Monday, May 25, 2015

Cross-Cultural Ministry

"The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian
Church.  Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission
is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination."
The Salvation Army International Mission Statement

As a part of this international movement I not only see the internationalism of The Salvation Army expressed in various nations from a distance but up close through diverse cultural expressions in my own ministry context in Australia.  This creates a rich and complex cross-cultural mission field for me and my church.  

While I personally have a culturally diverse heritage, with Maltese blood and Italian and German grandparents, I am Australian born and was spiritually raised in an English speaking, mono-cultural church in a working-class suburb in Melbourne.  Yet, growing up, my best friend was Croatian and some of my class mates were from a Lebanese, Egyptian, Turkish and Greek background.

Our training as Salvation Army Officers was alongside an Indonesian cadet who trained with us in Melbourne. Our first appointment was in the Northern Territory where we engaged with the Indigenous community and hosted a number of YWAM discipleship training teams from south-east Asia and Europe.  Through successive appointments we have led short-term mission trips to Chiang Mai in Thailand, and Denpasar, Jakarta and Palu in Indonesia.  In our current appointment we have an active ministry to asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Egypt; conduct English classes for a diverse range of nationalities; participate in inter-faith dialogue with Pakistanis from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community; provide facilities for local Christian Indian prayer groups; and have a large multi-cultural volunteer base.

It is any wonder that God has birthed within us a passion for cross-cultural ministry!  However, despite our passion, how do we effectively lead and minister in this space?

Most of our cross-cultural ministry has been accidental, providing us with steep learning curves that have demanded far more intentional responses.  Our growing awareness of other cultures has led both me and my wife into formal learning pathways to educate and equip us to navigate this culturally diverse ministry landscape.

Recently, I was asked to make a presentation to our Growing Healthy Corps group about some cross-cultural ministry insights we have learned along the way.  We are far from experts and feel at times we have little clue about what we are doing in a very complex and fluid environment.  Nevertheless, our journey so far has instilled within us four fundamental beliefs and three missional convictions about cross-cultural ministry.

Cross-Cultural Ministry - 4 Fundamental Beliefs
  1. The Creator reveals Himself to ALL humankind (Romans 1:20)
  2. God's desire is for ALL to be saved (2 Peter 3:9)
  3. Holy Spirit is preparing hearts for salvation (John 16:7-15)
  4. Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation (Acts 4:12)
These four fundamental beliefs enable me to interact with different cultures and other faiths from a different position than from my evangelical upbringing.  First, we don't need to take God anywhere, He is already present, providing all people with a partial revelation of the Creator God through His creation.  Second, no culture or religion is outside of the scope of God's salvation.  Third, Holy Spirit is at work long before us, therefore, our role is to 'join in on a conversation that has already begun.'  Finally, a full revelation of God can only be seen through Jesus Christ.

Cross-Cultural Ministry - 3 Missional Convictions

The Apostle Paul's interaction with the men of Athens (Acts 17:16-34) has given form to my fundamental beliefs by providing a biblical framework that has produced my missional convictions about cross-cultural ministry:

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:16-17)

Conviction #1 - Look for where God is already present

"Cross-cultural witnesses need to look for such indications of God's prior working in whatever societies they go to and work in continuity with them."
Charles H. Kraft, Anthropology for Christian Witness

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23) 

Conviction #2 - Listen for gaps in their revelation of God

"As we work with the people, we need to find out what kinds of questions they are asking for which they are unable to find answers within their culture."
Charles H. Kraft, Anthropology for Christian Witness

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:26-28)

Conviction #3 - Learn how to share a revelation of Jesus

"It is very significant to me that Jesus was a storyteller.  
We westerners are sermonizers, and there is a big difference between the effectiveness of a storytold message and a sermonized message."
Charles H. Kraft, Anthropology for Christian Witness

These three missional convictions are not only a three step process for sharing the gospel in a cross-cultural context but in any context.  They create a posture of looking, listening and learning that fosters what Clark Pinnock calls a dialogical relationship, which is foundational to effective cross-cultural ministry.

"We should watch for whatever Spirit may be teaching and doing among them.  This posture creates the possibility of a dialogical relationship.  We can enter into the faith of others and acknowledge truths and values found there.  These are our fellow human beings, seeking truth as we are.  God is reaching out, and people are responding.  So let us watch for points of contact and bridges of communication." - Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love

Paul personified a dialogical relationship with the men of Athens that enabled him to recognise where God was at work, identify a gap in their knowledge and evoke from them a relational response, "We want to hear you again on this subject" (Acts 17:32).  The result?  "Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed."

This has completely changed my approach to evangelism in all contexts, especially cross-culturally!  As a cross-cultural minister I should maintain the attitude of a fellow learner who is also on a faith journey.  As a cross-cultural minister I need to tune into the universal work of the Spirit and share it's unique expression in Jesus Christ.  As a cross-cultural minister my role is to join in on a conversation that has already begun.  

"We have to say both yes and no to other religions.  On the one hand, we should accept any spiritual depth and truth in them.  On the other hand, we must reject darkness and error and at the very least see other faiths as insufficient apart from fulfilment in Christ.  The key is to hold fast to two truths:  the universal operations of grace and the uniqueness of its manifestation in Jesus Christ." - Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Who Is Jesus?

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  “But what about you?” he asked.  “Who do you say I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  (Matthew 16:13-16) 

The question of the identity of Jesus is still being asked in one form or another in contemporary society as people wrestle with their own spiritual identity.  Is Jesus a man to be admired, a myth to be disputed, a mystery to be explored or the Messiah to be followed? 

Such a thought provoking question demands a thoughtful response... 

Response #1 - Revelation 

Within the pages of Scripture we have a written record of a man named Jesus who is revealed to be so much more than simply a historical figure who once walked the earth. God’s ‘self-revelation’ through the “witness of the New Testament” brings us “face to face with Christ in his wholeness as God and man” (Torrance, 2008: 3) and confronts us with His redemptive plan of reconciliation for humankind through the life of Jesus.

His birth was supernatural as He was born to a virgin mother, which was foretold by the prophets (Isaiah 7:14) and announced by an angel (Luke 1:28-37).

His being was unique as He was “truly and properly man and truly and properly God” (The Salvation Army, 1998: 37), that is, God taking on the form of a human being and living among us (John 1:14).  This unique characteristic of Jesus was affirmed by the Apostle Paul who is on record as writing, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).

His name is powerful:  Jesus means ‘Saviour’ (Matthew 1:21, Luke 1:31-32) and Christ means ‘Immanuel’, that is, “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23).  The power of Jesus’ name is declared by God Himself, who “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

His life was extraordinary as Jesus cast out demons (Luke 4:31-36), healed the sick (Luke 5:12-26), raised the dead (Luke 7:11-17), calmed the storm (Luke 8:22-25), fed the multitudes (Luke 9:10-17), interpreted the times (Luke 12:54-59), liberated the oppressed (Luke 13:10-17), announced the coming of the kingdom of God (Luke 17:20-35), and presented Himself as the King of kings (Luke 19:28-40).

His death and resurrection are transforming - “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed…Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12). 

Response #2 - Evidence 

Within the pages of other historical and religious writings we also find Jesus presented as a man who is like none other; a man to be honoured and revered!  The evidence found in a variety of sources can reasonably lead us to the same conclusion of the Roman centurion witnessing Jesus crucifixion, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).

Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (born A.D. 52-54) referenced the influence and death of Jesus:  “Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities.  Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also” (McDowell, 1990: 82, quoting from Annals XV. 44). 

Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (born A.D. 37) recorded:  “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles.  He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him” (McDowell, 1990: 82, quoting from Antiquities XVIII. 33).

The prophet Muhammad revealed in the Quran, “When the angels said, 'O Mary, ALLAH gives thee glad tidings of a son through a word from HIM; his name shall be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, honoured in this world and in the next, and of those who are granted nearness to God;” He also recalled, “Remember when God said, ‘O Jesus! Verily I will cause thee to die, and will take thee up to Myself and deliver thee from those who believe not; and I will place those who follow thee above those who believe not, until the Day of Resurrection” (Quran  Surah 3:38-48). 

Response #3 - Experience 

Within the pages of my own life story I can speak of encounters with God through Jesus Christ that transcend rational explanation and reasoned arguments into the realms of faith.  But don’t be mistaken to think that the realm of faith is a baseless ideology!  Jesus puts flesh on my faith, providing a living expression of God who is spirit, so that what is unseen can be seen and known by those who put their faith in Jesus Christ (1 John 4).

As a child I received a vision of Jesus which was a profound encounter with God that transitioned me from my parent’s faith to a personal faith.  This was the beginning of a faith journey that took on form as I explored the life of Jesus through the pages of Scripture and sought to emulate His character and integrate His teaching.

As a man, Jesus inspires me.  Just like other heroes of the faith because of their impact on humanity.  For example:  St. Francis of Assisi - his vow of poverty and life of service, John Wesley - his life of holiness, William Wilberforce - his abolition of slavery, Henry Venn - his missionary strategy, Oscar Romero - his liberation theology.

As God in human form, Jesus transforms me.  His Spirit lives within me; changing my heart to care about what breaks God’s heart, renewing my mind to conform to God’s likeness, and empowering my life to pursue God’s calling.  No other person in the past or present has had that level of influence or impact on my life.

Jesus Christ has given me a new identity as a child of God who is created in His image to live in relationship with the Creator according to His pattern and purpose.  Reciprocating this relationship has become the primary purpose of my life so that others “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27).

While you can debate historical evidence or deny biblical truth concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ, no argument could cause me to doubt the transforming impact His story has had on my story. 

Summary of Responses 

The question 'Who Is Jesus?' presents us with a question of identity which defines the way we see Jesus and interact with Him.  If Jesus is just a man to be admired, then He would be little more than an inspiration.  If Jesus is a myth to be disputed, then He is a controversy to be avoided.  If Jesus is an unresolved mystery, then God can never really be known.  If Jesus is Messiah, as I’ve sought to establish through three different responses, then He is the Saviour who reconciles us to right relationship with God.

A response based on revelation begins with Scripture as the foundation for a revelation of Jesus Christ.  The evidence for the identity of Jesus is formed by what is presented through God’s self-revelation in the prophets, gospels and other writings contained in the Word of God and interpreted through a Christian worldview.

A response based on evidence looks to other factual sources to provide written evidence for the existence and uniqueness of Jesus as a man who made an indelible mark on history.  When these accounts are consistent with the biblical representation of Jesus, they contribute to the argument of Christian claims about Him, even if the evidence is interpreted differently through other worldviews.

A response based on experience provides a faith perspective that may not be justified rationally, rather presents a relational actual encounter with the truth being argued. While this position is driven more from a platform of faith than fact, a person’s experience of Jesus Christ is as real and tangible as any empirical evidence.

The ‘revelation’ and ‘evidence’ responses presents truth about Jesus that appeal to the religious and rational person, however, the ‘experience’ response presents truth about Jesus that makes a relational connection with a wider audience.  I believe all responses help to form a solid case for the identity of Jesus Christ, but to be able to connect His story with our story through an encounter with Jesus moves our audience beyond the rational where they are informed about Jesus into the relational where they can be transformed by Jesus.

Song writer Scott Dyer penned the following lyrics that capture this conclusion:  

You ask me how I know that God is real and why it is that I believe
Is there some truth that I’d reveal that might convince you to concede
And can I prove it.  Can I quantify it?

And where’s the evidence of Christ in a world that’s in decay
And can I prove He really died and that the stone was rolled away
Cause you’re not quite convinced you’d really buy it.

Well I could tell you of the prophecies that Jesus has fulfilled
And I could talk of archaeology and the proof that it’s revealed
But the greatest evidence that I could give you is the change He’s made in me.

“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound” may seem a tired old cliché
“I once was lost but now I’m found” might sound simplistic now a days
But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

He took my hardened heart of stone and put a heart of flesh in me
He gave me peace I’d never known and a soul that’s full and free
And it’s a miracle that God could do it.

Well I could speak about eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ
And I could preach of how those followers believed enough to give their lives
But the greatest evidence that I could give you is the change He’s made in me.

And I could tell you how the love of God has turned a sceptic into saint
And I could talk of how historians back up the Bible’s claims
But the greatest evidence that I could give you is the change He’s made in me.

After my investigation I concluded it would take more faith
For me to hold onto my unbelief
But even with this revelation by far the strongest evidence I’ve seen
Is what Christ has done in me.

I wanna tell you how the love of God turned this sceptic into saint
And how His mercy and His sacrifice washed away my guilty stain
But the greatest evidence that I could give you is the change He’s made in me. 

Words and Music by Scott Dyer
© 2001 Ever Devoted Music (ASCAP)