For two of the Sunday’s in June I’ve preached on the topic of being missional. Being missional is fundamentally about seeing what God’s mission is for the whole world and then getting involved with that mission. A key part of that, however, is shifting how we see ourselves and our role as everyday Christians. For many years missionaries were the people that the church would send overseas to some other place to do the work of connecting with new people and sharing the Gospel with them. These days, however, the mission field has become our own city and neighborhoods, which also means that each of us now must take on the work and the role of being a missionary. This shift also means some fairly significant things for what it means to gather together as the church. While there are many things to learn about doing this work, allow me to share one that effects most everything else that we do.
Cultural distance. Imagine that you’re a missionary dropped into a foreign culture talking with someone for the first time. Obviously, there are many differences between the culture that you were raised in and the culture of the per-son you’re talking with. Your goal may be to communicate the Gospel to them in a way that they understand. The problem is that every single one of those cultural differences provides a barrier to effective communication and under-standing. And each one of those barriers takes a certain amount of work.
In this image, imagine that you’re the person standing at M0 and the person you’re talking with is standing at M5. Each one of those lines represents a barrier that needs to be overcome. One might be language. One might be class. One might be race. One might be assumptions about family life. One might be age. One might be gender, and so on. While there are plenty of similarities that we can connect with, these different barriers between cultures do exist and they do take some work to overcome if we are to have meaningful understanding and communication of the Gospel.
One of the most basic and primary tasks of being a missionary is to overcome these cultural differences. When we think of overseas missionaries, this is the bulk of their work. What is important to realize is that while these differences might be obvious when thinking about overseas missionaries, the reality is that there are just as many of these cultural differences between those of us on the inside of the church and those who are out there in the world.
We might not always be aware of it because it is so familiar to many of us, but much of the culture of being and doing “church” is actually very strange to most other people. For example, singing a 4 part harmony hymn together as a group is a completely foreign and bizarre cultural artifact to most of the world. Singing hymns, and many other things we do in church, might give us warm fuzzy feelings, but for someone walking in off the street we might as well have started speaking in a foreign language. There is actually a significant amount of cultural difference between the church and the surrounding world. And that difference means two important things for us.
First, we need to remember that crossing those cultural differences takes work and that it’s our responsibility to do that work, not the new people we are hoping to connect with. Often we think about what we can do to attract new people to come here to our congregation. But what we of-ten forget is that when we do that, what we are really doing is asking them to do the hard work of crossing those cultur-al barriers, which means that we’re really asking them to do the work of being a missionary coming to us. That is not how it should be. We are the ones called by Jesus to go out and spread the word. We’re the ones motivated by our faith. Which means we’re the ones who have the responsibility to go out and do the work of crossing cultural boundaries.
The other thing to remember is that it is our responsibility to help new people navigate the culture of our church. On the off chance that someone has actually mustered the courage to cross those cultural boundaries and walk into this church, not knowing what they will expect, we need to remember and respect that they are attempting to navigate a foreign culture. This is why it is vitally important that when someone new shows up for a worship service that we help them navigate their way through the culture of church. A handshake and a smile is nice, but someone to sit with them and help them navigate the worship service is essential.
I have often said that the church, and in particular our church tradition, is strange…..and that’s a good thing! We’re supposed to be different than the world. That’s what makes us interesting, and salty (Matt 5:13). But at the same time, we need to recognize how we are culturally different than the world around us and be very intentional about crossing those cultural barriers and helping people navigate through those cultural difference so that we can share the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
Each month for our newsletter Pastor Alan writes a short article on a variety of topics. At times he will also create a video version of the article.