Tips, tools, books, and conferences are the craze in church circles these days. You are, in fact, reading a resource website right now. My work here is no exception. Today, though, I want to step away from simple content creation and make a suggestion. There is a resource right in front of your church, one given by God for the strengthening of your church and the reaching of your city, and you may have never considered it.
That resource is another church.
For some reason, we love turning to books or seminars. We want to get a strategy guide for ministry or a curriculum that will inspire our congregations to be better at our mission. Furthermore, we too often approach other churches in town with an attitude of competition instead of cooperation. If they are similar to us in culture, that is. We simply tend to ignore the ones that are culturally different (of a different ethnicity or national background). Those are the ones I want to zoom in on today. If your community has churches that are culturally different from your own, have you ever considered partnership with them? Fact is, that immigrant church in your neighborhood is probably better than your church at some things.
Isolating your congregation’s work from other local churches will always weaken your ministry. Treating a church as competition may increase your numbers, if you “win,” but it will hollow out the hearts of your members and teach a vile understanding of the bride of Christ. Ignoring churches that are culturally different does the same, and frankly, it perpetuates a tribal understanding of the faith that says our particular culture is the only one that understands the Bible. What is more, these churches can do something you cannot, namely translate the gospel into their own culture at a natural, insider level. Fact is, we need churches that do not look like our own if we are ever to reach a whole city.
Of course, I am not suggesting you check your theological convictions at the door. Too often, though, we mistake cultural differences for theological differences. We need to widely embrace those of different cultures who believe the same gospel, hold the same Bible as their authority, stand in confessional congruity with us, and simply do so through a different cultural lens.
We exist at a unique moment in the history of the church. This past Sunday, here in Houston, Jesus Christ was exalted in English, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Yoruba, French, Burmese, Farsi, Congolese, Nepali, and the list keeps going further than any of us want to count. The same is true of any number of cities across the United States. Your city may not have the number of cultures that mine does, but you will be surprised if you peel back the surface and look for those small refugee house groups, the immigrant churches, and congregations of other ethnicities in your city.
Contrary to the idea that churches of a particular culture do not demonstrate God’s diverse vision for his church, I believe they can actually be a clearer picture of God’s mosaic church if we are willing to work alongside each other and learn from one another. Andrew Walls speaks to this in his book, Missionary Movement in Christian History, as he is talking about the necessity of translating the gospel into particular cultures. He writes:
“When the Scriptures are read in some enclosed Zulu Zion, the hearers may catch the voice of God speaking out of a different Zion, and speaking to the whole world. When a comfortable bourgeois congregation meets in some Western suburbia, they, almost alone of all the comfortable bourgeois of the suburbs, are regularly exposed to the reading of a non-bourgeois book questioning fundamental assumptions of their society. But since none of us can read the Scriptures without cultural blinkers [sic] of some sort, the great advantage, the crowning excitement which our own era of Church history has over all others, is the possibility that we may be able to read them together. Never before has the Church looked so much like the great multitude whom no man can number out of every nation and tribe and people and tongue. Never before, therefore, has there been so much potentiality for mutual enrichment and self-criticism, as God causes yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.“
Churches in other cultures are gifts to your church
We are blinded by our culture. Now, that is not as bad as it sounds, but it is a reality nonetheless. Our understanding of the Bible is read through the lens of Western thought, and that causes us to see certain things clearly and completely overlook others. A quick instance comes from the parable of the prodigal son. If you are like me, or pretty much every majority culture Western Christian in America, you grew up knowing that the prodigal’s final state of poverty in the far away land was the result of his worldly living and squandering his inheritance. That passage has been used, in white Evangelical circles for who knows how long, to teach the consequences of blowing our money on immoral living. And that is all true. However, it is not the whole story. As a missionary in Africa, I had the pleasure of teaching this Bible story to a group of African believers. When asked about the circumstances that lead to the prodigal’s terrible state, not a one of them listed the fact that he squandered his money. Every one of them mentioned the famine. That’s right… go read it again. There was a famine, and there is a good chance you did not know it was in the story. Yes, he had squandered his wealth, but the story indicates that a severe famine is what caused him to be in need. Count on Africans, who live in poverty and an agricultural society, to pick up on the pieces we miss.
We do not have the market on theology, discipleship, or mission. Churches from other cultures in your community are a gift to your church from God. It is a shame if we overlook their value in our own spiritual formation. Unfortunately, most churches will go along day after day acting as though these other believer do not exist.
Churches in other cultures are partners for mission
And these churches provide more than a different perspective on Scripture. They must also be partners in mission. Our current church climate seems to pressure leaders into having an in-house solution for everything. We want our one congregation to have a ministry for everything and to reach every kind of person. That is not possible, and we need to remove that pressure. No single church can reach its city, and we would all be healthier if we would realize that churches with very different cultures make great partners in mission. Fact is, the gospel must be translated into other cultures for it to make sense. Varied cultural congregations, when they work together, become a vast network of cultural manifestations of the gospel in a city. they build a patchwork of witness that can speak to a diverse multitude in a way that no single congregation can. Instead of placing some false expectation on local congregations to somehow equally meet the needs of everyone in a city, we need to embrace the work of others in partnership.
So, I leave you with this: go find some partners. Take advantage of this resource from God to reach your city and sharpen your understanding of his work. Build bridges, fuse partnerships with others, and watch as God enriches the lives of both congregations for his glory.