Building a Multi-Cultural Ministry on Gospel Doctrine
There were fourteen of us last weekend, sitting in a nicely appointed receiving room, addressing weighty matters. All together, we called the following countries our home:
- South Africa
- The Netherlands
- The Philippines
- The United States
But we weren’t a subcommittee of the United Nations. We were just ordinary church members gathered to celebrate the upcoming marriage of our Kenyan brother, Ian. No one was aiming at diversity—these were just the handful of friends who were closest to the groom—all members of the same church in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Ian was going home to Kenya to deliver the bride price for his wife, calculated on the basis of farm animals as consideration and respect to the bride’s family. (Worlds apart from the wedding traditions prevailing in the Netherlands or Lebanon or Malaysia these days.)
So, given our diversity of backgrounds and cultural expression, how could we presume to give helpful advice to our friend? How could we successfully minister to one another in an ultra-multi-cultural environment?
The Word of God was the common thread that passed through all of our counsel to Ian. As brothers shared from their own experiences, errors and backgrounds, each one of them wove scriptural truth into the fabric. What mattered most was not what culture you’re from, or whether you know about dowries and donkeys, but whether you know Christ and are acquainted with his word about the meaning of marriage and forgiveness and money and edifying communication.
This was the cash value for Ian—men who all (as one Nigerian put it) shared the “same constitution”—the Word of God. The Bible provided the basis of our counsel and care.
The worst thing you can do in a multi-cultural environment is to dumb-down the doctrine, or avoid the hard-edges of theological truth, in order to try and keep diverse people on the same page. Maybe you think: they are from all over the world and I must lighten up the teaching to keep them unified. In actual fact, robust truth is what will keep churches and friendships together amid their diversity. Lowest-common-denominator theology promotes strife and feebleness, not unity and strength.
If, on that day in Dubai, we were merely giving Ian our cultural insights on marriage or communication techniques, then at best we would merely be dispensing sound practical advice. But we rooted our comments in the transcendent truths of the scripture, which is what Ian needed most.
Years ago, I preached a sermon on election from 1 Peter 1:2 in the regular course of expounding that book from beginning to end. I remember an older member pulling me aside afterward and warning, “These people don’t need that kind of doctrine. Better to teach on something simple and practical, like marriage.” Little did he realize that God’s sovereignty is a bedrock truth that bears strongly on marriage and all of our relationships. I learned that, although it may take years, genuine believers who receive sound biblical ministry will grow to love transcendent truth—regardless of what continent they come from.
A FOREIGN LANGUAGE
The gospel is foreign to all of our cultures. None of us has an advantage over anyone else. An American raised in a Christian home is no closer to God than a Sunni Saudi citizen—both of them need to be born again through the word of truth. Until then, we are all “strangers and aliens” from God (Eph 2:19). To be sure, the child brought up in a Christian home is blessed to have heard the gospel unlike those who are unreached, but the fact remains that God must regenerate someone who is spiritually dead, regardless of his religious or cultural background. In that sense we are all on a level footing.
Through the crucifixion of Jsus, God has created “one new man” in the place of Jew and Gentile, thus making peace and unity (Eph. 2:15). In this way, despite the presence of many diverse ethnicities in a church, we are nonetheless reconciled to God “in one body.” And how does this reconciliation occur? Paul says it happens “through the cross” (Eph. 2:16).
When people grasp the wonder and power of Jesus’ atoning cross-work, their interests begin to shift away from smaller, parochial concerns and broaden out to gospel horizons that we all share regardless of cultural background.
For all our diversity, we are still sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, in need of the one remedy that only Jesus could secure: redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.
The reconciliation achieved at Calvary is bigger news than the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or the Protestant-Catholic divide in Northern Ireland, or unity between the Afrikaners and Zulus in South Africa. It’s of greater significance than if the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil rebels laid down their arms. Christ has reconciled us to God!
Since the gospel is transcultural, it speaks with power to every ethnicity. Insofar as we focus on the gospel in our multi-cultural churches, we will “attain to the unity of the faith” (Eph 4:13).
A SOCIOLOGIST’S NIGHTMARE
Healthy churches are laboratories for multi-cultural ministry. They are comprised of what the second-century Letter to Diogenes called “a third race”—neither Jew nor Gentile, but united in the “one new man.” Such unity amid diversity occurs nowhere else. Where else will you find Hindu-background Indians loving and serving Muslim-background Pakistanis? Or black and white South Africans ministering together in harmony and humble deference? Only in true churches where the Word is rightly preached.
We could try to build unity around something else—like affinity groups or multi-media or musical preferences or niche marketing. And it might appear to work for a while. It’s easy to build a crowd. But it’s another thing to unite a church.
We can strategize all we want, but ultimately only the Holy Spirit can collect God’s people and produce a unity that confounds the sociologists. As Mark Dever has written,
We can create a people around a certain ethnicity. We can create a people around a fully-graded choir program. We can find people who will get excited about a building project or a denominational identity… We can create a people around social opportunities for mothers or Mediterranean cruises for singles. We can create a people around men’s groups. We can even create a people around the personality of the preacher. And God can surely use all of these things. But in the final analysis the people of God, the church of God, can only be created around the Word of God.
Increasingly, global cities throughout the world are home to multi-national churches that worship in English, the lingua franca of our day. These churches reach into countless national and ethnic groups, even through English as a second language. To lead these kinds of churches, we must avoid the temptation to focus on sociology at the expense of theology. We must prioritize transcendent truths, always viewed through gospel lenses, and all lived out in a local church comprised of genuine believers. Foreigners like us can only be united by an alien gospel.