Cross-Cultural Ministry at Home

Someone has started a Facebook group for debating current issues in our community. It’s a church planter’s dream, because it regularly confronts me with the reality that people think very differently than I think they do. That’s something I need to know.

I grew up in a suburb of Toronto. I’ve lived in the Greater Toronto Area my entire life. And yet, I’m involved in cross-cultural ministry right in my own backyard.

What happened? Three things. I’ve physically moved, and that means that I live in a new community with different values. I’ve aged, and that means that I’m learning from a different generation than my own. And society has changed. Even if I stood still, society hasn't, and that means trying to catch up.

I’m not alone. Matt Galloway, host of the Metro Morning radio show in Toronto, tweeted as he watched the Grammys with his kids:

I can relate, but it goes much deeper than music. It has to do with worldviews and values.

What does this mean?

It means that we need to remind ourselves regularly that we are sojourners and exiles here (1 Peter 2:11). Because I’ve lived here my whole life, it’s easy for me to think I know the culture more than I do. We need to pay attention to the subtle cues of cultural misalignment. They’re everywhere.

It also requires that we learn. It means asking lots of questions and listening well. Sometimes the best and hardest thing that a preacher can do is shut up and listen. It also means that I read widely, including the magazines and newspapers that people in my community are reading, especially the ones I don’t want to read because I don’t like what they say.

It also means that we need to learn to communicate to people who think differently than I do. Tim Keller talks about distinguishing between “A” doctrines (commonly held beliefs that line up with Scriptural teaching) and “B” doctrines (areas in which culture and Scripture disagree). He advises us to ‘float’ ‘B’ doctrines on top of ‘A’ doctrines, looking for ways to build the truth they don’t accept on top of the truth they do. This isn’t the entire answer, but we must give thought about how to communicate into a culture that’s different than ours.

Finally, it means that we need courage. Douglas Groothuis writes:

Christians should know what they believe and why they believe it. As they grow in their confidence that Christianity is amply supported by reason and evidence, they should likewise grow in their courage for the Christian witness. The stakes are too high to be ignorant or cowardly.

We need the courage to engage rather than simply withdrawing, even when things get challenging.

Cross-cultural ministry is great. We just have to remember that’s what we’re doing, and learn to do it well, even at home.

But You Don't Have To

Pastors — maybe especially church planters — can be masters at pressuring people to get on board and attend events. It’s understandable. We believe that people will benefit by participating fully in the life of the church, and even that the events we’re planning — prayer, fellowship, learning, and so on — can be used by God as means of grace in their lives.

That’s why I was not surprised to hear Ray Ortlund speak of an upcoming event at Immanuel Nashville in one of his recent sermons. The event sounded great: Rosaria Butterfield was coming to speak on Peace in Sexual Identity. Ortlund said, “I hope you’ll come and bring a friend.” What he said next surprised me:

I hope you’ll come and bring a friend.  But you don’t have to. I asked some of our leaders recently, Why do you think God created Immanuel Church? Their answer was, To give religiously wounded people a place to heal. That’s an important part of why we’re here. So if you’ve come to Immanuel wounded and injured and you don’t yet have the energy to contribute in any way, it’s a privilege to have you among us. Just come and heal.  But if you’ve had time to re-oxygenate, then you can serve. Bring a friend to hear Dr. Butterfield. And as you sit here that evening, pray for the person on your right, on your left, in front of you, behind you. You can add power to the entire event by bringing and praying. But you don’t have to.

As Ortlund spoke, I felt a weight of obligation lifted, and I don’t even go to that church! If I lived in Nashville, his words would make it more likely that I would attend, and infinitely more likely that I would attend for the right reasons.

It's no secret that Ortlund teaches about creating a gospel culture, and this statement seems to be an outgrowth of this culture.

"I hope you’ll come…but you don’t have to." The gospel frees us to love and serve our people, even if that means they don't the great events that we have planned.

Let's Talk: The Church and Mental Illness

Tomorrow is Bell Let’s Talk Day in Canada. It’s an annual event designed to increase awareness, reduce stigma and help change behaviors and attitudes about mental health issues. Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes, as well as Mary Walsh, Michael Landsberg and Howie Mandel participate as the public face of the campaign.

It’s an important day for the church as well. Here are five thoughts about mental illness and the church.

1. We often avoid the issue of mental illness. Ed Stetzer is bang on when he writes, "So often in a congregation, we like to pretend this is not a real issue because we have such a difficult time understanding it. We stick our heads in the sand, add the person to the prayer list and continue on ministering to the ‘normal’ people. But it’s real, and it isn’t going away.” As a pastor, I have experienced the temptation to ignore the reality of mental illness, but we can’t afford to do so.

2. Our attitudes toward mental illness are often simplistic. According to Stetzer, nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome serious mental illness. We sometimes resemble Job’s comforters or those who asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” in our efforts to explain mental illness (John 9:2).

3. Mental illness is an issue that’s bigger than we think. According to the Canadian Institute of Health Research, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a form of mental illness at some point in their life. 23% of pastors indicate that they have personally struggled with mental illness of some kind. Heroes of the faith, such as C.H. Spurgeon, struggled with mental illness.

4. We need a robust understanding of mental illness. Out of anyone, Christians should understand the complexity of the human makeup. “We need to recognize that man’s various parts (physical, spiritual, emotional) cannot be compartmentalized but must be considered as one whole person,” writes one pastor. Let’s not ignore the spiritual when it comes to talking about depression and other mental illnesses, but let’s not ignore the physical and emotional either.

5. Churches need to lead the way in welcoming all people into the safety of the gospel. Nancy Guthrie asks a great question: “Is your church a safe place for sad people?” I pray it is. As someone has said, we should aim to not only be the safest church in town, but the safest anything in town. We should welcome the weary and heavy-laden as Jesus does.

I’m grateful for Let’s Talk Day, and I’m hoping churches will also work towards increasing awareness, reducing stigma, and helping to change behaviors and attitudes about mental health issues.

Mental Health Access Pack offer the church a Christian-based resource which presents the facts on key mental health issues, all in one place. It's worth checking out.

I've also appreciated Ed Stetzer's writings on this topic. David Murray also has some helpful blog posts. Here is one example.

Encouraged but Wanting More

Ministry is a glass half-empty or half-full proposition. There are so many things that can discourage us. Ministry is hard at the best of times, and it often feels like we’re losing, rather than taking, ground. At the local church level, many churches need revitalizing, which is an important work but also a long and sometimes difficult one. Also, planting is hard.

Despite all of this, I’m hugely encouraged. Here’s why.

Gospel — Not only have we seen a rediscovery of the gospel in recent years, but we haven’t moved on. Nor could we. Books like Gospel by Ray Ortlund really encourage me, because they push us to not only consider gospel doctrine, but weave the gospel into the very culture of the church. Having tasted this, even in small measures, it’s impossible to go back.

Resources — Never before have we been so well resourced. There are so many excellent books coming out that it’s impossible to keep up with them. There are so many thoughtful, theologically sound and beneficial blogs that I can’t possibly read them all. My laptop contains the resources of a small seminary library. I can listen to the best sermons preached last Sunday without leaving my home. It’s staggering.

Servants — The days demand servanthood, which is why I keep meeting humble people who are ready to go to tough churches and love them to health. I love meeting seminary students who realize that there are lots of ministry positions, but not a lot of ministry careers, and who still are preparing to serve. I love meeting quality pastors who serve in obscurity and are okay with that. I love the servants who drive across the city every week to help us set up chairs at our humble church plant.

Desperation and Prayer — I’m sensing a growing number of pastors and churches who are praying for each other, and longing for something to happen not just in their church but in their city and beyond.

All of this leaves me encouraged, but hungry for more. Let’s pray that God would bring renewal to our churches and cities, and that we’ll see these brushfires of hope turn into something more.

Much Joy in the City

Want an interesting study? Take a look at how Luke describes the growth of the church in the book of Acts. It’s not the way that we usually describe the growth of the church.

I noticed a while ago that Luke sometimes used a phrase: “The word of God increased” (Acts 12:24). What a great way to put it. As David Peterson writes in his commentary, “The church which is the creature of the word grew.” As our churches grow, I hope it can be said that our growth is the growth of the word.

I noticed another phrase recently. When Philip first preached the gospel in Samaria, Luke describes the result: “So there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). The spread of the gospel is the spread of joy. Spurgeon said, “No city flourishes so well as that which has a clear, powerful, gospel bell ringing in the midst of it…We long to see this joy in London.”

If the church ever grows significantly in my city, I would be a happy man if it could be said:

  • the word of God increased there
  • there was much joy in the city

That’s the type of church growth I long for.