Imported: Foreign-field practices in the good ‘ole U.S. of A

With a passion to be as effective as possible, in the mid-1980’s I plunged headlong into a course of preparation for cross-cultural ministry in a foreign country. Because the vision God had given me was to plant a church in a “foreign” country among people that were radically different than myself and the culture I had been raised in and that had shaped and molded me, my pre-field preparation included a TON of reading on cross-cultural ministry, church planting, and as much face to face time with others that had already done what I was about to embark upon.

Before boarding the flight that would eventually take my family and I more than 8 thousand miles to Cebu City, the second largest city in the Philippines, I had come to some firm convictions about how to go about the task of planting a church from the ground floor up. In summary form, here are a few of those convictions:
1. Based on the various church planting efforts and the results of those efforts that are recorded in the New Testament, there are only a few absolutely essential components necessary that must become a reality for a group of believers to consider themselves a valid expression of a local “body of Christ.”
2. That when Paul addressed the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:18-35 in what he believed just might be his final opportunity to share with them personally, he summarized key aspects of his own church planting method.  His method is still valid.
3. That I must always be ready and willing to discover and then thoughtfully compare how much of my own walk with Jesus and my understanding of how to “do” church are the result of my own American culture.   Specifically, that I need to regularly beg the Holy Spirit to illuminate my mind and also be willing to let others, especially those from other cultures challenge me.

Without my willingness to be challenged and ever mindful of the enormous pride that still resides in me, I know that I will be unable to discern whether the “practices” that make up who I am as an American Christian are based on biblical, “Kingdom principles” or whether they are the expression of American cultural principles that may actually be in contradiction to “Kingdom principles”.  By going through this process myself, I will not only be open to the further work of the Spirit in my life, I’ll also recognize that those of other cultures must be free to develop culturally relevant “practices” that might be radically different from my own.

Suffice it to say here: “Kingdom principles” are universal and are supra-cultural.  But the “practices” those principles produce must be culture specific for the “Kingdom of God” to be relevant to the diversity of cultures that our Missionary God Himself has created.

**Here’s just one example:  In John 13, Jesus washes the feet of His disciples and then tells them He has given them an example and they should do the same for one another.  So, is foot-washing a practice we should follow?  Or, is there a “Kingdom principle” that  when expressed in a culturally specific way is best communicated through foot-washing for that specific cultural group?  If those within that specific group had eyes to see and ears to hear would they see the “Kingdom principle” behind that practice?  The fact that the practice of foot-washing is not seen again in Acts or referred to in any way in the epistles clearly shows that those whose feet were washed understood He was challenging them to follow His example….not the practice, but the “Kingdom principle” that produced that practice.  That “Kingdom principle” of selfless acts of servant-hood regardless of the status assigned to that act of service by the existing culture MUST be expressed in a way that is relevant and understandable to the culture you are ministering within.

What I didn’t foresee was that the above convictions and many more, would actually become essential for effective ministry and efforts at church planting here in my own country–especially efforts to share the gospel with twentysomethings and younger and then integrate them into a local church.  And it goes without saying that my ministry among the refugee community must incorporate the same convictions and techniques.  Regarding American twentysomethings and younger, I had to realize that their rejection or at least their lack of interest or enthusiasm in much of the way us older folks “do” church and “walk” with Jesus–our “practices”,  might be because they see them as based on American cultural principles rather than on biblical “Kingdom principles”.

In a nutshell, I’m absolutely convinced that a cross-cultural, “missions” mindset and the various thought processes and grids used for planting a church in a foreign country are now also crucial to the success of a church planter that desires twentysomethings and younger to be an integral part of the local church they are seeking to pioneer.


10 replies
  1. CJ Kelly III (@PastorCJ3)
    CJ Kelly III (@PastorCJ3) says:

    Great thoughts here, Jeff. I remember you talking about this particular issue way back in the Missions class I had with you back at Murrieta. It has always stuck with me, and has served me well both here and abroad, as well as help shape my approach to my Christian discipleship as a whole. We are citizens of a heavenly kingdom, and we have been given a heavenly agenda, and we need to always operate based on these heavenly principles. Otherwise we’ll end up just another thing that becomes outdated and irrelevant.

  2. Miles DeBenedictis
    Miles DeBenedictis says:

    “In a nutshell, I’m absolutely convinced that a cross-cultural, “missions” mindset and the various thought processes and grids used for planting a church in a foreign country are now also crucial to the success of a church planter that desires twentysomethings and younger to be an integral part of the local church they are seeking to pioneer.”

    Could not agree more! Jeff, as always, I appreciate your take upon culture and how it applies to the various contexts we are ministering in both domestically or in the field. I’d love to see you develop more the “essential components necessary that must become a reality for a group of believers to consider themselves a valid expression of a local “body of Christ.”” and the key aspects of Paul’s church planting method as seen in Acts 20.

  3. Tobi Sänger
    Tobi Sänger says:

    good article, jeff!
    you probably don’t remember, but we met in sao paulo in 2001. you were there visiting kevin, and we were there for a day with our team from siegen/germany. you gave me a ride, and we had a great conversation in the car. i was impressed by your cross-cultural sensitivity, and how well trained kevin was in that respect (for a cc missionary).

  4. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Thanks, Jeff. At our church on Sunday morning we have about 55% anglo and 45% other – Indian/Chinese/Filipino/Latino/African American. This hasn’t been an intentional congregational mix on our part. What questions should I be asking to become more intentional about a greater cross-cultural impact?

  5. Bill Walden
    Bill Walden says:

    Good words here….

    In following the ministry of some churches that are effectively reaching the twentysomethings (i.e. Reality, etc.) in your opinion, are the twentysomethings becoming part of transgenerational churches, or are they planting themselves in their own age groups, and keeping to their own twentysomething culture?

    Does it matter if/that they stay in their young churches?
    Is it too early to tell if they will just stay in their own subculture, or if they will see themselves more clearly as the Church Universal?

    Just some thoughts and questions….

  6. Bill Walden
    Bill Walden says:

    By the way….

    I hope that I am not sounding critical, negative, etc.
    I really don’t feel that way.

    Much thought and many comments rightfully go into speaking about reaching the cultures we live in, and in particular, the twentysomethings, and I am truly interested in this discussion. Cultural sensitivity and awareness is very important, and as Jeff has said, we need to be careful about not importing our preferences into our ministries. (not a quote, my words)

    Reaching twenysomethings is a very popular topic. We do see efforts of bringing the Gospel into this age group, and some of those ministries “seem” to be very age and culture specific.

    I missed the Jesus movement, but from what I have heard, it was “long hair/short hair, shirt and tie” next to torn jeans and bare feet. I don’t know if that is an overly romanticized lyric, or if it is accurate statement of that movement. Was there more of a cultural mix back then than what we see in these days?

    I often wonder about “very age specific, culture specific” ministry, as opposed to culturally aware ministries that don’t try to be something they aren’t, but also are willing to be somewhat flexible.

    We have an AG church in town that has gone to great measure to reach the twentysomethings, only to find that some of the older core of the church feel left out and neglected, and can’t relate to some/much of what is going on, specifically re. worship. I hear that second hand, and it may not be as true as what was told to me. I don’t know.

    Do our churches take on a whole new personality to reach this age group? Do we need a combovers, gold medallions, and red convertible sports cars? I mean tats, ear lobe plugs, and whatever else. 😉

    I would certainly like to see more 2o year olds in our church, and I have a fear of fossilizing, and being irrelevant, but I also think of guys my age that seem to reach a broad age spectrum, (Greg Laurie, Mike MacIntosh), and haven’t become so tightly entrenched in a particular niche, style, culture, etc. Their churches seem to be quite trans-generational.

    From what I have seen from Daniel Fusco’s church (Calvary San Francisco), it seems to be very 20something friendly without trying to be narrow in its cultural presentation.

    Finally, as I tried to state in the previous post, if a ministry goes extreme in culture/style in reaching an age group, will the long term results be so age specific that another subculture is created that will one day be outdated? Are there good examples of trans-generational churches out there, that are effective in reaching 20somethings, without the pastor having to get a tat?

    I look forward to hearing from you guys on some of this. It is a good topic.

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