the breadth of nations represented in Jesus’ marching orders to the disciples. In Acts 2 he carefully notated the presence of each individual nation as the Spirit exploded upon the early believers at Pentecost. And in Acts 4 he demonstrated the impact of the unity experienced by the early Christians as they pooled their resources together to collectively provide for the poor among them. As important as these all were, its what happens next that shows how deeply the vision of intercultural community was burned into the essence of the early Church:

  • In Acts 6 we see the first sign of racial tension break out between the Hebraic and Grecian widows. One group was from the dominant culture and one group was from the minority culture that had been historically treated as second class. The widows from the sub-dominant culture felt like they were being mistreated when it came to the distribution of food and funds. Luke watches carefully. Will the Gospel of Jesus Christ be big enough to address this?
  • In Acts 7 we see the account of Stephen, who was stoned to death mostly for speaking against the dominant Jewish culture. One of his primary talking points was that all of God’s great acts happened outside their great country. Even their great laws came from Sinai, which was outside of Israel. This prophetic message got Stephen killed, and Luke presumably wondered if this would slow down the spread of the message of Jesus to non-Jewish groups?
  • In Acts 8 Luke records a development that would have been shocking. The message of the Resurrection had been brought to Samaria, and was received there! Jesus had spent an incredible amount of energy trying to train his disciples to carry what they were learning and head towards the greatest racial divide of that time. Samaritans were hatefully called “half-breeds” by the Jews, because they were half-Jewish and half-Assyrian (modern day Iraq interestingly). The Samaritans had adopted the Assyrian customs and gods and there was historical enmity because of that. The disciples never caught this heart for reconciliation, but the early believers did. We also see the conversion of an African finance minister in this chapter, and church legend believes he may have brought Christianity to Ethiopia.
  • In Acts 9 we see the conversion of the greatest bigot of that time – Saul (who would be the Apostle Paul after his conversion).
  • In Acts 10 we see another extraordinary twist. Peter – the first leader of the church – was still carrying an ethnocentric framework when it came to this relationship with the God that he so cherished. In this chapter we see the good news of the Gospel affects not only social systems but also individual hearts. God comes to Peter and breaks him from this limited view, and in a sense Peter undergoes a second conversion. He immediately is led by God to a man named Cornelius, who was not a Jew, and Cornelius and his entire family place their faith in Jesus and are baptized.

The book of Acts crescendos with the account of the church of Antioch in Acts 11. Biblically this church was really important for a couple of reasons. First, we know far more about this church than any other in the Bible. Second, it is the church that every other church in the New Testament was patterned after. The way God moved in this church became the paradigm by which every other church would be emulated.

It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire but by far the most ethnically diverse. Because of its location you had large numbers of Africans, Asians, and Europeans. This led to predictable tension in that city. Because there were so many different races, the atmosphere was always brewing with the potential of tribal warfare. Therefore the city planners of Antioch designed it in a way to keep everyone away from each other. We know from historical records that there were at least 5 different sets of walls that were erected to keep the races away from each other (African, Asian, Latin, Greek, and Jews). But it is estimated that there may have been as many as 18 different ethnic quarters within the city, with each group literally separated from each other by a wall.

Yet in Acts 11 Luke reports with great enthusiasm that this has all changed. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has cut through these racial-cultural walls, and for the first time in the history of the world it is proven that the God of the Bible is not a tribal God. The energy of Heaven has been set loose in a powerful way that all could see. For the first time people were crossing over racial-cultural walls to hear about Jesus and forming a bond and fellowship around the goods news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The good news of the Resurrection was bringing people into common fellowship under Jesus Christ, and this in turn also became the authentication of the good news.

Now the question became – what to name this phenomenon? Nobody in biblical times would have known how to describe such a thing as an intercultural community of faith (now we have dozens of names for it!) so they had to invent a word. What should the early church call this thing that was bringing people from all different sectors of the city across the interior barriers into a common fellowship in Jesus Christ? They had to invent a name, and what was the name they coined in Acts 11?

“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11.26)

The word Christian was not devised to describe individuals who had jeweled crosses around their necks or ‘Jesus’ bumper stickers on their cars. The word Christian was invented to describe the multicultural church that first developed in Antioch.

To ensure that the authenticity of the ministry of reconciliation at the church of Antioch was not missed, Luke gives a detailed description of the leadership team of this church. We do not have an account like this for any other church in the Bible so it is important for a variety of reasons:

“Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.” (Acts 13.1)

First we have Barnabas, who was from Cyprus (Asia). Next is Simeon called Niger. This is both the Greek and Latin word for black, meaning he was from somewhere in Africa. Next is Lucius of Cyrene, a brown man from the North Coast of Africa. Fourth is Manaen, who came from the backroom power politics of Rome. Last is Saul, a European-trained Jew. And then there was the ringleader and architect of the group, Barnabus from Cyprus (Acts 4:32). The first city church we know anything about had 5 pastors from 3 continents on the pastoral leadership team.

Luke wants us to pay close attention to this remarkable achievement. The most important church in the New Testament became the model for intercultural churches. A team of 5 pastors, teachers, and prophets from 3 continents shared leadership and power, ultimately under the authority of Christ. It’s no wonder that this was the first place that the term Christian was used.

The significance of what happened in Antioch is hard to overstate for those of us who long to build authentically intercultural communities in today’s day and age. As the mother church of every subsequent congregation in the New Testament, we see that racial unity was both a means for growing the church and the basis for its witness to a watching world. Intercultural ministry was the only model that these early faith communities had for what it meant to be the Church.

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2 thoughts on “The Biblical imperative for Intercultural Ministry

  1. This is so timely as I am about to teach a course on “Leading Intercultural Teams” at AWM (Korntal, Germany). I would value any further insights or observations or resources. 🙂

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