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Every church member as a missionary

CMS Development and Training Director David Williams talks about the need for cross-cultural training in churches. Why should every member be equipped for this type of ministry and what are the barriers to successful cross-cultural ministry?

I’ve been reading the Bible with a man who’s become a Christian after 60 years as a devout Buddhist. He came to Christ through the witness of a friend and then started attending church. He’s completely captivated by the Lord Jesus, but at the same time, coming from a Buddhist background, he’s got a million questions. And when he’s tried asking those questions at his church, nobody seems able to help him. They don’t know how to answer the questions he is asking. Two burning issues that I’ve spent hours talking about with him are: How can you say God suffers? Why is there so much blood in the Bible?

What would it look like if every member of your church was equipped to disciple my Buddhist friend? Is that something we should even aspire to?

Why should we equip every member as a cross-cultural gospel worker?

1. The cross of Christ

The first and most important reason for equipping every member as a cross-cultural gospel worker is because of the cross. In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul holds himself up as an example of Christian ministry and his application point is to every member of the church in Corinth, not just the pastor-teachers. He’s saying: this is what I do, so this is what the church in Corinth should do.

I think you see this principle being worked out clearly in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 where Paul addresses the problem of food offered to idols and the problem of idol worship. Worshipping idols is totally prohibited. Food, in and of itself, is inconsequential, but if they sit down for a meal with someone who has a conscience about eating food sacrificed to idols, then they should willingly and joyfully curtail their freedom for the sake of their brother and sister.

In between those two chapters, we get 1 Corinthians 9. It serves a number of purposes, including a defence of Paul’s apostolic ministry. But it also allows Paul to demonstrate how he has willingly and joyfully curtailed his own freedom for the sake of gospel ministry. In particular, we get the verses at the end of the chapter:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

These verses are all about a kind of contextualisation, as Don Carson points out. But we need to be very clear about what kind of contextualisation we’re talking about. Paul is not talking about contextualising the gospel message. He is talking about contextualising the gospel messenger. That’s a critical distinction. Paul does not cook up a different gospel for each city he visits. No, he proclaims Christ crucified. He doesn’t change the gospel, but he does change himself. He becomes like a Jew; he becomes like one outside the law. He changes himself in order to proclaim the unchanging gospel.

In the two Corinthian epistles, Paul’s lifestyle is anchored to the cross. He speaks of the death of Jesus with his lips and he carries the death of Jesus in his body. The cross is the message of his ministry. The cross is his model for ministry.

What has this got to do with equipping every member as a cross-cultural gospel worker? I’m arguing that Paul is holding himself up as an example to the whole church in Corinth, asking them to willingly and joyfully embrace permissible cultural diversity for the sake of the gospel. Just as Paul joyfully adapts himself at the point of cultural difference, so he’s asking the Corinthians to joyfully adapt themselves at the point of cultural difference. Paul is modelling a radical willingness to change anything permissible about himself as the gospel messenger so that the unchanging gospel gets a hearing.

Paul models this to every member of the church, not just pastor-teachers and missionaries. And the reason it’s every member is because it’s rooted in the cross. It should be in the DNA of every Christian to change anything permissible so that the unchanging gospel is proclaimed. A cross-shaped life opens the door for a cross-centred proclamation.

2. All ministry is cross-cultural

The days when we shared the gospel with people who were unconverted but had some degree of biblical literacy are rapidly disappearing. We are living at a time when the Australian worldview is shifting dramatically. One of the consequences of this is that Christian faith is facing the double assault of modernity and post-modernity.

The assault from modernity is on the reasonableness of Christianity—an attack on our minds. This is the attack we are used to. It’s an attack on our rationality and we respond by defending our faith. This is the world of apologetics and reasoned argument.

The post-modern attack is the emotional attack. Where the reasoned attack says, “Christianity makes no sense”, the emotional attack says, “Christianity hurts you.” This is the attack that says Christianity is oppressive, it abuses people, it messes up your life.

Ordinary Australians are living in a culture where their TV sets are bombarding them with a distorted, horrific picture of Christianity. Imagine Mr and Mrs Normal Australian sitting in their living room. They watch an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale or Game of Thrones. Then they turn on the news and there’s an item with the latest report from the Royal Commission. How likely do you think they will be to opt their kids into Special Religious Education at school?

This means that many of our neighbours and non-Christian family members have a distorted view of Christianity combined with almost no knowledge of Jesus. That’s exactly the reality that a missionary faces in a predominantly Muslim or Buddhist country. This is cross-cultural mission and we need to equip every member to read their own culture and keep engaging with it.

3. Amazing gospel opportunities

While Anglo-Australia is becoming increasingly alienated from the gospel, we are faced with a second reality. Many people are arriving as immigrants in Australia excited about the opportunity to learn more about the gospel. They can ask questions that they were never permitted to ask in their home country. And they are hungry to find out about Jesus.

Gospel opportunities with people recently arrived in Australia are myriad. And we have complete freedom to proclaim Jesus, at least at the moment. But if we are to make the most of these gospel opportunities, we need to be ready to answer the questions that people are asking. And as my Buddhist friend demonstrates, the questions are likely to be completely different to the one’s we’re used to.

4. Multi-ethnic Australia

For many of us in Australia, our social reality is intensely multi-ethnic. The answer to our multi-ethnic reality is not mono-cultural ministry, but multi-cultural ministry. And that means building our cross-cultural skills.

If you have one main language group, start a ministry in that language. People are more likely to respond to the gospel if they hear the good news in their heart language. And they will be disciple more deeply and more effectively if they are disciple in their heart language. They discover that the God of the Bible speaks their language. He becomes their God. In this ministry, your challenge will be to ensure that the gospel breaks down class and race barriers.

If you’re in a multi-ethnic context, start a multi-ethnic ministry. Probably that will need to happen in English. If you do that, you have the advantage that your multi-ethnic congregation will demonstrate how the gospel breaks down class and race barriers. The problem is discipling people deeply in what might be their second or third language.

The other challenge is training. Multi-ethnic ministry requires every member to be cross-culturally engaged. We live at a time when cultural differences between God’s people and wider Australian society are acute. We need to equip every member of the body of Christ to love their neighbour across the cultural divide.

Two barriers to cross-cultural ministry

There are two categories of barriers that exist when we communicate the gospel with people from cultures different to our own: barriers in the other person and barriers in yourself.

Barriers in other people are obvious. There may be language barriers. There are very likely to be worldview differences. The questions that people from other cultures ask are different to the questions you might be equipped to answer. Questions like:

  • How can God suffer?
  • Is time linear?
  • What about Ishmael?
  • Do you fast?
  • What can I do about my impurity?

We need to help our church members think through ways to engage with questions that flow out of a different worldview. I don’t think that’s rocket science. And I think anyone with a decent biblical theology has the basic tools to work out ways to answer those questions.

But the bigger problem is the barrier that lies within ourselves.

Human beings have a built-in safety mechanism. If we see something we don’t understand, the build-in safety mechanism shouts, “Danger!”

Now this is a great response when it comes to spiders or snakes. But it is not a great response when it comes to cross-cultural relationships. The big risk we face is that when we encounter something we don’t understand, our default is to assume that it’s bad or wrong. We will attribute a negative motive to the other person without really understanding what is going on. This kind of error is a disaster in cross-cultural relationships.

For example, you invite some Mexicans over for a meal and they arrive 30 minutes late. You think they are incredibly rude while they are congratulating themselves for being remarkably punctual. Then over dinner, you are telling a story when one of them cuts in before you’ve finished and talks over the top of you. You think they can’t have been interested and weren’t actually listening. Actually, they were trying to show how engaged and interested they were in what you were talking about.

If you don’t suspend judgement in these moments, you’ll make the default assumption that the other person is being rude or inconsiderate.

So a key skill is for us to learn not to make an attribution error. Instead, we need to suspend judgement. We need to learn to listen well, to ask good questions, to enter into cross-cultural friendships with a spirit of curiosity and humility. In other words, to love people well.

As we do, we might learn some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Pride, racism, arrogance. These are uncomfortable lessons to learn, but good things to face up to and put to death.

Starting cross-cultural ministry

There’s a little secret about cross-cultural ministry: it’s actually not very difficult. In my experience, it is far easier to talk about the Lord Jesus with people from other cultures than it is with Anglo Aussies. The reason for that is about the difference between public truth and private truth.

In Australia, religion is a private truth issue. It’s personal, not something people talk about. Your personal religious convictions belong at home, in private. So saying to an Anglo-Aussie, “What do you think about God?” would not be a typical conversation starter.

But in most other cultures, religion is a public truth issue. It is something that people talk about openly. Religion is a community thing that belongs in the public sphere. So it is much more likely to be culturally acceptable to ask questions about God and religious faith.

Given that reality, the biggest problem in getting started is the very first conversation. Where can we meet people? How do we begin the relationship?

The number one thing we need to be encouraging people to do is very simple. Be hospitable. Get people into your home. Invite your neighbours or your work colleagues over for a meal. Use public holidays as an opportunity. We keep hearing the same story over and over from international students, migrants and refugees. They have been in Australia for years and have never been invited into an Australia home.

Another opportunity that I’m sure many of you are already taking is to offer English classes. That’s a great way of helping people, meeting a need and providing an opportunity for friendship to begin.

Once those friendships begin, it’s not usually hard to take the conversation deeper. One of the tools that we use at St Andrew’s Hall is a structured worldview questionnaire. It works best as a series of four interviews. The first interview begins with simple, observable cultural values – how many people in your family? What food do you eat? It moves on to ask deeper questions about how people think, how they evaluate the world, what they believe about spiritual realities.

Our experience has been that people love to have the opportunity to share about their own cultural traditions. And they will often reciprocate and ask the same questions back – what do you believe about life after death?

The hardest thing in cross-cultural relationships is the first conversation. If we can get our people across that first conversation, I think they will be surprised and encouraged at the opportunities that come their way.


Mentac is CMS’s cross-cultural apprenticeship program that runs in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. It teaches trainees how to reach out to people from other cultural backgrounds and form genuine relationships in which gospel conversations can take place. You can find out more about Mentac here or go to our training and development page to learn about other ways your church can be involved in cross-cultural ministry training.

Note: This is a shortened version of the talk that David Williams gave at Nexus Conference in Sydney on 26 March 2018. To view the full talk, click here.