cross-cultural ministry

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Since we arrived for our second term here in the Yucatán in November of 2010, one of our emphases has been to see the gospel spread through the indigenous Maya culture. In the course of our work, we’ve taken several trips, met and worked with lots of individuals, and undertaken projects ranging from public events to church building. Through it all, we’ve realized it’s anything but “business as usual.” Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

1. We all have “boxes.”

Boxes are great tools, and as missionaries, we’ve come to have a special appreciation of them. They not only help us in our moves, but they retain their usefulness throughout our stay. Cultures, as well, are known to have their own “boxes”–ways of thinking and acting that are particular to a people or society, and, while there are certain conveniences that come from working out of these boxes, we rapidly see the liabilities of these beloved tools in a cross-cultural setting:

  • While they give us a place to store our “stuff,” they limit the amount of knowledge that we are open to receiving.
  • While they help us with categorization of our our experiences and perceptions, they also restrict us, causing problems when what we experience doesn’t fit with one of our preconceived categories.
  • While they aid us with the ability to recall past information in order to deal with a present situation, they also may lead us to stereotyping, especially when we have only a cursory knowledge of foreign customs or attitudes.

They scarier reality is that, although we have been trained to recognize the danger of utilizing our American-style boxes when engaging with Mexican culture, many Mexican nationals who desire to partner with us lack the training to realize that they too must recognize and overcome the temptation to operate exclusively from within their particular set of cultural norms.

While we had made certain assumptions in our partnership fellow ministers, we have found that the reality can often be quite different. For example, we had assumed that one’s proximity to the Maya culture would produce vision for ministry to that culture, However, we found that, at least with one worker who spoke the language and pastored among the people, this was not the case. His participation floundered soon after our first ministry trip. We had also thought that shared identity would equal experience, but found that even fellow “Yucatecos” can be at a loss when reaching out to the Maya culture of which they are descendants.

What we have experienced quite often are more in line with the idea that familiarity breeds contempt. In other words, that which is near at hand is seldom appreciated. Here in the Yucatán, many consider the Maya culture to be backward, outmoded. The language is not being passed on from one generation to the next as children have more interest in consuming what is produced in the global market than conserving their own heritage. With this in mind, there is an expectation for the indigenous to “move along” with the rest of society, limiting the number of those who would “reach back” in order to minister to these groups.

Also, we have found that the ministry that is being done often has a view to realize activities while it tends to sacrifice analysis. Many are quick to hold a campaign, but few succeed at the process of discipleship that is required before, during, and after the event. Events are planned out in minute detail, but rarely is the question asked, “Is this event appropriate for this community?”

So how do we do ministry among the indigenous, while encouraging our national brethren to join with us in the effort? That question leads us the the second lesson learned:

2. Our focus must be on understanding before we seek results.

The obstacles that we face are large. At times we aren’t understood, either by our ministry partners or the people to whom we are trying to minister. Conflicts come with partners over ministry approach, style, and content, while language barriers and culture disconnects often thwart our attempts to reach out to the indigenous in relevant, meaningful ways.

Nevertheless, we must believe that we can overcome these obstacles and work hard to do so. Among our partners, this must be done through vision-casting and mission-building. We must help them to see the big picture and get on board. Our goal is not that they become like us, but that they receive Christ into their own culture that He might transform them from the inside out.

In Romans 3:29, Paul asks the question, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too,” Our goal is that the Maya understand that God is their God as well, not just the God of the Spanish-speaker. Once this vision is accepted, we must make take steps to plan how this can be achieved, intentionally working together to bring about the desired result. Only with this plan in hand can we overcome our own cultural barriers and work together to extend the Kingdom of God among the indigenous.

Among the Maya, we must seek to gain entry into the culture, finding access through language-learning and key individuals who can serve to interpret the signals that so often come through our filters as just so much noise. We must also be willing to take a step back from our rush to stereotype behaviors and our hasty conclusions. We must understand that we need to learn to ask the right questions before we can ever be able obtain the answers that we’re so eager to receive.

Box photo used under Creative Commons by z287marc.

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AntorchistaWe were driving back from a planning meeting in Muna last Tuesday, where we’ll be hosting my brother and his Chi Alpha team, when I noticed, all along the roadway, bikers, runners with torches, and support vehicles flashing their lights and honking their horns. There were hundreds of people in the hour long stretch that we traveled.

It resembled some kind of Olympic procession. It was as if this group was ushering in the torch to light the first ever Yucatan Games, but looking closer I noticed that each one was wearing a t-shirt displaying the symbol of Mexican religious devotion, image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Researching further, I learned from that these “antorchistas” are youth that have made a personal vow to the Virgin, and last week on December 12th, the Day of the Virgin, they ran or biked in order to complete their vow. The trek is a point to point journey, with more favor bestowed for greater distances. Apparently, the bicycle was introduced as a way for the working devotee to cover more ground in a shorter amount of time. (Read fewer days off from the job.)

Of course, we have the tendency to dismiss all of this as a misguided devotion, a practice to abandon as pure paganism. Still, one has to admire the determination, the organization, and the passion of those who would exert themselves for their faith. We evangelicals, a group lacking the presence of young men in our congregations, can’t help but ask, “How do we instill this type of enthusiasm, this type of devotion in our faithful?”

I would suggest that the answer lies within the pages of the Bible in the example of our Lord. It would seem that we are more famous for what we don’t do (drinking, smoking, dancing) than for what we do, for what we are against, than what we are for, but Jesus didn’t seem to be this way. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” was the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes. What I see from Jesus isn’t a prohibition type religion. I see a radical redefinition of religious and social symbols.

To Peter and Andrew, fishermen by trade, Jesus says follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of men. To the woman at the well, Jesus says I am the one who gives living water. At the Last Supper, Jesus redefines the traditional passing of the cup and bread during the Passover meal into a remembrance of his sacrifice on the cross and celebration of the unity that we now have in the Church, the body of Christ on the earth. In other words, Jesus doesn’t seem to separate a person from his or her culture, rather he transforms the culture in much the same way that he transforms the individual.

This to me says that we as missionaries have a need for wisdom and God-given creativity when it comes to engaging a culture. What is truly anti-Christian, and what is simply an expression of culture? How can we contextualize, not just the presentation of the message of the gospel, but also its expression in worship and everyday life?

One case in point of an interesting attempt to accomplish this redemption of culture was in the Chota Valley, a culture of Ecuadorians of African descent. This people group had a dance that utilized a bottle, worn on the head and, if I remember correctly, filled with alcohol. In the bottle would be placed items that represented the pain and suffering that the person experienced in life. Missionary Joe Castleberry and his team, instead of prohibiting this cultural expression, redefined it. Gone was the alcohol and in the place of the symbols of pain and suffering was a flower to represent the new life the Christ brings.

I’ve not had the opportunity to see the “Freedom Valley” project first-hand, but I feel that it touches on an area that all missionaries need to consider. Did we do a disservice in our clothes-line style holiness of the 1900s? Have we relegated ourselves to the fringes of society though our lists of rules and prohibitions? How does it come across in the 21st century? On the flip-side, how does this redefinition of culture look, in Africa, in Mexico, in the US? Also, how do we know that we are truly redefining culture and not just compromising for convenience?

Granted, this task is not something that a simple post can solve, nor the work of one individual, but I think discussion is necessary and helpful if we are truly seeking to change the world.

Note: Picture was taken from (It’s kind of hard to drive and take pictures at the same time.)

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