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Is cross-cultural mission harder?

by on May 6, 2010

There seems to be a growing awareness around the traps that Sydney has a large number of unreached ethnic and social groups. That’s good. My beef is this: often when people talk about this, they go on to say something like, ‘Yeah, these people need to hear the gospel, but you know, reaching them is hard work. Really hard work.’ Often when people hear that I’m heading for mission in multi-ethnic Canterbury after college, they say, ‘Wow, I really admire you, that’s a tough gig.’

I’m getting more and more bothered by this refrain. Why do we feel the need to keep repeating this warning to each other? Are we afraid that unless we keep a lid on it, everyone’s going to up and dive into cross-cultural mission with reckless abandon?

What I’m sensing is a subtext, an unspoken implication in this talk: that cross-cultural mission in Sydney is a kind of extreme sport, only for the radical few.  That ordinary Christians and ministers should think twice before taking that path. The ideal is good, but really, one must be wise. We mustn’t expect that just anybody can survive in such a harsh environment.

My question is, what is the basis for these extreme difficulty ratings? What makes us think this sort of mission is so much harder than reaching tertiary educated anglos? What data are we working from? To justify this ‘received view’, we would need data from a wide-ranging mission attempt amongst unreached groups in Sydney,  taking various forms and strategies, pursued by multiple churches and sustained over at least, say, ten years. Anything less, and the sample space would be too small to be statistically persuasive.

Has the experiment been tried?

If not (and I think ‘not’ is the reality), then why do we talk like this? Could it be that we’ve been comforting ourselves for our reluctance to engage with this vast, local mission field?

What if it weren’t that hard really? What if it turned out that, in spite of the difficulties, it was actually easier –  that these people groups were more open to the gospel than our preferred anglo upper-middle demographic? Seems to me that while it would take that large experiment to justify the ‘received view’, it would potentially need only a much smaller trial to overturn it. Just one or two church plants in the right areas, that saw significant conversion growth, and suddenly the prospects are looking quite different.

Wouldn’t it be exciting to be a part of those one or two…

From → General

  1. Susannah permalink

    If you ask me (which you didn’t!), I reckon this is a kind of transference issue. You know, we’ve battled on trying to reach comfortable middle-class tertiary-educated people and made little progress there. All the while we’ve been told that cross-cultural mission makes life so much harder (because you have to go overseas to do it, usually). I reckon a lot of people think that if cross-cultural stuff is harder than trying to reach the hard hearts of our comfortable friends and family, then it must be nigh on impossible. But maybe the only thing is harder is adaptation on a cultural level. If hearts are more open then you’re right, it may be fundamentally more easy.

    However, I wouldn’t under-estimate the difficulty of the culture-level adaption. Working in a bilingual workplace I have some inkling of what the tensions can be, and it’s an on-going effort just to pay enough attention to what the others are saying and make the mental effort to get inside their heads enough to achieve even a basic level of harmony. Do-able, though!

  2. 1. I reckon we as christians have become so comfortable in our own (generally middle class) comfort that any mission is going to look like “a tough gig”.

    2. Mission to middle class Aussies is a very tough gig. Kids and youth mission is OK in middle class areas, that’s where most of our converts come from, but adults don’t need any help in life, they’re doing nicely thank you and getting out of the armchair to go to a quaint place like church is a journey too far. And trying to engage on their territory (pub, club, coffee shop, sporting venue, BBQ, etc), now that’s a tough gig!

    3. The experts have been telling us for years that all mission these days is cross cultural, that we have allowed our quaint christian subculture to ossify since the 1960s (but wait, we have drums in the service!) so that the world outside is quite a different culture. People have assessed the extent of barriers between us and the world, and there’s many of them by now, especially in church services – jargon language, different values, incomprehensible beliefs, strange behaviours, etc.

    Life is a tough gig sometimes, even for middle class Aussies. We surely need to “get used to disappointment” (in the words of the man in black) and get back to following Jesus, who left his comfortable middle class suburban home in heaven to cross a few cultural barriers to reach us.

    : )

    PS Jonathon – can we have a “Preview” button here???

    • unkleE, thanks so much for the post! For an unkle, you write like a young punk with attitude.

      1. Agreed. But my point is when people make mission efforts in ‘nice’ areas (and they do, you know), nobody says ‘tough gig’ to them! It seems there’s a cultural/ethnic component to our fears.

      2. Totally agree. I can’t understand why we think anything in the world could be harder than getting middle class Sydney interested in what we’re on about.

      3. Again, good point. I think this is mainly true for our church services. And they were the focus of your comment, i think. They are certainly culturally weird. But thank God, we don’t live our whole lives in services! Most people who aren’t at Moore College live out in the world, like yourself, rubbing shoulders and even making friends with everyday middle class Aussies. We watch the same TV (don’t get me started here), support the same footy teams, eat the same food etc. As individuals, we’re culturally pretty close really (some might argue, too close!). Whether we actually engage with these people much is another issue…

      It’s somehow when we gather that things get weird.

      But if you’ve ever wandered around Campsie or Cabramatta, you’ll know that some of Sydney’s cultures are much more distant from us. Language, food, movies, sports, religion, music, all different. Mightn’t it be better to save the term ‘cross-cultural’ for this end of the ‘difference’ spectrum?

      I totally agree we need to build bridges to our white neighbours. I just think that when we do, we’ll find that as individuals we’ve already got a lot in common.

      My favourite quote from you: Jesus, who left his comfortable middle class suburban home in heaven

      Gold! Can I steal this?

      PS I’ll see what I can do about the button – not too hopeful though, we’re a pretty no frills outfit.

  3. Keith permalink

    The previous posts raise a question in my mind. Would it be necessary, in order for a church plant to be successful, for the members of that plant to be largely living in that area? If most people live outside of it, I imagine reaching it with the gospel would be much harder. On the other hand, moving to live in the area might (while likely to open more doors for the gospel) might require quite a bit of adjustment and sacrifice.

    • Keith, thanks for taking the time to comment. That’s a great question, and very graciously put. We’re working with the following views at the moment.
      1. Yes it’s better if the people are local. Necessary? Who can say. For long term success, probably yes it will be necessary. It’s certainly our long term goal.
      2. Yes it’s a big ask for people to move local. Just to move at all is huge. We are telling our team that medium term, we’ll be encouraging them to move close, but not just now. It’s probably setting the bar a bit high for a starting church-plant. Hard for people to want to move close before they know the area a bit, before they’ve prayed for it and served in it and love it.
      3. Initially distance will limit our effectiveness, and we accept that limitation for now. Got to start somewhere!
      4. As people respond to the gospel and join the church, the focus will become more local, and this effect should ‘snowball’ – i.e. make mission more effective, leading to more locals joining us, etc.
      5. Our family will be moving to Canterbury at the start, so will Christian.


      • Keith permalink

        All sounds pretty good to me and a pretty wise way to proceed. Praying for you guys. Sorry I’m not a position to think about doing more.

  4. Keith, we’re very encouraged to know that you’re praying for us. Sometimes it’s good to have people who ‘can’t do more’, because it focusses them on praying, which is vital.

  5. Lisa H permalink

    Might just add to the above discussion about location that canterbury is an awful lot nicer than canterbury road and really pretty nice for the most part – leafy, some good schools, close to the city. Not like we’re contemplating upping and moving to a remote aboriginal community or anything (what kind of nutso christian wd do that? 😉 ).
    We can even keep our support networks and day jobs.

    And Susannah, pondering on your post my idea is that being forced to adapt culturally might increase our baseline of conscious effort but also make things a lot easier in some areas where our failure might be less obvious and more spiritual.

    – by necessity we’d need to stay more focused on the simple gospel which holds any healthy church together, praising God for sending Jesus to die so the whole world might live. I hope so anyway.
    – we’ll have no choice but to be accepting of (even celebrating) difference within the church, rather than subtly judging one another by culture-bound standards.
    – our personal temptation to become too like the world should be less than when we are constantly hanging around in our own comfort-loving materialistic culture.
    – Some of the more traditional cultures retain old-style virtues we’ve forgotten, and can teach us westerners a lot about how much more family and community can mean.
    – to cap it off I think the comprehension barriers with nonchristians in our own culture are just as real, but harder to notice or address because we’re all speaking english.

    So maybe dwelling among other cultures will just demand more effort in areas where we can’t afford to be coasting? We might get so mentally flexible and gospel centric we can witness more effectively to anybody, including our own ethnic group.

  6. @Susannah, and further to Lisa’s comments,

    You said ‘…it’s an on-going effort just to pay enough attention to what the others are saying and make the mental effort to get inside their heads enough to achieve even a basic level of harmony’.

    I’m finding this thought increasingly inspiring. Imagine a church where, instead of a basic level of harmony being assumed, and preserved by politeness etc, people are paying attention to what the others are saying, as an act of self-giving love. Imagine a church where we make the mental effort to get inside each other’s heads, and so develop a true sympathy and bond that cost us something, and is doubly precious to us for that.

    I’ve never been at a church that was much like that. I’d like to, though!

  7. Michael Doran permalink

    Hi all
    I’d love to hear stories of Jesus coming up in conversation in the company of unbelievers. Is that happening in your life?
    It’s very uncommon in mine!
    I feel very out of practice.

  8. I think we all feel that way, Michael. I don’t think these scenarios happen nearly as often as the evangelism books make out. For one thing, religion really is taboo in polite conversation. Also, many of us have few non-Christian friends, and not many of those friends are likely to bring up such a topic – they know we’re all trained to go for the throat if the opportunity presents! So it’s down to us to try to ‘bring it up naturally’. A few people have that wonderful gift, but not many – I don’t!

    So what’s left? Not much chance to practise!

    Imagine, though, being part of a community where Jesus was talked about freely and warmly, a community that was reaching out, not by ‘bringing around the conversation’, but by following Jesus, going around doing good to people, loving our neighbours in practical ways, caring for the weak, and so embodying the grace of the Lord Jesus. Imagine if we could preach the gospel powerfully with our actions, to people who wouldn’t be willing to hear it in words? Sooner or later, some of those people are going to want to come and find out who this Jesus is who inspires us to live this strange life. They get in touch with our community, say by coming to a BBQ, and see and hear the gospel which they’ve already been experiencing, now put into words. This still need not involve ‘bringing the conversation around’ – they can listen in on what’s being talked about in the community, without being personally confronted by it. Eventually they might even come to a service and hear the gospel more formally presented.

    And somewhere along this path, they’re going to start asking questions. At that point, even those of us who don’t know how to bring the conversation around, will know what to do!

    That’s our vision for mission in Canterbury. Not so much individual evangelism as community evangelism. Not so dependent on speaking gifts. Kind of takes the fear out of it, I reckon. What do you think?

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