Cross-Cultural Mission in Congregations

January 4th, 2011

How can we prepare our communities for cross-cultural mission, whether cross-cultural short-term mission trips, cross-cultural mission in our own communities, or mission in general?

 1. Christian communities need to provide a learning, caring, and affective space for mutual encounter and dialogue. Many Christian groups have taken risks when they engage in a common worship experience with people of different traditions or different faiths. However, many times issues and fears have been covered and kept secret in the context and content of the gatherings. As long as these issues and fears are not confronted and mutual risks are not acknowledged and appreciated, exclusion will continue to act as a phantom at different levels of the encounter. Therefore, leaders need to envision a context where faith and love can be shared, open to the process of the encounter itself.

2. Participating in cross-cultural mission requires mutual patience and compassion. Patience, because there will be times when our plans and objectives will not be accomplished. High expectations and ambitious planned objectives can harm the process. People need to meet one another in their own social and cultural places; they do not need to be pushed or pulled into an agenda determined by other external factors, including cheap reconciliation and fragile interaction. Training in the areas of cross-cultural communication is needed.

Compassion needs to be a fundamental ingredient in this missional encounter. I remember the story of one of my Korean students. In his Clinical Pastoral Education course he found himself listening to a hospitalized white woman who was bluntly expressing her concerns, confusion, fears, and ultimately her racism toward people of color, especially African Americans. He also heard this woman, who was ill, speak about the intrusion of foreigners and the deteriorating effect that they had on her community.

In the beginning he was numbed by her words. Later he was upset and disturbed, asking himself what he had to do with this sick, fear-driven woman who was surely blind—maybe because of his chaplain's attire—to the fact that he was not Caucasian. He could have just walked out of the hospital room, with good reason. The student, however, listened and intentionally continued to visit this woman, not only caring for her spiritual need in her illness, but also searching for ways to help her recognize her racism and fear, and begin to guide her to repent from her racism and discover a new perspective regarding the “cultural others” who surrounded her. He did not react to racism, but rather he responded with Christian compassion—love with a prophetic edge—in order to enter the difficult process of reconciliation and the possibility of mutual growth through cross-cultural mission.

On a more personal and reflective dimension, he also discovered the multi-layered dynamic of racism, and how, though not a Caucasian and aware of the history of racism against his people, he had some level of privilege given his ethnicity—closer to white than black skin color.

3. Cross-cultural mission is grounded in the Christian experience of liberation and reconciliation. Reconciliation begins with the oppressed. The invitation for reconciliation comes from those who have suffered the consequences of cultural, economic, political, and social displacement, and oppression. It is the fundamental prerequisite for the sharing of faith experiences and convictions without the fear of shame or embarrassment. The Christian conviction and action of reconciliation provides the certainty of heart and mind for the cultural encounter. This is especially true in the context of minority groups where the dominant culture has already established the qualifications for appropriate and accepted social standing and hierarchies.

For the dominant culture, this reconciliation process is difficult. Many of us who have been participants in the oppression of others and who have recognized our evil doings want immediate reconciliation. Our eagerness to receive forgiveness, given our guilt-driven culture, is our worst enemy in the process of cross-cultural reconciliation. Nevertheless, reconciliation slowly eradicates this “guilt” and moves us toward justice for the oppressed. Trust and mutuality slowly emerge as the groups continue to perceive, develop, and experience the sacramental bond that comes from the gift of the Spirit. Whether part of a minority group or of the dominant culture, both groups will be nourished and challenged by the discovery of the Spirit of God in the reconciling encounter.

4. Cross-cultural mission acknowledges the mutual recognition of incomplete, partial communal visions, with the understanding of the privileged location of those at the margins. Cross-cultural mission recognizes the particularity of cultures and the need to dwell in one another's cultures in order to see and develop more comprehensive communal and missional visions. Here Acts 10 speaks eloquently when Peter's encounter with Cornelius's household confirms (a) the prophetic and corrective character of Cornelius's household in relation to the religious culture and worldview of Peter's religious experience; (b) the mutual clarification that comes from the encounter; an active participation and interpretation from both groups regarding both visions and experiences; and (c) the challenge to openness as the Spirit keeps a broad horizon where the cultural shape of the Christian faith is always nourished by the cultural other, especially the one that is most strange to dominant cultural practices.

5. Cross-cultural mission is a sacramental activity. The missional encounter of cultures needs to establish a roundtable for sharing food and nourishing dialogue. The Lord's Table is an important symbol for cross-cultural mission. Christ invites all of God's people to participate in the Lord's feast. This sacred space dramatically reconfigures and challenges our reality, leading us to God's reality, the Reign of God. In worship, the reign of justice, reconciliation, and peace is at hand, and we need to repent, convert, and become, as a community, a sign of God's Reign. The Lord's Table, hence, becomes a symbol of what our daily life should be: inviting the Christian community to progressively and critically engage the perspectives, visions, and experiences that emerge from our cross-cultural encounters. This is where the prophetic dimension of the gospel renews our Christian faith. The roundtable provides the theological and missional space for embracing the historical transformation from a powerful and affluent style of mission and ministry, to a humble, learning, and accompaniment-driven mission practice and agency.

6. The dialogical and programmed activities of cross-cultural mission need to be seasoned with devotional and spiritual mutuality. Coming together for worship and witnessing becomes a crucial factor in faith exchange and transformation of both communities. The sharing of a baptism, the Eucharist or Lord's Supper, singing, praying together, sharing our faith journeys, sharing our weaknesses, and requesting prayer and support; all of these develop and affectionate communal character that informs the missional and worship day-to-day life of the people. People discover, learn, and develop spiritual intuition in the ecumenical exchange of worship.

This is a critical piece when relating to non-Christian groups in our context. This is an area that needs more exploration. However, good interreligious theology and missiology comes from the encounters themselves, not from a prior convictions that may be informed by stereotypes and misinformation. This is another gigantic step (and risk) for many congregations in urban and inner-city settings.

7. Finally, cross-cultural mission will occur as Christian communities offer mutual hospitality and recognize time, not as money, but as a gift of God to know one another. One of the most dramatic characteristics of the church in Acts is its hospitable character to fellow Christians and others in the community. It is that day-to-day experience of spending time in the Temple, breaking the bread at home, praising God, and having good will for all people (Acts 2:46-47) that makes mission possible and life-giving. It is a spirituality of hospitality and time that allows the Christian community to discover and celebrate the “mystery of the Body of Christ"—that unique experience of being one and different at the same time and space. … Acts is more than the expansion and growth of the church. It is the coming together of rich and poor, of Gentile and Jew, of people of different cultures affirming a common bond that shapes and gives direction to their faith commitments in their own contexts and particularities; a common bond framed within the privileged Christian location of the poor and the most vulnerable.

A Presbyterian congregation in California opened its doors to a Hmong group. (Hmong is an ethnic group from Laos who were persecuted during the Vietnam War and became refugees of war. Many came, and still come, to the United States to reconstruct their lives.) This congregation offered all kinds of services—housing, medical and health orientation, education, legal, and many more—and they provided a space for the Hmong to nourish their spiritual needs. The Presbyterian congregation was an example of hospitality. Members of the church also expected that at some point the Hmong group would join their congregation, thus making it a more diverse church.

Progressively, the Hmong began to take control of their lives. They were appreciative of the Presbyterian congregation and expressed their gratitude with gifts and food. They, however, had established their own congregation and slowly but steadily distanced themselves from the Presbyterian congregation. It was clear for the host congregation that their Asian friends were moving in a different direction, incompatible with the vision and expectations of the Presbyterian congregation.

The pastor of this congregation was taking a course with me. He shared this story after I had spoken about cross-cultural challenges in mission for the United States context. He was frustrated with the outcome of the project and hoped that his congregation would be enriched by the presence of the Hmong. As he continued to address the different issues in his congregation's story, I asked him, “Would your congregation do it again with another ethnic/refugee group?” The pastor looked at me hard and took some time to think through his answer. With a smile on his face, he replied, “Yes, professor, our congregation would do it again…We have never been the same, though we may not think about it too much; we have become a different congregation. We discovered a new spirituality, a missional spirituality.”


Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi is Associate Professor of World Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia. This article is excerpted and adapted from his book, Mission: An Essential Guide. Used with permission.

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