This evening, I am signing on again from Central Asia, where I am drinking a coffee at a small café in the middle of the city. Inside the café are tourists, mostly from America and Europe. It is a scene to behold. Directly in front of me, at the table that is rammed right up next to mine, is what appears to be an alternative rock band of some sort, thirty-somethings, complete with pierced pre-frontal cortexes and little dust bunnies on their chins.
To my left is a long table surrounded by mid-50s women, wielding their cell phones and Louis Vuitton purses, and laughing loudly enough to be heard over a cement mixer. There is another group of Americans outside on the street. Surely they are on a church trip-they’re wearing matching, neon green backpacks, and walking around grinning like its their birthday. And then there is the author of this blogpost, sitting at the booth in blue jeans and a Gap® shirt, sipping my hot brew and trying to write this post.
Here in front of me are three different groups of Americans, with some things in common such as the English language and a shared national history; however, from another angle, they likely have many things at variance, such as their views of the world and of cosmic history, or their convictions about the end goal of human life, or their preferences in music and TV and literature. They share a civilizational and national context, but probably not a cultural or existential context. Communication across these three groups would very likely be cross-cultural communication.
And all of this reminds me that Danny Akin and Paige Patterson, and Ed Stetzer and Bob Roberts, are right. We must treat the United States as a mission field. We must proclaim and embody the gospel across boundaries, we must plant churches, we must live missionally, as if our lives depended upon it.
While it is true, as I wrote in an earlier post, that there are places in the world where people have little or no access to the gospel, and that we should unite as a convention to focus our attention on those places, it is also true that we should unite as a convention to focus our attention also on North America, including especially the USA.
Living missionally in North America?
We most often use the term “missions” to denote the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic outworking of the church’s mission. It is for this reason that missions has most often been used to refer to international evangelism, discipleship and church planting. International missionaries cross vast cultural divides and overcome daunting linguistic barriers in order to share the gospel.
The point of this post, however, is that those who minister in the United States now must often cross subcultures and overcome linguistic barriers in their efforts to advance the kingdom.
A missional Christian in an American context is the same as one in the international context. He is first and foremost a theologian, but also is a student of other disciplines such as world religions, contemporary cultures and sub-cultures, and current affairs. In studying world religions, he learns to understand the core beliefs and religious practices of those to whom he will minister. In becoming a student of other cultures and sub-cultures, he learns to pay careful attention to the people group he is working amongst. He seeks to understand their beliefs, feelings, and values, as well as their patterns of behavior and material trappings. From current affairs, he gains an understanding of the broader regional, national, and international context within which he ministers.
What, then, is the task of the SBC, in relation to North America?
Given the present situation, the focus of North American missions should be to create and implement a missiology for North American cultures. One of the challenges facing Southern Baptists is how to reach our own country. The United States is not monolingual or monocultural. Multiple cultures and languages have been introduced within our borders by immigrants.
In addition, there is a dizzying array of sub-cultures, each with their own distinctive beliefs and ways of life. Many of these sub-cultures are post-Christian, in that they do not have even a basic understanding of a Christian worldview or Christian vocabulary.
We have got to learn how to take our own cultural contexts as seriously as IMB workers take their contexts. This means that we would take care to learn the cultures and sub-cultures around us so that we can communicate the gospel faithfully and meaningfully, and plant churches faithfully and meaningfully, within the framework of our neighbors’ cultural and existential contexts.