The “Cross-Cultural Missions” Challenge by Jim Spikes

Many in church today probably feel they have a clear idea of what “Cross-Cultural Missions” means. The term often elicits visions of faraway lands and people who look and speak differently.  Carrying the Gospel cross-culturally means going to a different place, learning a different language and culture, and building bridges for the Gospel.  With reason, most missionary training programs have strong elements of ethnolinguistic training and cultural and worldview research.  Yet this understanding is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the true cross-cultural challenge facing us as the church in North America.

As many have observed, our cross-cultural challenge is complex.  No longer are people who look and speak differently located in lands far away. They are now our neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Not only are our churches still challenged by the need to remain committed to sending and supporting missionaries abroad, they are also being challenged to think and strategize as missionaries in their own communities – often for the first time. I touched on this challenge briefly in a previous article. What does a congregation do when, suddenly, it finds itself in the middle of a city or a neighborhood that no longer looks like or speaks like most of the church members?  Some congregations react well and make the necessary adjustments in their ministry and their thinking. Others re-locate to continue their ministry to the same type of people as before. Sadly, still others have a hard time making any adjustments in paradigm and often face decline and closure.

If this were not enough, the “cross-cultural” challenge has an even deeper implication.  Experts and church leaders are recognizing that the most important cross-cultural challenge facing congregations today has nothing to do with language or ethnicity.  Some of those around our churches who are farthest from the Gospel are those who may look the most like us. Never has the “Generation Gap” been so wide as it is today.  Of course, one could say that there have always been generational differences that the church has had to overcome in passing the Gospel from one generation to the next. It must be recognized, however, that in previous generations, there were shared cultural understandings, beliefs and core values that were similar enough to allow effective bridges to be built. The assumption was that, eventually, these younger generations will take up the task and follow our footsteps because, at their core, they were like us.  That reality may be changing. The challenge is to recognize that we are dealing with a significant cultural difference.  Our children may speak the same language and be like us in many ways, but they also reflect the mindset, belief systems, and attitudes of a growing global community around them. The global community is fueled by changes in communication, access to information, and global social interactions. These younger generations think differently, they view truth differently, they judge worth differently, and they view right and wrong/good and bad differently. In many ways, they have moved away from the basic Judeo-Christian heritage that characterized their parents and grandparents.  They are a different “culture.” It is a culture that requires us to engage it with the same level of intensity and intentionality we have traditionally reserved for the “mission field”. Experts say that our churches need to confront this challenge. The first question is Can our churches do it? The more important question is Are they willing to do it?

Here is the challenge.  As hard as it is for congregations to adjust and change their strategies, mindset, and even their identities to reach and engage people around them who are obviously different in appearance and language, it could be even harder to make these same adjustments to reach and engage people who are just as different, yet not obviously so. We cannot rely on the fact that the generations coming up in our churches look like us and talk like us to eventually lead to winning their hearts and minds for Christ.  Can we do what it takes to not only reach the different cultures around us, but also reach the “cultures”, coming after us?  Being “faithful” is not just holding on to the truth when those around us condemn it or invalidate it. It is also doing whatever is needed to ensure that this truth is ignited in the hearts and lives of those who follow us who will carry the truth forward.

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