“No way. That’s crazy!”
I was shocked. I’ve studied missiology. I have an advanced degree in cross-cultural ministry. All the research I could think of said the same thing: Near cultures can reach the unreached with the gospel more effectively and efficiently than far cultures. For someone from a far culture it just makes sense. Near cultures have language, similar cultural values, and a relatively short distance to travel.
But my friends of Southeast Asian heritage were challenging one of the core tenets in my philosophy of missions.
4 Minute Read
By Matt Whitacre
When I asked if it would be easier for them to reach a certain people group in Southeast Asia, they said “No way. That’s crazy. It would be much easier for you to reach them than us.”
How is that possible?
I’m a white male from Midwestern USA. I don’t speak any Asian languages and I know next to nothing about the culture. Both of their families came from a minority people group nearby the majority people group I was praying would be reached.
Here’s what I missed: Racism. Tribalism. Ethnocentrism. Classism. History of oppression. History of power struggles. History of cultural clashes. Generations of stories that passed on prejudice like hand-me-down clothes.
I thought racism was primarily an American problem. Turns out it’s a human problem. And these ingrained prejudices can be bigger barriers to the gospel than language or culture or distance.
As I have watched the American, and particularly the white American church struggle with how to respond to both conscious and unconscious, individual and systemic racial oppression in our country over the past several years, I’ve become convinced that we need to incorporate a gospel-saturated response to racism in our cross-cultural training.
As missionaries, as carriers of the good news of reconciliation, we have to find a way to pursue racial reconciliation in our own country and our own churches before we dare to advise our global brothers and sisters in the matter.
Actually, “advise” is the wrong word and the wrong posture. We need to journey together and learn from each other. We need to come together and seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance. He is the true teacher.
How do we move forward?
Open up God’s Word and read Numbers and Leviticus again and notice how many laws have to do with protecting people from injustice. And then read the prophets. And then the Gospels. Okay, just read the whole Bible. God’s heart is for the oppressed and brokenhearted.
Find voices of marginalized people in your community and around the world. Read books and blogs. Follow these people on social media. Listen to sermons and podcasts. Watch documentaries. Listen until you can empathize and then listen some more.
Resist the urge to argue back or defend your own self-righteousness. Cry out to God and weep for the way you and your community have failed to love your neighbor. Ask God that his will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Start by reading Amos 5. Confess your failure to hate evil. Confess your complacency for the plight of the poor who are deprived justice in the courts.
Then read James. Ask God to reveal to you any ways you have contributed to or benefited from oppression and confess those to him. Seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance for how you can actively pursue justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed.
Don’t stop when you think your book knowledge has you “woke.” Ask God for wisdom how to pursue friendships with the “other.” Find a church with members who look and think differently than you and visit as a learner. Look for opportunities to meet refugees and international students. Invite people to your home or meet them for coffee. Ask them about their families. Ask them about what is important to them. Listen with empathy. Rejoice when they rejoice. Weep when they weep.
One benefit of having a diverse set of friends is when you see news reports of injustice; those victims aren’t just “others” anymore. You hurt a different way because your mind and your heart realize that victim could have been your friend. Injustice becomes personal.
If you end up going overseas to work with other global Christians, these experiences of listening and relating to people from diverse backgrounds will help you navigate cultural rivalries. God willing, it will also help you break down barriers to the good news of Jesus’ reconciling work on the cross.
Worship the Lamb
One day we will all be worshiping before the Lamb who was slain. Near and far cultures will be together, with all the skin tones and unique facial features made in God’s creative image. But let’s not wait until then to affirm to one another “your life matters.” Let’s not wait until then to listen and learn from each other. Let’s honor God now and ask him to bring the reconciled diversity of heaven down to earth.
Matt has been part of Serve Asia since 2013. When not serving Asia, Matt enjoys spending time with his family and ministering with his church in Aurora, Colorado.