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Cross-cultural Ministry in the Local Setting

Image source: Chris Ford via Flickr

Image source: Chris Ford via Flickr

I can't help asking, why is it that Australian Baptists in foreign mission are intentional, relational, adaptive and creative in their expressions of evangelism -but at home we seem to-be ad-hoc, constrained by our existing socio-economic circles, rigid in our expressions of worship and witness? Furthermore, we seem to have out-sourced evangelism to professional pastors and de-emphasised the role of lay people as missionaries.

While it has taken many years for missionaries to develop appropriate techniques that have made them effective in communicating the Good News of Jesus and seeing appropriate faith communities come into being, there are some basic principles involved:

God is everywhere.

In days past some missionaries viewed the world in what can be termed a dualistic way. Christians believed that they took God to areas where God was not present. But this view is countered both in the Old and the New Testaments, for example in Psalm 139.7-10 and Romans 1 :20. Missionaries continually find that God is very much present amongst the people to whom they have been called. True there is much that these people don't know about God, and importantly they know little or nothing about Jesus, but God is present and has already been communicating to these people.

Accept people as they are

Sometimes missionaries encounter people who claim to belong to a particular religion (e.g. Islam, Buddhism) but it soon becomes obvious that although they have an outward appearance of belonging to the particular faith, their everyday actions show that they do many things that are not part of their professed religion and can indeed by contrary to their religion. Often this is because at some stage in history their tribe or people group have encountered those who belong in another culture or religion, but their basic beliefs are really the beliefs that their people held prior to committing to their current religion.

Don't try and impose your spirituality on others

Basic beliefs are stronger than professed religious beliefs, and are what determine the ordinary every-day attitudes and actions of people groups. These basic beliefs and attitudes are what are often called the 'World View' of the people concerned. It is really important if we want to effectively share Jesus with other people that we understand their 'world view', start where they are. This was Jesus' approach to people. We may or may not agree with the understanding of concepts such as, God, life after death etc. but it is really important to know what is in the mind of people when those terms are used. It is also important to realise that simply quoting bible verses will not necessarily change their understanding.

Understand your faith in your own common language.

Before we can meaningfully communicate with others, we must be able to express our Christian faith in our own non-jargon language. C.S. Lewis in his book, "Timeless at Heart" has some wise words, "you must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome and it means that you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conclusion that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts are confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one's own meaning." This is a difficult process and we need to be on a journey, particularly as our language continually changes.

Communicate in the common language of the people

If followers of Jesus have not learned to think their faith through in their own everyday language, it is very likely that they will have difficulty in sharing their faith in the common language of the people around them. The words of our Christian songs, both contemporary and traditional, demonstrate this. When Jesus was talking to the ordinary common people he seldom quoted from scripture. He continually taught those people by using their everyday language and by using parables about ordinary everyday events and situations. He knew that God was there in the ordinary things of life.

Practice lncarnational Christianity.

We know what we know about God, primarily because The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us. (John 1: 14 TEV)

Missionaries who are impacting other cultures for Jesus, as people who have moved into the neighborhood and are sharing life with those around them, have become 'incarnational". Those involved will tell you that incarnational living is a truly enriching experience. But it is also true that it can be a very humbling experience that makes us very vulnerable.  Although we may feel confident that God is leading us, we may feel uncertain and unsure because we are moving in uncertain areas. However it is better for us, as followers of Jesus, to experience this in going to others, rather than others experience similar discomfort and vulnerability if per chance they come to us.

Don't try and extract new followers of Jesus from their culture.

The religious leaders of Jesus' day expected the people to come to them, in the Temple, the synagogue or in a religious school but Jesus went to where the people were and communicated with them there. He intended that the day of religious sacred places was passed and that now people would experience God in their own situation. (John 4:21, 23) Most of the missionaries of whom Ivan James speaks are not trying to establish churches. They are simply trying to help people become followers of Jesus in their own culture. This contrasts sadly with some mission efforts in previous days when people who decided to follow Jesus in another cultural situation were deliberately encouraged to remove themselves from that culture. Often they were given a new 'Christian' name (mostly a biblical one) and encouraged to live on a mission compound. This meant that the new followers of Jesus were cut off from their own people and had little opportunity to share their faith. This can happen when new followers of Jesus join our churches.

Think Multicultural Australia.

Sometimes people think that whilst it it’s really good that our missionaries are engaged in cross-cultural communication, the methods they use are not really applicable in Australia. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today Australia is a multi-cultural society and we are surrounded by people of various cultures and sub-cultures.

Take time

Groups impacting other cultures for Jesus don't discover appropriate means of communication by attending seminars, or by simply importing an 'expert' from another situation to enlighten them. Seminars may give some valuable insights but such meaningful communication and sharing happens because the group is focused and prayerfully think, learn and share together.

Ivan Jordan is a past Baptist Union of Tasmania Regional Minister and a Global Interaction Missionary in Outback Australia

The Witness is the voice of Victorian Baptists, sharing stories of hope and mission from around the state.


#Martin West 04/05/2014

I do work that often gets called "interfaith" but can also be called mission, sharing the gospel or peacemaking.

What I find ironic is that plenty of Aussie Baptists will cheerfully donate money so that an Australian can fly half way around the world and live (for example) in a Muslim country, where it is a safe bet they will make friends with Muslims and attend many Iftar dinners during Ramadan.

But ask the same Aussie Baptists if they would like to drive two kilometres down the road from their church and attend an Iftar dinner at their local mosque during Ramadan, maybe make friends with some Aussie Muslims... not always a lot of interest.

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Guest 21/12/2014