Cross-cultural Missions

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the August 22, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson


“…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19b-20a, NIV

Sharing the Gospel across cultures can be challenging. We have recently been reminded of this with the General Conference session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in San Antonio, Texas, here in the United States. Because of differences of language and culture, concern was expressed that some might be voting on important issues without a complete understanding of their significance. There were even concerns about “cultural imperialism,” as some regional delegations may be tempted to flex the muscle of new found voting power based on the increasing numbers of members in their respective territories. As is often the case, reality and perception may differ on these issues, but the fact that they were raised at all illustrates the significant role culture plays in the global mission of the Christian church.

In the past, western missionaries have often imposed western cultural values as part of the message they were preaching. This made for strange results in some instances. For example, male converts were tempted to mimic the suits and ties favored by the missionaries, equating the dress with holiness. This was in spite of the torrid heat of tropical climates, where the natives normally wore little. Perhaps this wasn’t all the fault of the locals. That many of the missionaries clung to this dress, in spite of the discomfort, may have demonstrated that they, too, felt it was somehow holier. This legacy still is with us today, as many local pastors in those areas still emulate that style of dress.

We also see this cultural bias architecturally. As congregations of believers are formed in these countries, they are taught that their congregation is somehow lacking if they do not have a western-style church as the focal point of worship. This results in similar problems as it has in the West. Congregations end up burdened with buildings that they must somehow maintain. Many are the churches in the West that spend far more on maintenance than on evangelism. Why would we want to impose similar burdens on worshippers elsewhere? Even simpler, less expensive churches can be a tremendous burden to a “third-world” congregation where many do not even earn the daily equivalent of what it would take to buy a can of pop in the United States. The early Christian church, thriving in its vibrancy, met in small groups in people’s homes.[i] Only later, when they became an official religion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, did they then begin to build dedicated structures for worship, often based on adaptations to the Roman basilica.[ii] This was perhaps initially a matter of convenience, for the church was growing so rapidly larger buildings for meetings became necessary and those structures were made possible once Christianity could be practiced openly.

Eventually, somehow, the church building itself began being viewed as something holy and sanctified. This would hardly have been possible with the house churches, because even though prayer and Bible study took place in them, the remaining activities were likely mundane and carried no special religious significance. Nonetheless, in spite of all of this, Christians too often tend to promote the worship of edifices as memorial to holiness. Some might challenge this idea as too extreme, but as has been mentioned, a simple examination of most church budgets will reveal priorities. If we want to find out what is most important in a man’s life, we might need to only follow the money trail.

Imperialism is not the only influence on cross-cultural evangelism, however. While some missionaries may have imposed their values on other cultures from a certain belief that their western culture was superior, others may have had less nefarious reasons. They may have simply been naïve. Even in western cultures, children who grow up attending parochial schools and socializing only with other church members grow up with a certain naiveté about their own culture. Some have worked diligently to preserve this in their children, equating naiveness with holiness. Too often, this results in a lack of judgment and discernment in real world situations. While this can create problems at home, layering other cultures over a naiveté about one’s own can quickly exacerbate the problem.

For example, while I was serving in Vietnam, I had numerous opportunities to visit our church’s mission in Saigon where there was also a parochial school. I happened to walk up to a volleyball game being played on campus. I was quite shocked at all the cursing and profanity being spouted by the students during the game. The missionaries, blithely ignorant of what was going on smiled and watched the game without understanding what a poor example it was making of the church. Perhaps, because they only played competitive sports with other Christian youth, the idea that filthy language could be a part of the game had never occurred to them. If we couple that with gestures from another culture and curse words that are based in foreign idioms and slang, and the missionaries are like babes, lost in the woods with no knowledge of what is going on around them. Maybe I would have been the same, except I was raised in public school and along with a good basic education. I also received an understanding of the language of the street. When I served in Vietnam, I learned enough Vietnamese to shop in the local markets. Along with that, being exposed to the rough life of a soldier, I also learned many of the more negative words and gestures of that language. However, having knowledge of these things does not necessitate using that knowledge in the way many do. Jesus said that we should be wise in the ways of a serpent, but innocent as doves.[iii] That Jesus would say such a thing is indicative of how important it may be to not send naïve individuals into foreign missions where the “wolves” reside.

Faced with such daunting challenges, some might feel the church should avoid foreign missions altogether and focus our efforts here at home. But while home work is important, Jesus’ expectation, as in the verses at the top of the page, was that we would cross international borders and enter other cultures, somehow finding a way to teach them the gospel. We are to do this in spite of the cultural and language differences. Jesus himself modeled reaching out to other cultures with His witness to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, a witness that impacted her whole village.[iv] He shared his ministry of healing with a Roman centurion, a man whose great faith He lauded.[v] He even healed a young girl because of the faith of her Canaanite mother.[vi]

We might do well to ask ourselves how we are doing on that front. How are we at bringing compassionate healing to those different than us? Do we tend to equate the words “different” and “evil?” Do we find it difficult to see all men and women as our brothers and sisters even within the relative homogeneity of our own culture? If that is difficult for us, how do we expect to impact the world and the many cultures it contains with the gospel? On the other hand, are we more eager to make a difference somewhere else, feeling that anywhere but home is a legitimate missionary field? For those who feel this way, Jesus also gave an example. He first sent the disciples only to Israel. They “cut their teeth” in mission work in a culture that was familiar to them. Only after that did Jesus send them out into the wider world.

Based on that example, perhaps we can say that if a person wishes to work in foreign missions they might do well to first work at home to demonstrate their ability and learn something of the world. Knowledge of the degradation of the world will help prevent situations like the one in Saigon mentioned above. We do not need to become degraded ourselves to learn what it looks like, how it acts, and what the results of depravity are. The Holy Spirit will teach us all we need to know while working for lost souls. However, this means we cannot remain aloof, simply giving lectures without mingling with the common people to learn about their lives and their needs. Once we learn these things in our own culture, we can do the same in foreign lands. To do so, we need only learn their language and then continue doing there the same work we have done at home. Once again, working intimately with them, in their own culture and language, not sheltered within enclaves of our own culture, the Holy Spirit will lead us into all the knowledge we will need and more.

In San Antonio, at the General Conference session, a few complained that the third world was imposing its cultural values on the West. If so, perhaps that was a good thing in that it allowed us to feel what they have been feeling for so many years. Maybe it will bring about a change in how we do cross-cultural mission work. If we do not find the will to grow and change, we could find that being on the receiving end of cultural imperialism is painful. This might be particularly because we taught them how to do it so well.


[i] Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19

[ii] "Church architecture,"

[iii] Matthew 10:16

[iv] John 4:4-30

[v] Matthew 8:5-13

[vi] Matthew 15:21-28



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