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The Art of Being Bi-Cultural in an American Context

Being a bi-cultural Christ-follower means being able to comfortably move in and out of cultures, sometimes even a variety of cultures. For those who leave their home culture to serve in another part of the world, one of the challenges is learning the ways of their new home as they try to become as much like those they are trying to reach as is possible—think Hudson Taylor for the twenty-first century. For those living in an American context who want to see Christ proclaimed cross-culturally, the challenge is a bit different. You might not leave home geographically, but you must learn to leave home culturally and acquire a set of skills that allows you to move in and out, back and forth, between cultures, even though you’re still going home at the end of the day to sleep in your usual, “American” bed. This might sound daunting, but I hope this article can start a conversation that will encourage us to reflect on some of the methods God might use to prepare us for this important work.

We’ve included the word “art” in the title for a reason—because God has been busy painting. You could say that the canvas was our lives and the paint was the experiences that taught us cross-cultural skills. My wife and I are originally from Rochester, New York. After a few early (and frustrating) years in pastoral ministry, we moved our family to California in 1992 and served at the U.S. Center for World Mission. Then we spent a few years mobilizing in Western Pennsylvania, primarily targeting charismatic/Pentecostal churches. On to a couple of pastorates in Southern Illinois, one of which was charismatic, then a significant change when we joined the Southern Baptists (SBC), then a move back to upstate New York. While in New York, we attended a charismatic church pastored by a close friend, I assisted our local SBC association with some apartment complex Bible studies, and I eventually took a bi-vocational SBC pastorate at a declining urban church. I also began teaching at a private school hosted by an Assemblies of God church where about 20 percent of the students came from Russian and Ukrainian immigrant families. If life is art, then I’d say our canvas looked much more like Vincent van Gogh than it did Leonardo DaVinci. It was as if God had taken paint and sort of tossed it against the canvas. The image he was trying to display was clear to him, but it certainly was not to us.

A key to this bi-cultural process is found in Philippians 1:6. God began a good work in us, and he is the one responsible for carrying it to completion, not us. In other words, God knows who we need to become and how to get us to that place. There is no seminary education that could have ever accomplished in us what many years of constant change brought about. God was teaching us to hold on to him tightly and everything else loosely, including our majority-culture identity.

About this time, refugees from Bhutan and Nepal began arriving in our city. In God’s providence, they were initially settled near the declining church I was pastoring. Among the resettled believers was a young but experienced pastor who lived across the street from our small church. It would take thousands of words to tell the whole story, but over the next five years, that group and our family became inseparably joined together, like what happens when you mix several different paints together to achieve a new and more vibrant color. Our friends learned to navigate their new world, and we learned to navigate theirs. We taught them a few things, and they taught us many. For the last three years of our fellowship, their worship service was also ours exclusively. We lived those years moving in and out of cultures, learning and loving people in God’s family from far away who had been brought near by the blood of Christ and the strategic will of God—Bhutanese, Nepali, Baptist, Pentecostal, Russian, Ukrainian, and more. Our days were full, and even though we always went back to our small suburban home in a majority-culture neighborhood at night, we sought to be “Jesus culture” focused, no matter what group we were with.

Love can conquer fear and the possible prejudices of the heart, in them as well as in us.

Another key to this process is to take to heart what Paul wrote in Acts 17:26–27. If we honestly believe that it is God who has brought the nations to our neighborhoods, then we will willingly, and not grudgingly, seek ways to build meaningful gospel relationships with them. If we receive them as fellow image-bearers, then love can conquer fear and the possible prejudices of the heart, in them as well as in us.

By the time we left New York in 2014, what was once a declining majority-culture church had become home to an overflowing group of passionate believers. It was my privilege to see this group of “refugees” become (to the best of our knowledge) the first Bhutanese/Nepali congregation in America to own their own church property. It wasn’t much outwardly, but they have used it well for the Kingdom. They evangelized, discipled, and planted a sister church, and they no longer needed me the way they did at the beginning.

Here is one more key, perhaps the most important one: humility. Philippians 2:6–7 gives precious counsel here. The church belongs to Christ, not us. He is the head of the body. On paper, I was the senior pastor of that congregation, but they needed me to be their senior servant, not act like I had the right to conform them to the majority culture’s way of doing church.

The church belongs to Christ, not us.

This is a brief glimpse of how God has taught us to move in and out of cultures. What’s your story? How has God been at work in your life to help you be a cross-cultural servant while living in your home culture? Let’s start the conversation.

 

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