Ministry in Cross-Cultural Contexts (1 of 3)
Mark Yarbrough:Welcome to DTS Dialogue - Issue of God in Culture. I'm your host Mark Yarbrough, the Executive Director of Communications at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Today our discussion topic is "Ministry in Cross-Cultural Context". Specifically, we want to raise awareness of how cultural differences affect ministry.
Today in the studio we have Professor Vic Anderson, Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministries. To my immediate right is Vic. Across from Vic is Dr. Scott Horrell, Professor of Theological Studies. To Scott's right is Dr. Mark Young, Interim Department Chair and Professor of World Missions and Intercultural Studies.
Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time here. At the end of the semester things are fast and furious and we're all springing for the finish line and I appreciate very much you taking the time to come into the studio and do this.
All: You're welcome, Mark.
Mark Yarbrough:What a fun topic for us to talk about today because of the fact that you all have great international experience and ministry experiences in other cultures. A lot of time, in variety of books and discussion concerning world missions, you hear this phrase of "cross-cultural ministry" but we need to maybe even take a step back because they're two words that are used there, brought together in that discussion. But first of all, let's ask the question of, "What is culture?" Mark Young, let me punt that to you and let you jump on the issue of defining culture for us.
Dr. Mark Young:Sure, I'll be glad to. I think it's important that we develop a working definition of culture not only at this table but in the broader church. Unfortunately, the word "culture" has a bad rap. A lot of times in our rhetoric, we think of culture as an enemy and we use culture as something we're against. We talk about "culture wars" in our vocabulary and that's terribly unfortunate.
At its simplest level, culture is a way of life. It's the way a group of people choose to express what they believe, what they value, how they structure their society so that those values can be accomplished, and then the behaviors that they use so that those values and beliefs to be expressed.
All of us are a part of a culture; all of us express cultural values, cultural beliefs. So to think about culture as an enemy or something that's outside the church or something that we war against is probably quite a misnomer.
Mark Yarbrough: Anybody else want to chime in on defining what culture is?
Dr. J. Scott Horrell:It's clearly something that we all are a part of and Mark speaks of the larger culture. We're also part of sub-culture and sub-subcultures and on down from there.
Mark Young:True. Yeah, in our ministry settings, we tend to define culture ethnic-linguistically that means based on some type of an ethnic identity or linguistic commonality; people speaking the same language. But Scott's right. We use the word in a wide array of different social settings so it's appropriate, for example, to speak of an institutional culture at Dallas Seminary. That's the way that we choose to do theological education and the way that we structure our behavior what believe what's important to us. Typically in ministry however, the word's use primarily in ethnic-linguistic categories.
Mark Yarbrough: That's true. You said something really interesting talking about the potential negative perception of the word "culture".
Mark Young: Yes.
Mark Yarbrough:Let's talk about that just for a second. If we're talking about that from a Western perspective within Evangelicalism, why do you think there's maybe a greater a propensity towards a negative perception of the word "culture" there as opposed to maybe from other vantage points?
Mark Young: Should I go ahead?
Mark Yarbrough: Yeah, sure do.
Mark Young:I think the interesting thing that I've observed in our present time in North America, as North American culture changes. All culture change, they must change in order for people to continue to exhibit what they believe and value. But as our culture changed and we began to see patterns of behavior that were perceived to be negative toward Christianity or more tolerant of views other than our dominant Christian perspectives that was part of American society of years, all of a sudden culture became a bad guy to Evangelicals.
Years ago, a very popular speaker had a conference for parents of teenagers and the tag line on that was, "Don't let the culture capture your kids". All of a sudden culture is going to kidnap your kid and do something bad to your kid.
Mark Yarbrough: The bad guy, sure.
Mark Young:And frankly, if we could be real honest about it, a lot of Christians have played the culture card and culture war card to arise fear in Evangelicals that there are enemies out there that we have to guard ourselves against. And it's just easy to say that that's our culture.
"It's a culture that lost its way" is a common expression that we hear. Culture don't lose their way, people lose their way. People pursue paths that are often negative or contrary to what Scripture say. What we try to do here is demythologize, so to speak, that culture is a big bogeyman of an enemy, and say this is simply the way people choose to organize their lives to express what they believe and what they value.
Now, because they've fallen, sometimes those behaviors are intrinsically sinful. And so, as the gospels become a given part of people's lives, the gospels begin to penetrate what they believe, what they value, how they behave. And so you differences within a culture of how people express what they believe.
Victor Anderson:Right. It strikes me that for many of us, culture in the day to day sense is not something that we're aware of. It's a silent influence but pervasive influence on our lives. It's when we become aware of other cultures then our antennae go up and our defense mechanisms go up and we begin to think of a negative sense of culture. "Oh that's not like I do it." So in some ways, it's the quietness of culture and its influences on us that adds to the negative assessment of others.
Scott:That's very hard that there are no set lines on culture, that it's an amorphous kind of reality. As you say, when we use the word "cross-culture" as an adjective, we beginning to describe those who have a distinctly different way of life from our own and yet there's so much of the universal underneath that we share with all humankind but that "cross-culture" becomes that crossing those lines that you say and in a thousand other ways.
I think that though, behind the term "cross-culture" we always must remember the universality of humankind being created in image of God. Things like language have basic structure that God has put his witness in our heart. We have conscience; there are relational realities that everybody, however different they are from us, experiences as well. And those are our bridges as we talk to them.
Mark Yarbrough:So in many ways, would you say then that when we define "cross-cultural", there are some components that are universal? There are the same, that there are some components that are not cross-cultural in many ways.
Mark Young:Absolutely. George Murdoch was one of the early scholars and leaders in the emerging field of cultural anthropology. And his dominant work, that's still used to this day now forty-five years later, describes a list of cultural universals that simply emerged of what it means to be human and survive in any given environment.
I think it's interesting, Scott, you're exactly right. I believe God created humanity with not only the capacity but the mandate to establish a wide array of cultures throughout the earth. Just the capacity to create language, which humans possess in a way that no other way created beings does, gives us the opportunity to create distinct cultural orientations, different ways to name the world. And as soon as you begin to naming the world differently and figuring out what's the part of the way you view reality, you've begun to establish the basis for different cultural orientation.
So frankly I believe in God's command for humanity to fill the earth at the very in the beginning of the creation story in Genesis, there is an implicit understanding that there will be multiple cultures on the face of the earth as humanity spreads and separates and fills the creation that God has made and given them the capacity to create themselves.
Mark Yarbrough: Let's look, then, at what we've talked about thus far.
We're all part of a culture. Culture clearly exists. It is a Biblical mandate that there would be multiple cultures.
So when we talk about cross-cultural ministry with a recognition that we are here and that other people are there in another culture, what biblical evidence is there about supporting cross-cultural ministry? Let's put it in the biblical realm and say, being that there are multiple cultures, where is our mandate for ministry to other cultures that are not our own?
Mark Young:Well, the clearest mandate, of course, is the command that Jesus gave to the disciples in Matthew 28, which clearly indicates multiple ethnes, or actually all ethnes, all nations, all ethnic groups. In the missions community, we talk about "all people groups", and by definition, a people group is defined culturally.
So I think if you just want to center on one verse, obviously that verse clearly indicates that the presence of those who know Christ is to be among all cultures, or all peoples on the face of the earth.
Mark Yarbrough:Let's just talk about that text, though, for a minute. Do you think by and large we actually forget that? That is a cross-cultural text that is to move us beyond not just our own culture and being, but we have a tendency to define that as an in-culture understanding?
Victor:Well, I'm not sure if forgetfulness is the right problem there, or the locus of the problem, because all of us become comfortable with our own culture. It is normal, it seems, for human beings to have a sense of rootedness, a sense of wanting to belong, to drive the roots deep and build a nest and make this home.
And yet, throughout Scripture we find that many of the heroes of our faith, people that are commended in Scripture, are people who pulled up stakes and followed God, often across geographic and cultural boundaries.
And one of the reasons that is admired is, of course that's obedience to God, but another is because they're leaving a place of comfort, almost always, and going to a place that's going to present new and unknown challenges to them.
Probably most people in America now, and perhaps across the world, are experiencing the challenge that comes from being uprooted, whether that's by choice or not by choice, but moving out from their family of birth and their family of origin to a new town, a new city, a new country, and crossing cultures. It's not easy.
Mark Young:You know, it's interesting you should mention "uprooted". That reminds me of the Abraham story, or the Abram story. You know, it's interesting that the promise to Abraham at the end, in [Genesis] 12:3, is that through Abraham all peoples, and I think you could very easily substitute "all cultures", will be blessed through him.
That promise is given in the context of uprooting him from his culture, from everything that he knew. He left his family, his land, his way of life, his sense of security, and in the context of being uprooted, God then tells him that through him all cultures, all peoples will be blessed.
I think that's a striking observation.
Mark Yarbrough: "Your country, your peoples, and your father's household."
Mark Young: Right. Everything he knew.
Scott:Interesting as well, God promised Abraham that he would give him safety and allow him to live a long, full life in the midst of quite a number of enemies.
But there are the cross-cultural situations that are not owing to our desire. There is Joseph, hauled off into Egypt. There is Jonah, who, kicking and screaming, went finally to Nineveh.
When we look down through the Old Testament, as well as coming to the New Testament, seeing the disciples after the Great Commission yet hesitant to leave Jerusalem and the safety there, and finally Philip in Samaria and Peter with Cornelius and then kind of the explosion as it moves out with Paul and what we know of Thomas and so many others.
Certainly it is those steps of faith away from what we know into a culture very different than we know as we seek to obey God in sharing the Gospel that's so central to much of both Old and New Testament.
Mark Young: It's very true.
I think we miss the multicultural dimension of the Old Testament often. Think of the cultural difference that Rahab experiences, having lived in Canaan her whole life, and then she hears of what God has done for the Israelites and has some positive response to the knowledge she has of Yahweh.
And then all of a sudden, she's surrounded by these people coming out of Egypt that she's never known, and really adopted into their way of life. There's a tremendous cross-cultural dimension to that.
Think of the Hittites, think of Naaman the Syrian, of Ruth the Moabitess. There are dozens of examples in the Old Testament as well of a very multicultural dimension to what God always purposed.
Mark Yarbrough:That's very interesting. In fact, Vic, you said something a minute ago, I think you said, "I don't know if it would be the word 'forget'."
Really, what we're surfacing here is that in many ways there's a Biblical ignorance, is what we're really talking about, of our understanding--
Mark Young: How loudly can I say, "Amen!"?
Mark Yarbrough:It is! I mean, that's what we're talking about. Let's call it what it is, is that even in the Old Testament, all of the illustrations that we just used, what is our natural tendency?
We see that through our own cultural lens, and that's how we define it, that's how we interpret it, as opposed to really seeing it for what it is, and who God is, and what He's doing on planet Earth. So that's a huge part of it.
Victor:Perhaps what we're drifting a little bit from just the biblical evidence, just an observation about how difficult cross-cultural initiation is. You know, if you even casually look at churches around our country right now, what you see is very few that display REAL cultural diversity within the church.
There is a natural migration for people to stick together with the people they're most comfortable with, most familiar with, most like, and so cross-cultural ministry doesn't just happen. It doesn't just come naturally.
It does happen because of an awareness of the biblical command and evidence as well as God's Spirit working in people to propel them outward.
Scott: Are you suggesting, Vic, that being amongst those that are like ourselves is therefore wrong in some way?
Victor:Wrong? I don't know if being with people like ourselves is wrong as much as, if that is a conscious choice that we are making out of fear, to extend ministry and channels of blessing to people who are different, sometimes perhaps there's an inevitability in certain areas to be together with people that are most like us.
Scott:Whether or not it is wrong maybe is a question to go further with. But the key idea is, it's extremely limiting to only be around people you are like, and ultimately detrimental to your own breadth and depth of your spiritual growth, I would argue.
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