A family friend is third generation Hong Kong Chinese. She is as American as my daughter. Although her race is Chinese-American, I would never have witnessed to her with a Cantonese language JESUS film or encouraged her to join a Chinese church. She was culturally American. She and her family were an active part of our church.
Race and culture are two different things.
Spiritual gifts inventories used by some churches help believers identify potential church involvement. It is often referred to as helping people “assimilate.” But in a conversation with a respected Korean Baptist leader, I learned that “assimilation” is a terrible word to many foreigners living among us. This godly Korean man patiently explained that first-generation immigrants fear losing their ethnic identity. Believers seek to follow Christ and at the same time retain their own culture that doesn’t contradict with the Bible. And those who assimilate are considered on the fringe and lose credibility.
So, how do we respect Leviticus 19:34? “You must regard the foreigner who lives with you as the native-born among you. You are to love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt; I am Yahweh your God” (HCSB).
Jim Slack, an IMB missiologist–and anthropologist by training–explained it to me that when dominant cultural church groups–whites, Hispanics, blacks, whomever–expect people to become like them to get along in their church. Jim point out that a dominant church culture “seals off” other cultures from coming to Christ. We too often assume that the foreigner among us must give up their identity and take on the culture of our dominant group.
If you’ve seen Star Trek: The Next Generation, you’ll remember the ship’s captain was taken captive by the Borg, a giant floating space colony. “Resistance is futile” was the catch phrase as cultural distinctions were replaced by conformity.
When we as a dominant culture permeate a group of believers, we unconsciously expect everyone to enjoy our experience in the Lord just like we do. And while that may work for worship, disciple-making needs to take place at a different level; a heart-level.
A Muslim immigrant living in Virginia converted to Christianity through the help of the girl that he was dating. She wanted him in her Sunday School class in our predominately Anglo church, but the curriculum they used did not disciple him as a “MBB;” a Muslim Background Believer. He soon left and joined in with other MBBs.
An African-American pastor in Los Angeles told me, “Six Nicaraguan young men attending my church barely understand English. Our church’s worship styles are alien to them.” And to let me know that he really got it, he said, “So, I will begin working with them to start a Nicaraguan church.”
As a learning exercise in Albemarle, North Carolina, I sent out participants to interview “people who are not like them.” The church leader thought everyone was a lily-white Southerner. It surprised him that Buddhist Laotians were encountered at a local laundromat. In Lansing, Michigan, a survey group I was in found thousands of Mexicans in one housing project. In each case, they had become sealed off from Baptist churches because of their deeply-held cultural convictions.
Church is more than one hour and then heading out to the restaurants. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” While it may be true, it didn’t get that way and stay that way by accident. A church planting consultant at NAMB once observed that there are few truly multi-cultural SBC churches in America. Again, race is different from culture.
If you desire your church to welcome culturally-diverse people, expect there to be “worldview” distinctions. This requires training church members as missionaries. By adopting a people group to study, they will understand whether to bring them into an existing church or start a new one around cultural realities.
Let’s work hard to understand and show Christ’s love to those different from us.
--Mark Snowden, Director of Missional Leadership, Cincinnati Area Baptist Association