The article below by World Harvest Mission‘s Josiah Bancroft is a tremendously insightful and clear explanation of the relationship of the gospel to culture. Not only is this an important understanding for the mission field overseas, but Josiah explains why it is essential even within the local church in North America.
The video above is an interview with Josiah by Collin Hansen of The Gospel Coalition.
How do you keep the gospel clear and focused on missional calling when so many competing forces, influences, and voices speak into your life, ministry, and church? I am learning that gospel clarity is tied in large part to how we understand our cross-cultural mission in very practical ways.
For example, I was picking up a large short-term team outside of Dublin to introduce them to our Irish partners and co-workers. When the jet-lagged U.S. visitors stumbled from the bus, one of the passengers asked to pray and gathered us around her. She thanked God for safe travel, for the opportunity to serve, and then prayed for “all our boys in harms way” and asked God to protect our troops from our enemies.
As soon as she said a tearful and happy amen and walked away, my Irish friends inundated me with questions: Who were “our boys”? Was the church supporting a national war? How were those “our” enemies that the U.S. troops were killing? Of course Ireland was neutral in the war, so their questions were reasonable and predictable. After all, they were Christians, not Americans.
Navigating culture and mission with gospel clarity doesn’t just happen, so how—practically—can we keep clear about the gospel while pursuing our cross-cultural missional calling? We all interpret the world as cultural beings. That’s how God has made us. And yet many American believers have struggled with the basic idea that they are part of a culture or a sub-culture. That is now changing.
With the rapid changes in U.S. culture during recent years, our churches are beginning to see U.S. culture more clearly. Our culture has changed so much and so quickly that the church sometimes struggles to engage. We are hard pressed to maintain the mental and spiritual clarity that can respond powerfully to a such pervasive cultural forces. So what can help us with our struggle? I’d like to make a few suggestions.
1. We Need Clear Kingdom Identity and Allegiance
As missional people we belong to the kingdom of God and live in the United States as strangers and aliens. Keeping my kingdom identity clear as a believer keeps me from identifying completely with this present age. God has given each of us a role in our culture, so we should embrace our lives and do well here. But this present time and place isn’t everything, and this age doesn’t fully define a believer. So while I work to bring all things under the rule of Christ in my life and mission, I do it as an outsider. Where I forget this missional identity, I can confuse my interests and culture with the kingdom of God. Then I lose my gospel clarity and muddle the message with my culture.
Practical Help: Keep the horizon of God’s larger global mission clearly in view even in local ministry work, so that all your concerns are kept in the right perspective for new kingdom people. Without this missional global horizon, local ministry easily appears so large to us that it obscures everything else.
2. We All Answered the Universal Call to Cross-cultural Missional Life
Since we are each part of God’s mission to reach the world, and because we live as strangers and aliens, therefore all of our ministry and mission is necessarily cross-cultural. All church planting is a cross-cultural exercise. All evangelism reaches across cultural boundaries, even in our own families and neighborhoods. The struggles between generations are in part cross-cultural conflicts, because the world has shifted so quickly and radically. Every attempt to reach out or serve in the church must recognize and communicate to our own culture with cross-cultural understanding and sensitivity. All ministry here is cross-cultural.
Practical Help: We need a steady flow of outsiders and missionaries who bring in tales of the kingdom moving and struggles to take the gospel into difficult places. What worked in Congo? What is God doing in Russia? How is the God moving in the Czech Republic? Hearing how culture works and is navigated practically in other places gives us new perspectives on what things belong to the kingdom and what belongs to the culture.
3. We Enter Other Cultures
As a missional people we are responsible to cross the cultural barriers with the gospel rather than wait and require those outside to come and understand. Actually that’s one of the big differences that came with the church in the first century. Everyone doesn’t have to become Jewish to have access to God. Today in the church we must learn the new languages, not the nations . . . remember Pentecost? We adapt rather than require others to “eat kosher.” We go, rather than having everyone come to us. When I bear the weight of reaching out to others, here or in foreign countries, I best imitate Christ who became like us in love and won us with great sacrifice. When the gospel is small in my life, when my flesh and home culture press in, then I am unwilling to change or sacrifice for others to bring them the gospel. Missions pushes me to clarify my commitment to the gospel and to Christ.
Practical Help: Get a larger heart for the world by spending time with others who love their enemies. That love is what motivated Christ to do the work of incarnation. Roll up your sleeves and find a place to sacrifice time, work, and money for the expansion of the kingdom in places you will never see as well as in your hometown. Turn every group in the church outward with a cross-cultural eye to be true missional communities.
4. We Go
We know the gospel is how we enter the kingdom. The gospel promises are also how we live daily before God in repentance and faith. And the gospel is the central message of the church as we go into the world. This might seem obvious, but it is so easy to mix cultural pieces into our speaking about Christ that we need to be clear. Paul tells Titus in his church planting and leadership to emphasize—even insist on—and confidently affirm the gospel as the life and message of the church (Titus 3:8).
Practical Help: Get involved in short-term missions and create a global missional team to find those in your fellowship who need to go. Join with cross-cultural workers who have more experience so that you can learn from them. The New Testament way requires us to listen to these cross-cultural workers. Of course the greatest was Christ. But Paul also qualifies, and as a cross-cultural missionary he was wonderfully equipped to lead churches and planting in various places without confusing his culture or Roman culture with the call of the kingdom. I would love for our churches to find his gospel clarity and passion renewing us all for global missions and partnership in new ways.
Perhaps there is another way to say all of this simply. The gospel always leads us believers to a global vision and a heart willing to sacrifice for a lost world. That’s what it means to follow our Savior. And learning to keep our vision clear, listening to others engaged in that same struggle, and feeding your heart with the gospel promises and the kingdom calling from Scripture are all essential to keep our missional calling centered on the gospel.
Both the article and the video first appeared on The Gospel Coalition blog.