Cross-cultural ministry isn’t easy. It’s difficult. A 2018 survey shows that 34% of pastors said that ethnic diversity of worship attendees at their church grew the last five years. But then, 62% believe that ethnic diversity in their church will increase in the following five years.
There’s no doubt that most Christians and churches say they value diversity; however, most don’t have an intentional plan to include more cross-cultural ministry in their lives. They naively believe that as society becomes more diverse in the United States, ministry naturally will become more cross-cultural. That just isn’t so.
Initiative and Intentionality
As the United States becomes more of a salad bowl with immigrants, students, and workers coming from around the world to settle, we are seeing a great opportunity to minister cross-culturally without having to move too far. If you live in a smaller town and think, well, there’s just no one in my community that’s different from me, perhaps you haven’t looked hard enough. Ethnic diversity is everywhere if you seek it out.
But that’s the problem. It takes initiative. It takes intentionality to go out of your everyday routine to find opportunities to minister cross-culturally or grow in your cultural intelligence quotient.
You can start with prayer, of course, asking God to put people in your path. But you might also have to do something about it. You may have to drive a little further to find a more diverse community. You may have to venture into an ethnic store or restaurant to experience a new culture. You might have to introduce yourself to someone of another culture in your church, your neighborhood, or workplace. You might have to struggle through a language barrier without giving up. You might have to invite a foreign exchange student into your home.
Overall, trying to do cross-cultural ministry is not going to happen just by wishing it so. It takes prayer and effort.
A Posture of Learning
Growing up in a Vietnamese home, but living in an American society, I learned quickly how to navigate between cultures. And as I grew up and lived and ministered abroad, I have learned that I need to be constantly learning.
Learning a new language, learning new traditions, learning about new foods, learning how societies work and how people act. There’s something about the learning that puts us in our place. That makes us realize that our way of doing something isn’t always the best way or the right way. It makes us realize that the only true standard we can live by is the Word of God; so, beyond that, we can allow for more grace and freedom, but apart from the Scripture as our standard, nothing else holds up as ultimate truth.
When encountering other cultures, then, listen and learn first before you start to do ministry. If they’re non-believers, you have an opportunity to love them and serve their needs and point them toward gospel truth. If they’re already believers, you might be surprised at what you learn about God through them. Ministry can go both ways. Don’t assume you know more or better than the other person.
God’s Glory is the Ultimate Goal
You might have read this far and are still thinking why is ministering cross-culturally or developing a knowledge of different cultures even important? Why should I prioritize learning from and ministering to people of other ethnicities when there’s enough people like me who still need Jesus?
Have you ever stared at the stars on a dark night and been in awe of God’s creation? Have you ever seen a sunset and ultimately praised God? Have you ever seen new species of flowers or traveled to see a new mountain range for the first time and thought, I worship an amazing God?
Cultural diversity is a buzzword these days, but we, as Christians, don’t prioritize it because it’s trending or politically correct. We prioritize it because it points us to a creative, all-good, all-powerful God who allows us to see beauty in His creation—not just in the trees and the birds, but even more so in His people and the artistry and culture that comes from His people.
Of course, leading people to the salvific message of the gospel is a purpose and mission that we should all have when encountering people like us or unlike us, but when we see ethnically diverse people as more than just the object of a mission, but also as a reflection of the beauty and creativity of an all-mighty God, God as Creator gets more glory.
So when I eat with my hands in an Ethiopian restaurant, or try to explain what “boba tea” is to a friend, or convince someone to try “tako,” raw octopus, at a sushi restaurant, I feel like I’m helping them see God in a bigger light—His ingenuity, His originality, even His fun side.
Their tastebuds might not prefer such treats (or maybe they will), but opening their minds to a world that they have never been exposed to before points to a God who is infinite and beyond our comprehension. Cross-cultural ministry creates opportunities for these baby steps out of our comfort zone, that allows us to make bigger steps for the Lord when He so calls us.
These are the reasons cross-cultural ministry should be prioritized in a disciple’s life today. To help us see a bigger world out there, to help us see we are not the center, to help us step out in faith, to help us be in awe, and to bring us joy. But we can only do so with intentionality and as a humble learner. And in the end, God gets all the glory as we stand in wonderment of His boundlessness and creativity.