Sunday, February 20, 2005

Cross-cultural Ministry

"If you can't speak Chinese and don't understand the Chinese culture, how will you be able to minister to the Chinese majority?"
"If you have no inkling of the common trials of women, how will you serve your sisters in Christ?"

Leave it to those more competent perhaps? But like the erstwhile motto of Hard Rock Cafe, we are to love all and serve all to the best of our ability and opportunity.

This does not mean we dumb down or tweak the gospel to fit the people who we serve. The same gospel is for all people for all time, across cultures, nations and generations. Truth cannot change.

Nor does it mean that we view the one, united family of Christ as separate little ethno-centric, career-specific, need-differentiated groups and never the twain shall meet.

Nor does it mean that like play-actors and chameleons, all the church's a stage and we play different people to pander to different audience. But like Paul, to the Jews to became like a Jew, to win the Jews; and to those not having the law to become like one not having the law, so as to win those not having the law (1 Corinthians 9:20-21).

Thus challenged to take practical steps to be more loving and effective in the work of service, to make the effort to understand and so be able to sympathise (though perhaps not empathise), dear friends ensured that the weekend was spent on a cross-cultural immersion right here in my homeland of Singapore. My earnest tutors and tour guides gave pointer tips:
  1. if you're in a Cantonese restaurant, speak Cantonese for best service (eh?);
  2. the pagan Chinese Chinese-speaker's mindset is vastly different from the pagan Chinese English-speaker's worldview and different problems and desires beset them;
  3. the pagan Chinese Chinese-speaking intellectual is also completely distinct from the pagan Chinese Chinese-speaking mainstreamer and the baggage they bring to their Christian lives are very dissimilar;
  4. the modern Mandarin-pop idea of love is unlike the modern Anglo-American-pop idea of love and care must be taken to address the manifold illusions of these groups when explaining the biblical concept (I shall have 20GB worth of Mandarin and Cantonese MP3s at my disposal should I so wish to investigate this further. The offer also includes almost all of Wong Kar Wai films and Miyazaki's anime. "To understand the affections of the Singapore Chinese intellectual".);
  5. single women of most modern cultures share many similar common topics of conversation: romantic relationships (speculatives, imminents, hopefuls, lack thereof), friendship (assuring and reaffirming, loss and betrayal, lack thereof), gossip about common friends and colleagues, commenting on degrees of separation, bemoaning lack of attractiveness of one's physical attributes and one's age, discussing ways of enhancing one's physical attributes, latest sales and best bargains (I suspected this to be more Singaporean but have been assured otherwise), despairing of their singleness (loneliness, desire for children, desire for sex, fear of stigma of being labelled an old maid or a lesbian); and
  6. married women of most modern cultures speak mostly about either their children (complaining, boasting, seeking advice) or husbands (complaining, suspecting, boasting, seeking advice).
Yet, beside these generalities, surely I must always bear in mind through the universality of sinfulness and the singularity of the source and method of salvation, that people are individuals, to be known and loved and helped as individuals, not to be pre-judged, pigeon-holed and put on a production-line for one-size-fits-all programme for godliness.

But the greatest cross-cultural challenge is well-put by an Aussie pastor,"All ministry is cross cultural. If I'm asking a non-Christian to choose to turn from a life of sin to follow Christ, I'm asking him to cross cultures." And to that we must add that if we are encouraging each other to keep turning from a life of sin, we must always be asking each other to cross cultures.

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