By Frank Severn, General Director Emeritus — Since my appointment as General Director of SEND International in 1980, I have been an advocate of multicultural teams in missions. I came to that view based on my faith/theology and my practical experience. Now that I have been retired for many years, I still strongly believe that multicultural teams reflect the wonder of the gospel of grace and picture the glorious future awaiting all believers when we worship Christ together in heaven in the completed Body of Christ, made up of believers from all generations and from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.
Let’s look at theology first. The metanarrative of the Bible is that God created mankind in his image. Although that image was marred by our sin — which started with Adam and Eve’s clear disobedience and banishment from the Garden of Eden, and continues in every human being — we still retain the image of our Creator. God has a plan to restore mankind to fellowship with him for eternity. That plan was foreshadowed in the Old Testament and fully revealed in his Son, Jesus Christ, who took on flesh and went to the cross to pay for our sin and reconcile believers to God. In so doing, we become sons and daughters of the living God and begin to manifest the image of God in greater degree through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
All believers in our Lord Jesus Christ become members of his Body called the Church. As such, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We all have been given the Holy Spirit to dwell in us. We have unity together based not on ethnic or social groupings but on our common faith in our Lord Jesus. Often that unity is hard to realize because of language, culture, and history. It is only the metanarrative of the Bible that enables us to bridge these differences.
In practice, these differences tend to divide us. They push us into staying close to our own language, history, and culture, and they cause us to be suspicious of other languages, cultures, and people.
Lessons learned on the field
During my missionary experience in the Philippines, I learned many valuable lessons. The first was that Filipino culture, while different, and influenced by sin as are all cultures, had wonderful aspects that were missing in my culture. I also appreciated the glorious fact that Filipino believers had the same Holy Spirit as I did. I came to love them as brothers and sisters and co-workers in the Kingdom of God. I valued their gifts and perspectives. They are under the same Great Commission as I am. It was obvious to me that Filipinos would and should become missionaries to other peoples and cultures. In fact, they should become members of our mission — and now, many have.
The second great lesson I learned is that when we listen to each other and work to bridge our linguistic and cultural backgrounds and biases, we find a rich display of God’s image in our brothers and sisters. This was impressed on me as I worked with some of our German and Australian colleagues. There were many cultural things that tended to confuse or separate us, but when we listened to each other and appreciated the history experienced by each one, it was a joy to be co-workers in the Kingdom. I deeply valued my friendships with my German, Australian and Asian colleagues. I also learned much from them. Their cultural backgrounds brought good perspectives and gifts to our teams that I did not have. Working together helped us to better manifest the multifaceted Body of Christ.
God’s ‘reversal of Babel’
The concept of multiculturalism has some negative aspects, especially when it is used in public discourse and philosophical discussions. In post-modern academic thought, it means that fragmentationism is how we view the world. Jeffrey Stout characterized this cultural situation as one for which the biblical image of Babel — a story of division and separation — serves in a figurative sense. There is not a unified story or commonality. Rather each people or tribe or even group develops its own ethic and “truth.” This fragmentation rules the day. Every person has a right to be who they are and cannot be judged by someone else. There is no metanarrative that brings us together.
However, God desires to create a new people, his people, who come from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev. 5: 8-10). In his book “Adventures in Evangelical Civility,” Richard Mouw proposes an alternative to the Babel narrative:
“The culture of Babel takes the confusion of tongues for granted; it sees no clear alternative to the acceptance of irreducible diversity. In such an understanding of our cultural condition, the Christian metanarrative can only be viewed as scandalous. But the Scriptures present a remedy for Babel’s confusion. Pentecost was God’s reversal of Babel.”
Babel is a picture of what God did because of human pride and sin. It represents one kind of multiculturalism. Mouw says it is an example of “irreducible diversity, of the loss of common patterns of understanding.” It brings divisions and erects fences.
Pentecost is a picture of another type of multiculturalism. It does not remove diversity of languages, but it provides us with power and life, which enables us to see our commonality and to see people as made in the image of God. It unites diverse peoples in a common faith and a common metanarrative. Pentecost brings reconciliation, healing, unity, and a new understanding.
Showing now what we shall be for eternity
For many years I have sensed that God has gifted, not only individual Christians with special gifts to bless and build up their churches, but he has also gifted the church within its culture with special gifts that should bless the whole Church in all its diversity. The following quote from Mouw illustrates what I have long sensed:
“There is also a ‘collective’ possession of the divine image. The Lord distributes different aspects of the divine likeness to different cultural groups. Each group receives, as it were, its own assignment for developing some aspect of the image of God. Only in the eschatological gathering-in of the peoples of the earth, when many tribes and tongues and nations will be displayed in their ‘honor and glory’ (Rev. 21:26) in the new Jerusalem, only then will we see the many-splendored imago Dei in its fullness.”
The death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus gives us an alternative to the fragmentation of Babel. Jesus promised that he would send His Spirit to empower the church to witness across barriers and to unite believers in a common bond that breaks down walls and unites us as sinners saved by grace. We are members of one family! Pentecost brings a new era of redemptive history that fulfills the Abrahamic Covenant. All nations of the earth will be blessed and will be a blessing.
When we work together in multicultural teams, we begin to demonstrate what we shall be in glory. We show how the Spirit breaks down walls and enables us to learn from one another as we proclaim the gospel, which is universal in its appeal and application. We also begin to show more of the imago Dei to a watching world. Multicultural teams demonstrate that our God is not the unique god of any culture. Our God is the eternal creator of all peoples. Our gospel is not a Western invention, it is the plan of the Creator God to redeem and unite his people from every tribe, people, language, and nation!
More Better Together stories
- Four strengths of multicultural ministry teams: Many people associate ethnicity with religion — to be X is to believe Y. Multicultural teams contradict this notion by their very existence.
- ‘Vital instruments’ in new faith: Four Latin American interns passionately share their faith in Thailand, and two young women decide to follow Jesus!
- Missionary, know thyself: Multicultural teams work together more smoothly when each member understands their own culture. These questions can help.
- The best kind of breakdown: More time at the mechanic means more opportunities to share the love of Christ.
- Unity prayer for multicultural teams: Five ways to pray for the kind of oneness that attracts the unreached to Jesus.
- A heart for Japan’s hopeless: Our first global worker from Taiwan looks back and understands why God called her to work with SEND.
- ‘No one nationality’ could do what we’re able to do together: Program for non-native English teachers has sent graduates into 32 countries to engage the unreached.
- Check out the resources on SEND’s Better Together page.
Top image: Joshua Peacock
Fragmentation image: Erik Eastman