Not too long ago, pastors and missionaries needed to use photos and videos to help people see the multi-ethnic reality of the world. The frontlines of the cross-cultural discipleship at the heart of the Great Commission seemed far away. Not so anymore! Do you want your congregation to see the nations now? Just take a field trip to Wal-Mart. You’ll find the nations right in your own hometown. While church planting and evangelism is still fully necessary overseas, cross-cultural disciple-making is now also a hands-on, in-your-home-town possibility for each and every person in the congregation.
The frontlines of cross-culture disciple-making have come to us, and we need to lead people to make disciples of all nations locally as well as abroad. As churches who have been given our mission by our Master, the question is not “Should we become involved in reaching the nations in our city?” but rather, “How can we begin?”
So, let’s deal with that question: how can you help your church begin the process of becoming a congregation that is making disciples of all nations, cross-culturally, at home as well as abroad? Whether your arena of leadership includes a whole congregation, a few in a discipleship group, or just yourself, be a leader who is faithful to the mission our Master has given us in the place where you are.
Lead people into cross-cultural disciple making
For many people, if not most, hands-on cross-cultural disciple-making is a cause they may have given to and an effort they may have prayed for, but it is something they haven’t really done before. They need you to give them a vision for their role as disciple-makers. They also need you to help them get started. This will, of course, primarily take leadership in the form of words – scripture supported, gospel-mission-focused preaching, teaching, and encouragement. It will also mean leading by action, showing people what cross-cultural discipleship looks like. It may mean that you yourself need to find a way to begin a friendship with someone from another culture and involve others so they can see how you do it. Or it may mean that you find someone in your congregation who can lead the way in cross-cultural involvement and encourage and support them. In any case, realize that many people will need to hear about cross-cultural disciple-making and see how it takes place before it becomes a reality in their lives.
Try to find a way to offer people multiple entry-points to experience cross-cultural relationships. Perhaps there is some local international hospitality program, or an international student ministry, or a high school exchange program, or a refugee ministry, or an English as a Second Language tutoring need. Or perhaps you already have some international families that have shown up at your VBS or some other event, and you can task some people specially to reach out to them. Let there be a cross-cultural intentionality in all the different aspects of your ministry. Above all, let there be cross-cultural intentionality in prayer. Before long, some relationships will begin that can be highlighted as God’s answers to those prayers.
Lead people past feelings of intimidation
There is a natural feeling of intimidation whenever people begin something new. Some of your people will feel uncomfortable with the idea of befriending someone from another culture and sharing the gospel with them. They may wonder how their gestures of friendship will be received, or they may fear making some inexcusable cultural blunder. How can you help them overcome these feelings? Here’s the answer: they don’t need to overcome the feelings. Not before starting, at least. All of us know this principle. As a child, how do you overcome fear of riding a bike? Well, you get on a bike (despite your fears) and go! How does one overcome fear of water? Dive in! In the same way, help people know that it’s expected that they should feel some level of intimidation – it’s only natural. Those feelings will go away as soon as they are in the midst of cross-cultural friendships.
Sometimes people wonder how they can begin conversations with people from other cultures. In actual practice, though, the international students, refugees, and immigrants in your city are probably the most approachable and easily-befriended people around. Most of them are actually longing to make American friends. In truth, the people from your church could make a significant start simply by being the Americans that say ‘hello’ when they see them. With the nations among us, the distance from ‘hello’ to a shared meal in a home is not far at all.
Lead people past feelings of inadequacy
Many people feel like they are not equipped to share the gospel with someone from a different cultural background. They feel like they need some special training first. The truth is, however, that the same gospel is the good news every culture needs to hear. The testimony of a North American who grew up in church can be powerfully used in the life of someone who grew up as an Atheist in China. The same Bible verse that gripped the heart of a former legalist from Kentucky can speak to the heart of one who was raised in a Hindu family. As the scriptures say, the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Rom. 1:13) Every follower of Christ has the Holy Spirit and the Word of Truth. In the most important sense, that is all the equipping they need.
There are, of course, some good resources out there to help in understanding what someone from a Hindu background might be thinking, for example, or to avoid certain common misunderstandings in vocabulary when talking with Muslims. A conversation with an experienced missionary can be helpful, of course, when befriending someone from the country in which they served. But as helpful as these resources are, they are not essential. We need to build in people the understanding that as believers in the gospel, they already have what they need to share with people of all sorts of backgrounds. As the scriptures say “Who is adequate for these things?…as from sincerity, as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 2:16-17) It’s amazing that God in his sovereignty chooses to use us as we simply speak honestly and openly about what he’s spoken and what he’s done in our lives.
A recent Pew Research Study predicted that over the next 50 years, 88% of our nation’s population growth will come from immigrants and their offspring. By 2065, no ethnic group will claim more than 50% of the population. What an amazing opportunity for our churches! We have the ability to make disciples of the nations here and now. Our churches can reflect the diversity of our cities, and thus look even more like heaven. That will happen as Christ-followers across North America open their hearts and their homes to people of other cultures. Cross-cultural disciple-making right where we are may seem new to us, but it is not a novel idea. It is the ministry strategy commanded by the best leader the world has ever known.
Todd Martin is Pastor of College and Missions at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.