Jesus issues a clear directive in Acts 1:8 to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. His command seems simple enough: Go and tell everyone about me. But when the ends of the earth move in next door, differences in language, religion, customs, and culture can quickly build walls between people who have the gospel and people who need to hear it.
The 2016 IBSA Annual Meeting will explore issues surrounding cross-cultural ministry, including real-life stories of pastors and churches who have sacrificed their own cultural comfort for the sake of the gospel.
The Illinois Baptist sat down with four such leaders for a special roundtable discussion about the cultural idols we all have, why the church seems to be last to change, and how to be a good neighbor. The following interview was edited for space.
Illinois Baptist: Let’s start by defining the big topic. When we talk about ministering cross-culturally for the sake of the gospel, what does that mean to you?
Adron Robinson: In Ephesians 2, when Paul says that we are all one body of Christ, he is telling believers that we are all one new culture, and it is about tearing down our cultural idols in order to be that body of Christ.
We all have inherent cultural idols. We all come from culture and we all come with that assumption that the way we grew up is the way everybody should grow up. The gospel shows us that there is a new normal.
Marvin Del Rios: I go to the book of Acts, chapter 6, what we see between the Hellenistic Jews and the Hebrews. That is something we are living within the Hispanic and Latino churches right now. Unfortunately, the first generation can get stuck in a certain way of preaching, a certain way of leading worship, a certain way of doing church. What is happening is that there is an exodus of the second and third generations from the church. My thing with cross-cultural ministry is that even though I am called to go and preach to the nations, I have a burning desire to go and reach my second- and third-generation Latino culture.
IB: Do you as pastors feel the pressure to lead in that way, to help your churches to move beyond those inherent cultural biases?
Kevin Carrothers: I will certainly agree that that is our responsibility. I was talking to Pastor Adron earlier about Jeremiah 29 and how God spoke through Jeremiah about the exile. The verse that sticks out in my mind is Jeremiah 29:7. It says, “Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to; pray to the Lord on its behalf for when it has prosperity, you will prosper.”
Sometimes we feel like we are living in exile wherever we are. But we are called to wherever we are. God has planted us there, and we need to have transformational ministry in our communities. That does mean crossing all kinds of cultural divides.
Robinson: The other side of that, of God telling them to seek the welfare of the city, is them overcoming their nationalism.
Carrothers: That’s right.
Robinson: For them, Jerusalem was the pinnacle. God says, “Well, now you are in Babylon and you are to make Babylon a better place. You have been planted there sovereignly for a purpose.” Part of that is laying down our love for our old culture and doing what God has called us to do in a new context.
IB: We know that communities change over the years—your churches have experienced those shifting demographics in their neighborhoods. How does community change affect a church’s ability to reach across cultures?
Robinson: Hillcrest started as an Anglo church in an Anglo community. As the community transitioned to a more blended community, the church is always the last thing to change. The community was predominantly African-American and the church was still predominately Anglo. They become known in the community as “that” church, not “our” church.
When they called me as pastor, the first thing we started to do is to try to reach our neighbors. Our first priority was to get out and meet the community and build relationships so that we could have conversations about faith going forward. We connected with a high school across the street. We connected with City Hall. We started to look for ways to be incarnational. How can we take the gospel out to other places?
IB: You mentioned the church is always the last thing to change. Do you think that’s true of most churches?
Robinson: Yes, I think that’s most churches. I think we downplay how big of an idol comfort really is to us. As communities transition, churches can easily fall into the “us versus them” mentality. This is our church, we have always been here. Yeah, but the purpose of the church is to reach the community with the gospel. So if the neighborhood changes, you have new neighbors to reach.
Del Rios: We don’t change fast enough and then when we do decide to change, we are already five to ten years behind. Then we are doing the catch-up game, and I think that’s where we as leaders get tired. We feel like we are in the hamster wheel running around doing nothing.
Yi: I think the big secret that we need to bring out into the open is that every church is “that” church, it’s just a matter of which “that” you are going to be. I still remember when you talked about a church, it was, “That’s the Catholic church, that’s the Baptist church, that’s a Methodist church.” But it’s not like that anymore. I think that churches can be more proactive about helping the community define what they are.
Working around church planters, one of the things we see is leaders being very proactive about what they want their church to be known as, what their niche is. Of course, in churches, we are not supposed to be public relations people, but I think we do have to be concerned, not just with what do the people outside the church think of us, but also what do our own members think of us. What kind of church are we? I think there is a lot we can do to help shape that. We do not have millions of dollars to create that public image, but we do have a currency and that’s the way we do our ministry. The way we engage our neighbors.
Robinson: I think John touched on something important: Every church is going to be that something. People are going to say that’s the church that does this or that church does that. You need to get out front in defining what your church is going to be known for. John 13:35 comes to mind. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Carrothers: Probably where our church has struggled the most is that we have to give away without expecting anything in return. We have done a fall festival for nine years, but it hasn’t brought a single member into the church. People have asked me why we keep doing this if we are not seeing people come into the church. My response is, if you can come up with something else where we can speak into 300-500 people’s lives in our community, then I’m all ears. Well, nobody has taken me up on that yet because we are speaking to 80 people on Sunday morning.
IB: Is expecting something in return one of those cultural idols we talked about?
Robinson: The corporate model, which is an idol from the world. One of the budget shifts Hillcrest made as far as reaching the community was to stop doing events for how much we can get back. We are doing whatever it is to extend the gospel to our community, which means that we are going to have to spend some money and sacrifice in order to reach our neighbors with the love of Christ. It’s not all going to come right back. You’re not going to have an event today and 50 new neighbors come in next week.
Yi: If you can get your congregation to think that way, that the church really is a non-profit organization, that we are not doing ministry for profit, that’s a success too. Just getting that shift in thinking.
Robinson: Getting the membership to embrace discipleship.
Carrothers: Absolutely. That’s a kingdom value.
Del Rios: We established a Halloween outreach at the church three years ago. We open the doors and the kids come in with their families. We have a little table for kids’ activities, something very simple, and they get candy and they can leave. Then, as they are leaving, the parents are there and we have adults there to have simple conversations. Some lead to gospel conversations.
Now, how many have joined the church out of the last three or four years during that process? None. But this Saturday there was a block party in our neighborhood and I went to visit and just talk to a couple of folks I know. The people I talked to introduced me to other folks, and the other folks said, “You’re the church with the Halloween stuff going on. You’re the church that gave us hot chocolate and that Spanish coffee that was delicious.” Yes, we are the church. Are they coming in? They are not, but they associate us with the church on Halloween that had the great Spanish coffee and they came in and they listened to a gospel conversation. Not a Bible-banging conversation, but a gospel conversation.
Carrothers: Isn’t it interesting that one of the things Paul talks about in Romans 12 is hospitality?
Del Rios: Yes.
Carrothers: Isn’t the heart of hospitality giving away without expecting anything in return?
Robinson: In Acts 2, we see the church breaking bread together going house to house. It’s relationships when you read the Gospels. Jesus shares his life with 12 people. He teaches them by example what it looks like to have a relationship with God and they go out and spread the gospel with more people. They are living together, eating together, hanging out together all day long. Our churches are so “Sunday meeting, Wednesday meeting.” See you next Sunday, see you next Wednesday. We started to incorporate intentional hospitality to the life of the church.
IB: What other kinds of sacrifices have you had to make over the years to reach across cultures?
Yi: Part of Bethel SBC wanting to become a community church means we really have to become less Korean. In Korean churches, it is almost a universal practice to have a lunch fellowship after worship service and it is almost always Korean food. When I first proposed not doing Korean food anymore, there was an uproar. I’m like, “Why can’t we just do sandwiches or order pizza once in a while or do spaghetti and meatballs?” That’s how it was at the beginning, but now I can’t remember the last time we had a Korean meal at church. Our members have really taken to this idea that we have to make it more accessible. We want to get rid of all the barriers.
When you weigh the value of the gospel and the kingdom of God, I think sometimes those things that seemed so important to us start to lose their luster.
IB: What victories have you seen as you’ve navigated these issues?
Del Rios: We are a predominately or all Hispanic church in a community that has changed in the last seven to ten years; a lot of young professionals are moving in. They always saw us as a Hispanic church. But because we’ve asked the second-generation people we’re reaching to invest back into their first-generation parents and grandparents, we are now seeing where we can come out of our comfort zone in ministering to those young professionals.
We have tried to make our church a hub for the community. We are housing an AA meeting for families and a lot of contemporary culture kinds of programs. In a nutshell, they know that we are there to serve.
IB: Are there questions you ask yourself about particular ministries or outreaches to keep from trying to do everything all the time?
Carrothers: I think it’s okay to say we are a small church. As a small church, we can’t do what a megachurch does. That doesn’t mean we can’t still have influence. We have to say, and I think John used the word niche earlier, what is the niche? What are going to be the definable core values of the church?
Yi: We cannot be all things to all the needs. One response to that is that we pray for more laborers, but I think God really has given us more laborers in the field than we are recognizing. In Mt. Prospect, there are folks that speak 10 different Eastern European languages near us, a whole bunch of folks from various parts of India, Central and South America, Asians; we can’t learn all those languages to speak to them, but we know there are people in our community that do know those languages and are believers, and there are churches that have some of those people groups in their congregations already.
That’s one of the reasons we try to partner with our neighboring churches, even if they are not all Southern Baptist. We have to appreciate that those are Gospel-preaching brothers too, and we are going to spend a lot of time with them in the kingdom of God, so we better start doing it.
Del Rios: There’s the key word right there, kingdom. It’s God’s kingdom.
IB: Have you ever failed at a cross-cultural ministry attempt?
Yi: I can think of one particular failure that was really my preconceived notions about what would be okay or acceptable or most relevant for our community. We don’t see a lot of it in Illinois, but in the South there are a lot of churches that still have youth choirs. I remember the first youth choir that called us and wanted to come as a mission team to Maywood. I was really reluctant to even take them, because they really wanted to do a show in Maywood and they were from an affluent, white suburb. I’m thinking, “Well, okay, we need the help.” They arrived and did a show at Navy Pier one night. I went out there to check them out and one of the elements of their show was a rap. I’m thinking, “Oh, no. I hope they don’t do the rap in Maywood because we have serious rappers in our town and if they try to do it, they might get laughed out of there.”
I had this preconceived notion that it was going to totally fail. But they did it in public in a park with 300 people in the community out there, and everybody was going crazy. They just loved it. The failure was my preconceived notion that I know what black people want or what my neighbors want and this is not it, but they thought it was the most awesome thing they ever saw.
Carrothers (laughing): If you invited me to rap, they would laugh me out of there.
IB: What from your ministry experience would you say to encourage pastors and churches who are seeking to cross cultures for the sake of the gospel?
Yi: Now I love having youth choirs come because of the variety of things they do to be creative and it’s just fun. I’ve never had a youth choir that was a fail.
Del Rios: Food is a big link in the Hispanic community. And it is more that they want to show you, especially the first generation. They want to show you their culture. They want to show you their homemade food. That means fast all day and go over there, and then they will start making a plate for you to take home. That’s one thing that has worked very well. I just go in there and let them show me everything, not just go in there and preach.
Robinson: Whatever culture you’re going to engage, it’s going to begin with relationships. Start a relationship with a pastor in a different culture. Talk to him about how to engage his culture. Also, it has to be done in love. You have to lead in love. Everybody wants love and needs love. Going back to John 13:35, when people see love, it will break down barriers.
There’s nothing that can’t be reconciled at the cross. You don’t have to agree on everything as long as we agree that the gospel comes first.