Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Culture Provides Opportunity for Witness

After my second year as a college student, I volunteered to be a student summer missionary with the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. I was part of a team of four guys that worked with starting and strengthening new churches in northeast Ohio, primarily in the Cleveland area. We spent time with at least 10 of those church “sprouts.” The summer was a transforming experience for me. I met some great people and was impressed by their commitment and calling. They had a great influence on my vocational decision and choice of seminary.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to return to that part of Ohio and had contact with Southern Baptists in the area. I discovered that only a couple of the churches with whom we worked had served after four decades. As I thought back, I recognized several reasons for this, most related to the strategy involved.

First, they were primarily “Southern” clubs. At least one pastor told our team that he kept an eye out for cars with license plates from Southern states in the hope of recruiting relocated Baptists.

Second, the attitude of the leadership of the churches and the association was that a Christian witness did not really exist in that part of the country. Of course, there were mainline denominations—Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans—in the area and even evangelicals like Christian and Missionary Alliance, but none of those churches were preaching the entire Gospel message. They typically referred to it as a “burned over” area that only exhibited a few remnants of the revivals of the 19th century.

Third, the leadership was (with few exceptions) from outside of that geographic area and, even more important, entrenched in a completely different idea of what American culture should be. They brought their perspective with them and were determined to preserve it.

I thought about this experience when I read a blog entitled “Five Myths Regarding the Great Commission” by Joey Shaw, minister of International Mission at the Austin Stone Community Church.

One of Shaw’s myth is “crossing cultures is a step beyond the general mandate.” He writes,

This myth is that only select missionaries are called to cross cultures in order to make disciples. The rest of us should only focus on people like us, in our culture. The problem with this myth is that the actual Great Commission commands otherwise. Incredibly, Jesus gave a commandment to his mostly Jewish audience to go to a mostly Gentile people and make disciples! Jesus commanded his Jewish followers to go to all people groups (all ethnos, the Greek word for “nations”). In other words, the Great Commission itself is a mandate to cross cultures!

Shaw goes on to comment that Jesus himself modeled this approach: “Jesus was a cross-cultural missionary and he commands us to follow in his steps, cross any boundary, live incarnationally and make disciples.

We not only CAN cross cultural lines with a Christian witness, but it is part of the strategy.

As I think back about my time in Ohio so long ago, I realized that I was given the opportunity to be immersed in another culture for the first time, and I learned something from the experience. I really came to love those with whom I worked, but I especially developed an affinity for those who were part of the “native culture” in which we worked. There was a rich cultural, social, and ethnic heritage in the area. Only now do I see how that culture provided opportunities for witness and engagement that were ignored by the mission strategy under which we operated.

Culture is a tool, not an impediment, to the preaching of the Gospel. We can learn to use it rather than being limited by it.

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