IN EXPLORING THE IDEA of multicultural ministry in the local church, we should first be convinced of its necessity. The why should precede the how and what. This why is found in the pages of Scripture. For it is in the Bible that God has most definitively revealed His mind, His character, and His redemptive plan. To understand Him and His redemptive plan is to understand the reason why sections of the Universal Church, including the Indian Christian Community, must be seriously engaged in the pursuit of God’s will regarding those outside its cultural hedge. By surveying the Biblical record in both the Old and New Testaments, we find that God has acted redemptively to choose for Himself one people comprised of many peoples. This holds several implications for the Universal Church, and for the Indian Christian Community in particular. First, however, let us consider the Scriptural record and be convinced of God’s multicultural intentions.
Glimpses from the Old Testament
In the first eleven chapters of Genesis we are presented with a world that differed from ours in a very significant way. The writer says, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.”1 At that time, humanity was not divided as it is today by a multiplicity of languages and dialects. Thus, when sinful people collaborated in Genesis 11 to build the Tower of Babel, they acted with the benefit of a universal language. However, God came down, saw their work and the evil behind it, and confused their languages. By one sovereign act God set in motion the diversity of languages and cultures (since language and culture are inextricably linked) that would characterize our modern world.
If we jump ahead many centuries to the scene in Acts 2, we find that on this historic day God in a sense reversed what had transpired at Babel. At Babel, God confused the language of rebellious humans. At Jerusalem, on the Day of Pentecost, God was supernaturally transcending the confusion humans had grown accustomed to by enabling His disciples to speak in the tongues of their hearers. At Babel there was sinful unity based on an evil agenda, and God confused their language. At Jerusalem, there was spiritual unity confirming God’s agenda, and diverse language groups were simultaneously reached with the Gospel. From these examples one should infer that language was not the criteria for the kind of unity God desired among humanity. The quality of unity found in Acts 2 transcended language, and we read that three thousand hearers were added to the Church on that day.2 The rest of the Book documents the outward spread of the Gospel across ethnic lines.
However, one need not wait until Acts to see God’s intention to incorporate many cultures into His family. Right after the chapter concerning Babel, in Genesis 12 we read about God’s call of Abram. The Lord speaks to Abram, saying:
Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.3
Abram and his descendants would become the vehicle through which God would fulfill His redemptive plan. Even at this early stage, God had determined to somehow, through this man and his descendants, bless “all peoples on earth.” From the start, God’s plan of redemption was a multicultural plan. Through His call of Abram, God was deliberately setting the stage for the progressive widening of His family that would include people from all different cultures.
Abraham’s descendants prospered as was promised, becoming that great people known as Israel. Israel was set apart from the rest of the pagan world by her covenantal relationship with the Lord. Only Israel was given the Law. Only Israel was blessed with the Presence of God, veiled within the tabernacle, and later in the temple. Israel was God’s own.
Nevertheless, even with this clear understanding of Israel’s unique place in His redemptive plan, God was still offering glimpses of His ultimate goal to bless “all peoples on earth.” A perfect example is the story of Rahab the harlot in Joshua 2. Joshua sent two spies to view the land and especially the mighty city of Jericho. It was a dangerous mission, yet ironically the Lord facilitated their success by the cooperation of a Gentile prostitute. Rahab hid the spies in defiance of the city authorities. She risked her life on behalf of Israel. In her conversation with the spies, she acknowledges that the LORD has given Jericho to Israel, and she wants to insure that her family will be spared during the impending invasion. In considering this portion of her statement to the spies, we also find a confession of faith:
I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all that live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.4
The importance of Rahab should not be underestimated. God’s inclusion of her in the plan to overthrow Jericho and her monotheistic confession against the backdrop of a polytheistic culture foreshadow what is coming: a widening of God’s family that crosses socio-economic barriers. It is significant to note the accolades Rahab receives from New Testament writers. She is included in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ.5 She is included among the heroes of faith in the Book of Hebrews.6 And the apostle James tells us her works were works of faith, evidence of her justification with God.7 Yes, God had chosen Israel as His people. But not exclusively. For, as Rahab shows, even under the Old Covenant the Lord was reaching out to those outside the ethnic boundary of Israel.
The Old Testament offers us other examples of the Lord reaching out to those outside of ethnic Israel. Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, received more than healing from leprosy; he was given the grace to declare: “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel,”8 and further promises to “never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any god but the LORD.”9
Perhaps the most graphic example of the Lord’s willingness to save those outside the hedge of Israel is found in the Book of Jonah. There God commands Jonah to, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”10 The message, when it was finally delivered, was grim: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.”11 Yet, the notoriously wicked city responded with belief in God, corporate fasting, and the wearing of sackcloth. Even the King of Nineveh humbled himself, trading his royal robes for sackcloth and his throne for dust. He issued this decree:
Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.12
The prophet records, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”13 At the very least, this account reiterates God’s willingness, even under the Old Covenant, to dispense grace to the repentant, even to those who were outside of Israel.
Jericho. Syria. Nineveh. God had chosen to concern Himself with members of these pagan locales. These and other acts of grace directed toward Gentiles under the Old Covenant only foreshadow what would become clearer in the New: God’s redemptive plan was indeed a multicultural plan.
New Testament Clarification
The New Testament opens with the answer to the question “How would God keep His promise to bless all peoples on earth through Abraham?” The answer is found in Matthew 1:1, which begins: “a record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the Son of Abraham.”14 All that was necessary for the accomplishment of God’s redemptive plan would be fulfilled in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.
When Joseph and Mary brought the infant Jesus to the temple, Simeon held the baby in his arms and praised God: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”15 It had been revealed to Simeon that he would not die until He had seen the Lord’s Christ.16 And, now, having recognized by the power of the Holy Spirit that this was the Christ, Simeon declares Him, “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” This devout Jew knew that Jesus mission would go far beyond the borders of ethnic Israel; He would be a light of revelation to the Gentiles.
Although His earthly ministry was largely directed to those of the Household of Israel, Jesus deliberately reached out to Gentiles. In Luke 7 He heals the servant of a Roman centurion, and commends him for his faith—a quality of faith that surpassed anything he had found among the people of Israel.17 Jesus’ encounter with a Syrophoenician woman is also revealing. She begs for Jesus to exorcise the demon from her daughter. He says it isn’t right to take the children’s bread (the children represented the Household of Israel) and toss it to dogs (dogs represented Gentiles). The woman agrees with Jesus’ assessment (i.e. that she is a Gentile, and thus outside the privileged status of Israel), and yet offers that even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Jesus is pleased with her response and heals her daughter. This woman persisted in the hope that Jesus’ ministry was not limited to Israel, but even Gentile “dogs” like herself and her daughter could benefit from His compassion. She was right. In fact, she was more right than she could have realized at that moment. For not long after this episode Jesus would voluntarily suffer and give His life for the sake of Gentiles as well as Jews who would believe in His name.
Jesus transcended ethnic barriers in His words as well as His deeds. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan18 Jesus reverses the societal expectations of protagonist and villain by presenting a Samaritan (a race despised by Jews) as the only traveler of three who did God’s will (the other two being a Priest and a Levite, upstanding members of Jewish society). By elevating the despised Samaritan above the revered Priest and Levite, Jesus confronts prejudices current in His day and reminds His listeners and contemporary readers that the righteousness of God has nothing to do with race and everything to do with the state of a person’s heart toward God and his neighbor.
Of the entire Gospel record, there is perhaps no account that bespeaks the multicultural mission of Christ more than his meeting with the Samaritan woman in John 4. This woman bore the compound taboo of being Samaritan, being a woman, and having a shady moral reputation. Certainly no Rabbi would want to risk his reputation speaking with her. Yet, Jesus not only initiates contact with this woman, but concludes their one-on-one conversation by revealing to her directly that He is the Messiah.19 Later in John 4 we find that many Samaritans believed as a result of Jesus’ outreach.20 Indeed, Jesus was fulfilling Simeon’s prophecy by being “a light of revelation to the Gentiles . . . ”
The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ completed God’s redemptive plan. The substitutionary atonement of Christ was a universal act; it was meant to fulfill a worldwide need—the need for sinners (of whatever culture) to be reconciled to a Holy God. Therefore, it is not surprising that key scriptures describing Christ’s work are written in universal terms.21 The resurrected Christ would commission His disciples in universal terms as well:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” 22
As we move into the Book of Acts, the multicultural character of God’s redemptive plan becomes not only clearer, but paramount to the mission and theology of the early church. Before His ascension, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit’s power to His disciples, which would enable them to bear witness of Him in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.23 What is significant about this verse is that even before the disciples had received the promised Holy Spirit, they were told that the Spirit would come to influence the entire world (which would therefore include all cultures). Indeed, the miraculous growth and expansion of the early church as documented in the pages of Acts could not have been possible otherwise.
Acts 10 highlights the multicultural character of the Christian mission. Peter, still living under the canopy of Judaism, was praying on a rooftop when God gave him a vision. He saw a sheet being lowered from heaven, and in it were all sorts of animals considered unclean by Jewish custom. God tells the hungry Peter to get up, kill, and eat the animals, but Peter refuses because the animals were “unclean.” The Lord responds to Peter’s refusal with these crucial words: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”24 This is repeated three times. As Peter wonders about the meaning of this vision, he is visited by messengers sent by the Roman centurion Cornelius. Cornelius had himself received a supernatural message in which he was instructed to send for Peter. God was orchestrating this meeting between a Jewish disciple of Christ and a Gentile God-fearer to make plain this foundational principle for Christian ministry: ethnic distinctions have nothing to do with God’s acceptance of sinners through Christ. The Scripture goes on to record Peter’s ministry among the Gentiles assembled at Cornelius’ House. During his time there, the Holy Spirit inspires him to make a crucial confession:
You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean....I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.25
Peter’s mission to those outside his ethnic group was validated by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, evidenced by their speaking in tongues and praising God.26 This was an indisputable sign of God’s favor upon Gentile believers in particular, and upon Gentile mission endeavors in general. In fact, what happened at Cornelius’ house was very much a test case of God’s opinion concerning missions to the Gentiles, and Peter offers it as such in his presentation to the rest of the apostles.27
The multicultural character of God’s redemptive mission is stated and restated in the pages of the New Testament. It is demonstrated in the compassionate acts of Jesus toward Gentiles and in the universal impact of His atonement, and it is confirmed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Cornelius’ house. Certainly this is sufficient scriptural evidence to warrant belief in God’s multicultural intention in salvation. Still, the apostle Paul continues to drive home the point repeatedly in his epistles:
For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all that call on him, for “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”28
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.29
Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.30
Christ’s atonement was supremely a saving act. It was also a barrier-breaking act in which the cultural differences between Jew and Gentile were superseded by the reconciliation with God needed by and provided to both groups.31
The reason for the preceding survey of particular Old and New Testament passages was to remind and/or convince us that God’s mission to the world is multicultural in character. As stated earlier, in exploring the idea of multicultural ministry in the local church, we should first be convinced of its necessity. Hopefully this survey of Scripture has helped us in this regard. Having been reminded of the Biblical/Theological considerations in multicultural ministry, we are now prepared to consider some points of application in regard to the Indian Christian Community.
Bridging Cultural Considerations with Theology
The grouping “Indian Christian Community” brings with it certain assumptions concerning its members. First, we assume that similarities in language, ethnicity, and/or culture help in defining this group. Second, we assume that its members are willing to subscribe to the Scriptures. Third, we assume that being Indian and being Christian both hold significance for members of this group. And to this last point, the Scriptures make an important initial statement: Being Indian and being Christian are not equally significant to God. It is one’s relationship to Christ that predominates. Culture is significant, as the example below will show; however, its significance is derived from the way God uses it to fulfill His plan.
Consider Israel in the Old Testament. Since the passing of the Old Covenant no other single ethnic group has ever enjoyed the theocratic rule of a Personal God to the extent that the descendants of Abraham did. This was truly a culture and a people defined by God’s covenantal relationship with them. The Torah (which included instructions on worship, the sacrificial system, the festivals, prohibitions, and so forth) was given by God to this people exclusively. If any nation could claim to have the perfect culture, it was Israel. And yet, even Israel’s cultural superiority was not an end, but a means to an end. For Israel’s unique culture and practices under the Old Covenant were only temporary measures foreshadowing the Christ who would fulfill all the Old Covenant shadows in Himself.32
Israel’s culture was useful only to the extent that it fulfilled God’s redemptive plan. If Indian Christians would learn from this historic example, we would gain better footing in our own pursuit of Biblical living as Indians in North America. We would sense our culture is a tool in the hands of a Sovereign God to be used by Him in His continuing mission in the world.
The Challenge of Application in the Context of Church Ministry
Again, as Indian Christians who realize that it is our Christianity that supremely defines us, we are challenged to take the mandate of Christ seriously. When He commands His followers to go and make disciples of all the nations,33 He inevitably calls Indian Christians to step beyond their ethnic/cultural hedge and reach out to those that are culturally different.
But how can this be done? How do members of the Indian Christian Community place themselves in a position of maximum impact, as a cultural group, of reaching other cultures with the Gospel of Christ? Let me offer some suggestions which, in keeping with the theme of this article, focus on ministry found in and through the local church.
Biblical Preaching That Speaks to Universal Needs
The revelation of God’s redemptive plan comes to us through the pages of Holy Scripture. And in the context of the local church, it is through preaching that the truth of Scripture is primarily conveyed. Therefore, it is sensible to consider how we preach as one step in our journey toward effective multicultural ministry.
In his book Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century, Dr. John R.W. Stott speaks about the need for preachers to be students of two worlds; the world of Scripture and the contemporary world. The challenge for today’s preacher is to effectively communicate to a contemporary congregation the Word of God written in times and cultures far-removed from our own.
That challenge is certainly formidable in itself. And yet, it becomes more complicated if the preacher chooses to convey more than Scripture conveys. But what more than Scripture would a preacher want to convey? In the name of protecting cultural values held by a particular cultural group, the preacher can become confused as to what his role is. Is he a protector of culture or a preacher of the gospel, or both? Are these roles complimentary or contradictory? As Indian Christians in North America have struggled to raise their children in a cultural milieu that often counters their particular values, it is the local Indian assembly that has been looked to as not only a place of worship, but also as a safe haven against the tide of the dominant culture. This is an understandable response that has been replicated by immigrant Christians throughout the history of this country. In these settings, the preacher often feels compelled to communicate not only what the apostle Paul says (just as an example), but also how what he says also must support what is already believed to be true by the immigrant culture. Again, in local ethnic churches the temptation exists for the preacher to preach more than the gospel; he is also expected to protect the cultural values of members of the local ethnic church.
The discerning mind will understand the problem that arises here. Does Scripture always support the beliefs of a particular cultural group? Isn’t it true that responsible Christians are called to define and weigh their values by the standard of Scripture, and not vice versa?
It is true that the preacher as “protector” will communicate Scriptural principles if and when the values of the culture match the principles of Scripture. For instance, if a particular culture loathes the practice of bribery, then the preacher who speaks against this evil will stand on sure footing because this is an issue Scripture speaks directly to. He can speak as a preacher of the Gospel who also happens to be protecting a value held dear by his culture. However, this is possible only because the value in question happens to be supported by Scripture.
But suppose the preacher uses the pulpit to convey values held dearly by members of his ethnic congregation, values to which Scripture does not speak directly. What then? Also, what if the Christian community of the dominant culture happens to practice values that are found to be reprehensible by members of an ethnic church belonging to a minority subculture? Who is right?
Scripture must always be considered the standard by which cultural values are judged. A preacher who can interpret the Scriptures with integrity (meaning being able to convey what the original authors meant in their context) and rightly apply its message can hope that by doing so he is helping his hearers weigh for themselves what values ought to be embraced and which ought to be discarded.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul the Apostle lets us know how culture and Scripture compare in terms of relative importance. In this passage he lists the extent to which he has “become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” He had become like a Jew to win the Jews, like a person without the Law to win those without the Law, and like the weak to save become like those who were weak. Paul the premiere apostle models the attitude we must share to become effective in multicultural ministry. As Indian Christians in North America we would do well to adopt his motto: willing to become all things to all people in order that we might reach as many as possible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This principle helps us understand how we should preach in order to win cultures outside our own. Preaching for multicultural ministry should be rooted in the Bible, not in the culture of a particular group, and should be presented using language and imagery that will be understood by the widest possible audience. The Scripture speaks of topics that are universal in their impact. Themes like creation, atonement, justification, death, resurrection, and eternity are just a sampling of the universal concepts that the Bible speaks to. To be effective communicators to a diversity of cultures does not require that we dress the Scriptures in a particular cultural costume. All it requires is that we faithfully proclaim Scripture’s own universal message of exclusive hope through Jesus Christ. If we do this, then we are equally prepared to minister both to the Indian and the non-Indian who may take a seat in our local church.
Selective Learning and Adaptation from the Dominant Culture
In order to be effective in multicultural ministry, members of the Indian Christian Community should not consider themselves separate from the rest of the evangelical church in North America. Sadly, such a concept can be fostered when the type of “protector of culture” preaching occurs regularly within the local ethnic church. This is largely because the communication received by members in such churches is that “our culture is right” and the rest of the evangelical church is wrong and unholy, perhaps to the point of apostasy. Hopefully it has already been established that what would be considered unholy is best left to be determined by a contextual interpretation of Scripture.
It is Biblical to say the church is to be separate from the world. It is thoroughly un-Biblical, however, to say that segments of the Church ought to pursue separation from other segments of the same Universal Church. Certainly the Indian Christian Community can benefit immensely from selectively adapting from the dominant evangelical culture. In fact, this has already happened in the area of praise and worship among our youth.
The proliferation of Christian music worship tapes and compact discs has already had marked impact on the younger generation within the Indian Christian Community. The music of the dominant Christian culture has been adapted and often is used effectively by younger members of the Indian Christian Community in America. Music is a universal language. And by the enthusiastic adoption of the traditional, Gospel, contemporary music and styles of Christian music in North America, our youth are telling us (at minimum) that they want to worship in the dominant language (English) and in a manner which corresponds with what they are familiar with. This is the language they study in and communicate with their friends. Whether it is music or preaching, certainly proficiency in the language of the dominant culture is a factor to be considered in the effectiveness Indians will have in reaching other cultures with the Gospel. Several churches within the Indian Christian Community have realized the importance of adapting the dominant language and now have incorporated English in their worship services to varying degrees.
In considering adapting the worship forms from the dominant culture, the emphasis on selective adaptation must be stressed. For just as the Indian Christian subculture cannot proclaim inerrancy, neither can the dominant evangelical Christian culture in America. Proper selection of cultural forms requires a prior understanding of what the Bible considers acceptable and unacceptable (and this is why correct Biblical interpretation and proclamation are such priorities for multicultural ministry).
Members of the Indian Christian Community do well to avail themselves of both formal and informal educational opportunities that abound in North America. More of our pastors have taken advantage of seminary education, and this is a promising sign. Others have involved themselves in evangelical parachurch groups. Others have pursued deliberate relationships with Christians and ministries outside their own ethnic community, and this in turn causes many to reexamine their own prejudices and preconceived notions of what a Biblical Christian really is. Still others have chosen to worship in multicultural churches, where they are just one of many ethnic groups represented.
The Multicultural Mission Requires Introspection and Outreach
The bottom line is that multicultural ministry begins with an attitude. It is an attitude that yields exclusively to Scripture, is willing to selectively adapt and learn from the dominant culture, and utilize these forms for the purpose of winning as many as possible to Christ. If we as members of the Indian Christian Community in North America would engage in serious, Biblical introspection about the barriers God has broken through Christ to save us, we would take up His mission with new fervor to continue His mission across the boundaries we find in our contemporary world.
1. Genesis 11:1, and please note that unless otherwise stated, all scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version Bible.
2. Acts 2:41.
3. Gen. 12:1-3
4. Joshua 2:9-11.
5. Matthew 1:5.
6. Hebrews 11:31.
7. James 2:25.
8. 2 Kings 5:15.
9. 2 Kings 5:17.
10. Jonah 1:2.
11. Jonah 3:4.
12. Jonah 3:7-9.
13. Jonah 3:10.
14. Matthew 1:1.
15. Luke 2:29-32.
16. Luke 2:26.
17. Luke 7:1-10.
18. Luke 10:25-37.
19. John 4:26.
20. John 4:39-42.
21. For instance, see John 1:29, 3:16, and 2 Corinthians 5:19.
22. Acts 1:8.
23. Matthew 28:18-20
24. Acts 10:15.
25. Acts 10:28, 34-35.
26. Acts 10:45-46.
27. Acts 11:1-18.
28. Romans 10:12-13.
29. Galatians 3:28.
30. Colossians 3:11.
31. See Ephesians 2:11-22.
32. The Book of Hebrews makes this plain.
33. Matthew 28:19.