Cross Cultural Mission

Sabbath School Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, August 22, 2015

I got my first passport when I was 17 years old and about to go on a mission trip to Russia. It was 1992, and the Soviet Union had just collapsed, so we really were going to “Russia” and not the Soviet Union.  I had been out of the USA several times on mission trips to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, but at that time passports weren’t required for these North American locations. I was crossing several sorts of boundaries on this trip:  the Atlantic Ocean, political ideology, culture, and even continental borders. It was an exciting time to visit Russia, and to meet Seventh-day Adventists from the place whose stories of persecution and hostility to the USA had been the bread and butter of my childhood and adolescent education.

While I had participated in short-term mission trips before, as a budding young adult on this journey I found myself paying more attention to the mechanics and characteristics of cross-cultural relationships and mission.  I learned several hard lessons.  First, finding support and connections and making plans to travel across borders for mission was more complicated and fraught than any of our initial planning could have anticipated.  Just showing up in a place has challenges and requires locals to help make it happen. Second, the plans we made for what the needs of the people might be were inaccurate and less than helpful.  It was clear that the local Adventists were working hard to help us feel useful. Crossing borders often means being ignorant of the local realities. And third, opportunities to make connections came from unexpected corners and required creativity and flexibility in the face of these openings. While the trip was eye-opening and useful and expanded my heart and mind in many ways, I began to feel that international or cross-cultural mission might be more difficult than I had understood in my adolescent experiences.

Fortunately, Jesus has given us a model for how to handle these issues. I owe my insight for how often Jesus crossed borders to Dr. Ganoune Diop, the Adventist liaison to the United Nations. He has pointed out how often the gospels use the phrase “crossed to the other side” to describe Jesus’ activity—and that whenever Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee in this way, He was crossing cultural borders. Our stories for the lesson this week show Jesus working on the boundaries between Samaria and Galilee, with their ethnic and theological differences. He also interacted with Greeks who came to Jerusalem, and ministered to a Roman centurion. These stories only touch the surface of the many times Jesus engaged in cross-cultural ministry and His model is one we should follow and be inspired to adapt in our own time.

Our current understanding of mission and cross-cultural service must wrestle with the fact that service on the part of North Americans (and Christians from other wealthy or powerful nations) has too often been harmful. Its frequently-short-term nature, accompanied by ignorance or cultural arrogance, means that we sometimes have brought with us the gospel of prosperity.  Certainly most of the young Russians I met in 1992 were much more interested in making US American contacts than in hearing the gospel.  We may look for activities that make us feel good in the short-term, but are of less long-term use to those we want to serve.  Still, these realities of the weaknesses of our service should not stop us from following Jesus’ mandate and example.

The stories for this week offer a corrective to some of my own concerns and cross-cultural weaknesses. First, Jesus absolutely showed up where people who were different from Him were. And the encounters he had were awkward and confusing sometimes. I’m not sure what is going on in the story with the woman to whom Jesus says “It isn’t good to take food from the children and give it to the dogs,” in spite of the great effort many commentators have made in trying to shed light on the nuances of that encounter. However, clearly the fact that she wasn’t an Israelite (a chosen one) was at play here. But in spite of the confusion and awkwardness, Jesus kept showing up.

Second, He listened to the spoken and felt needs of the people He was serving. They asked for the help they needed. I realize that sometimes I go looking for mission, and invent what I think others need. This prevents me from listening to the Holy Spirit as Jesus did, and through the course of conversation or work, speaking the Word of truth or acting as the hand/helper of Jesus in their lives, if possible. My sense of wanting to help also sometimes prevents me from learning from those whom I am crossing cultural borders to interact with. I have much to learn, and if I don’t listen, I can end up much more stilted in my mission and even in my view of God and the traits of His Kingdom.

Finally, Jesus also allowed other cultures to expand the vision of the Kingdom. When he interacted with people who weren’t of His culture, we can almost hear the wonder in His voice as He said “I have not found such faith in Israel,” “many will come from East and West to sit down at the kingdom” and “I will draw all men to Myself.” This was hard for His disciples to envision and understand, but as the Holy Spirit descended after Pentecost, they began to practice what He was talking about. The Kingdom, begun in the Body of Christ at the time of Jesus’ first Advent, though not complete till the New Earth, would be something different than either Israelites or the Gentiles understood (they will worship at neither place, He told the Samaritan woman, but in spirit and truth) and so should transcend our cultural differences. But that means we need to see and experience the Kingdom with and in other cultures in order to imagine it as something more than our own society. Jesus knew this and encouraged us to celebrate the Kingdom with our brothers and sisters across the borders.

I find cross-cultural relationships challenging. I don’t want to mess up. I don’t want to be culturally arrogant. Sometimes I literally don’t know the language and so feel inept and mute. But I like being pushed to see God and my fellow humans differently, to have a bigger sense of what humanity made in God’s image can be. The lesson for this week makes me braver, as well as wiser. If Jesus went to new places and listened to the people He met, that’s the least I can do. The Holy Spirit will guide me into what my next steps should be.

I have no idea if we were a blessing to the Russians we met in 1992. I know I learned a great deal about the world, about how global economics works, about the capacity for humans to be generous while (from my standards) poor. I learned not to be scared of those who I had seen as my enemy. In many ways, the cross-cultural mission work that was happening was Russian Adventists (and the non-Christians we also met) reaching out and helping me learn to be more like Jesus. I was the one being evangelized. And I was definitely given more tools to learn better how to serve and share the gospel with those who are different from me, in my own city and when I travel around the world. Those Russian Adventists were the hands and feet of Jesus to me, feeding, housing and educating me as I learned to cross cultural boundaries.  I continue to thank God for their ministry.

What makes cross-cultural service, sharing, and friendship challenging for you? When have you been blessed in a cross-cultural encounter? What can we do to better follow Jesus’ example of listening to others in order to find out what their needs and challenges are?

 

Lisa Clark Diller is a Professor of History at Southern Adventist University.

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7040
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I enjoyed reading this article very much. Thank you.

“First, Jesus absolutely showed up where people who were different from Him were.”

Yes!!

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From the Gospels we learn that Jesus ENJOYED embracing those who were different.
He also enjoyed receiving their hospitality which included a bed, food, drink, entertainment.

If we are going to Imitate Jesus, we have to be willing to embrace [sometimes with a hug or a kiss] those who are different from us. To have mutual hospitality of food, drink, entertainment, or even a bed and bath.
HOW MANY of us SDAs, especially SDA church groups, are willing to do this?
Or, is it OK, UNTIL they want to come to church with us, sit in a pew next to us?
Want to participate in the Worship Activities?

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Thank you Dr Diller for this astute commentary. A question back at you: how do we judge when there is a cultural practice that is at odds with Christianity (like, say, suttee in India) that needs to be changed, and a practice we need to respect? My example was bad, 'cos burning widows alive is easy to see that it’s wrong - but there will be others where some people would say “It’s okay for them to do that, we have to be culturally sensitive” and others would be saying “That’s against the gospel” (perhaps a better example is still worshipping ancestors, which is no biggie in certain parts of Asia, in particular, and yet it’s against Christianity). What do people think?

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Am I the only one that has noticed that the author was a “missionary” to Russia, where at least 50 percent of the population is already a Christian? And the artwork was disconcerting: It was an Orthodox Christian cathedral. Orthodox Christianity is growing very quickly in the United States, attracting many ex-Adventists with its clear roots in ancient historical Christianity. It is not an exotic non-Christian world religion.

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Thank-you for insights into how vast the world is and how very little we actually experience it. Going anywhere with the mindset of “learning” is the best…it is humble and open.

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Nowhere did Dr Diller describe herself as a missionary-evangelist, other than being engaged in a cross-cultural mission which she opined was more of a two-way type of service or ministry. You do have a point though, regarding the kind of short-term tourism evangelism being done among largely Christian populations such as the Philippines, for example.

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I believe that traveling outside the USA is very important for people in general but especially for fairly “sheltered” SDA youth. Many of our church members have such a narrow “world view” that the educational value is a real “eye opener”! Here in the USA we are often “protected and pampered” in our SDA culture that we really lose out on the “big picture”. Jesus was trying to expand our horizons by His ministry to a wide variety of people. Understanding the “big picture” helps us to relate to our own communities needs which may be staring us in the face but we are blind to much of the time due to our cloistered upbringing and SDA culture. We need to get off our religious “high horse” and get into the trenches of life in our communities. “Actions speak much louder than words”. Our actions will help both the community and ourselves by opening our eyes to the needs all around us!

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Thank you, Lisa, for this beautiful reflection. I note with interest your reference to the Kingdom (with capital K). That must mean, in the end, the universe, the whole reality.

Just as Jesus awakened, challenged, and empowered each person, each culture, and each religion to express the Kingdom more truly, cross-border missions must mean doing the same in the name of the Kingdom as we understand it – but not necessarily in the name of Christianity, or even in the name of Jesus.

Awakening, encouraging, challenging, and helping to reform Islam or Buddhism or Atheism to become truer expressions of the Kingdom – that, too, can be reaching “a bigger sense of what humanity made in God’s image can be.”

In return, it’s about time Christians receive missionaries to help us become truer to the Kingdom, which we too often think is synonymous with Christianity.

Thanks again, Lisa, for your challenge to listen.

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Thanks to all of you who thought about ways we can do cross-cultural mission more effectively. Part of the challenge (as other commentators have noticed) is that our word “mission” has expanded to mean more than evangelism to Christianity. We seem to use it to mean all the work that we do in following Jesus by spreading the good news (the gospel) that the Kingdom of God is among us (both is and is not-yet). So this means “service” as well as calling others to follow Jesus.

Dudley, I think if we start out our mission work by trying to think about what other cultures might be doing wrong, we are probably wasting our time. We should first think about how our own culture, which we know and understand best, is exhibiting traits that contravene the ability to love God and others better. The Spirit is leading people in each culture to call out the soul-killing aspects of their culture and if it is appropriate, we can support them. But first, we are to love and listen and serve. You’ve brought up a problem that in the past was often conflated with imperialism, and so people from more powerful countries/cultures have to be super careful lest the gospel get bogged down. Still, I would also be interested in other, more experienced, voices weighing in on this subject.

Julius, I am inspired by what you have suggested, but also a little nervous that I would know best how Islam or Hinduism could be “improved” in their expressions (you didn’t say that exactly, but I’m afraid that’s what might happen)… I would first really want to listen to the Spirit to see how God is working in the lives of those I am interacting with and encourage them to keep on and be stronger in that which leads to love and raising up humans to better be what God created them to be. There might be a time for me to stand alongside (just for instance!) Baha’is who are trying to work for something that gives God glory, but I worry that I don’t mind my own business sometimes and I’m too imperialistic in trying to appropriate the work that others are doing. Certainly Jesus served and blessed people who never appear to have followed Him… I’m not saying this well, hopefully you get what I’m saying! I just think we’re too confident that we can say what other faiths (or not-faiths) are doing (and I say that as someone who has to teach about world religion!!).

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No matter what nationality race, ethnicity, or culture one is a part of…the problem is the same…depraved/criminal thought patterns that lead to discord, strife, selfishness, suffering, and death. God/Jesus counters these with living principles found in the bible and energized by grace.

Isaiah 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.
Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
Romans 8:7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.

John 6:63 It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.

John 17:17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.
Romans 12:2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
Romans 8:4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

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We are called out of the world, our distinctive cultures, to be supra-cultural, into the Culture/Kingdom of God, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision or uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, slave, and freeman; but Christ is all, and in all.” We are not called to infect the Kingdom with our social mores, but to release their bonds.

So when Paul says he is a Jew among Jews, a Greek among Greeks, this is not to justify the Jew or the Greek but to receive them where they are that they may be entreated to raise from those cultural shackles and fully participate in establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.

As is well known, the Kingdom of God is not imposed but encouraged. So truly it is in His best interest that when encountering another we seek first to discover those attributes of the Kingdom which are extant in their culture and glorify them, validating not only the cultural milieu but as well the individual.

I recall that Elijah once was confounded by the Lord’s failure to perform as he anticipated. God’s response was to “Listen …” Jesus listened to the cries of the halt, the blind, the bereft. And then He healed them. When we stop to LISTEN, by which any communication occurs, we will hear of the unmet, and often unseen, unvoiced, need, and seek healing through God for that.


Edit: We are called to serve. Are we serving our own interests? Or are we serving the interests of those God has placed in our path.

Trust God.

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Lisa, you’re neither – not saying it well and imperialistic.

I do think we as Adventist Christians can challenge another religion or culture to “improve,” to invoke one example, how they view the relationship among different genders and the role of women in their religion or culture – even as we continue to struggle in our denomination with the ordination and “headship” issues, and even as I, as a man, continue to benefit from mysogynistic systems and make individual missteps. In that conversation, if I remain open to the Spirit and to my conversation partner, my critique of the other will boomerang with a humbling force, and help me and my community improve.

I think we are simultaneously too confident and too timid. I’d love to see our community become so confident that we can invite our Wiccan friends, for example, to come teach some of our Sabbath School class sessions on how they understand the deep interconnectedness of nature – without worrying about what message that would send to our young people and how our congregation’s minds will be infected with demonic thoughts. At times, our chest-thumping confidence can be an expression of insecurity. Inviting, listening, and expressing our own vulnerabilities – with missional and evangelistic intent – require deeper confidence both in ourselves and in the Spirit.

As I’m beyond violating the concision rule, I’ll stop with the next sentence, but I also love your example to “stand alongside” We’re good at standing for or against, but not so good at with and alongside.

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