PAUSE OR PLAY? Moving Forward in Intercultural Ministry

Have you ever been guest in a home watching a movie on DVD, and the doorbell rings. The host gets up to answer it, and hits “Pause.” He comes back and starts pause playthe movie only to get a call on the phone; and he hits “Pause” again!  Later its up for a snack, and then a restroom break. Oh, did I forget to feed the dog?   It can take 4 hours to watch a 2 hour movie! Pausing can be a pain. Because Pause is the opposite of progress.

Did you ever consider that God may get tired of us hitting the Pause button?

Every church is an unfolding story of adventure. Your story is a drama of good against evil, a damsel in distress with a handsome Prince ready to rescue. Yours is a story of coming into sync with God’s purpose for you, picking up the Spirit’s wind in your sails and breezing through the crisp ocean air!!

But in my work with churches across the country, I have discovered that the vast majority of churches, some say over 90%, have hit the Pause button, all at the very same place. Has your church done the same? Have you stopped the action just as the hand of the Lord is about to favor you! Would you like to know where the story is paused? I can give you chapter and verse

Acts 11:19.  “Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only.” PAUSE !.

The message of Christ, and the good deeds of Christ, were spreading outward from Jerusalem. As the believers traveled, they shared the story of Jesus with people wherever they went. And they did this in the most natural way—they talked to people like themselves. Jews talked to Jews. Well, that’s great. God loves the Jewish people, and they needed to hear about their Messiah. But there was much more to the story than the Jews.

“Fast Forward” – A dynamic, intercultural church
What was ahead in the adventure story of the church? Oh, I’m so glad you asked. So many people began following Jesus at Antioch that the news spread down to Jerusalem. The bigwigs at Jerusalem wanted to check it out, so they tapped a trusted elder named Barnabas to hop on up to Antioch and find out what was happening in the church there.

Barnabas determined that it was the real thing; that the Holy Spirit was the instigator of it all. So much so that his weekend investigation turned into an entire year of training, helped along by a young apostle named Paul. A drought made the headlines and the church responded not by throwing its hands up helplessly but by taking a big offering and sending the proceeds down to Jerusalem to help feed the hungry.

Fast forward a bit further and you see a church well established with a mature elder board. Interesting thing about that elder board: it is ethnically and economically diverse.

  • Barnabas; (Acts 4:36) “son of encouragement”; priestly tribe,
  • Cyprus; landowner
  • Simeon who was called Niger; Jewish name, apparently with nickname (Latin) meaning “black.” Child of mixed marriage? (Jewish father, African mother?)
  • Lucius of Cyrene; Roman name (upbringing) from city in Libya (No.African)
  • Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch; possibly foster-brother; Jewish name; associated with a despised, despotic ruling family; exposed to wealth.
  • Saul; well educated Jewish lawyer. Vicious persecutor of the church; excellent teacher

 It was a dynamic, intercultural church. It had a staff that only the resurrected Christ could recruit and keep unified.

People were getting turned around on a dime by the resurrected Jesus. Money was flowing in to help the poor and hungry. Elders of different ethnicities were praying together with fasting; they were hearing the voice of God. This was one happening place.

Consider! Most churches are poised to become places that only the Spirit of God can imagine! If only they weren’t stuck on Pause.

“Play” – Jump cultural hurdles for Christ
So, would you care to know how the Antioch church hit the “Play” button?

Acts 11:20 says, “But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus.”

Who were these “men from Cyprus and Cyrene”? They were (likely) Jews who had come to believe in the Messiah; they were on the move, scattered. Members of the huge Christian diaspora of those days. And they had courage to speak to people who were different…specifically the Hellenists.

Who were the “Hellenists” (or in the NIV, “Greeks”)? Before the Roman Empire, there was the Greek Empire which, thanks to the exploits of Alexander the Great, spread from Italy to present-day Iran. With the kingdom came a Greek, or Hellenistic culture and language that tied the people together (hence the NT is written in Greek).

There were certain cities that were chosen as colonies, or strongholds of Greek culture and learning. Antioch was one of those cities. To the Jews, Hellenists were those people who were hard to figure out.

Language – Jews spoke an eastern language that flowed from the back of the book to the front, from the right side of the page to the left. Hellenists spoke a western language that flowed from the front of the book to the back, from the left side of the page to the right.

Beliefs – Jews believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Hellenists believed in Zeus, Hermes, and Artemis. Jews believed in one God.  Hellenists had a “coatrack” of gods; always room for one more mythological character with wings.

Worldviews – Jews thought in cyclical, existential terms; they sought after signs, the “Wow factor.” Hellenists thought in linear terms; they sought after wisdom, the “Sensible factor.”

Authority – The Jews were the refugees on the run; everything they owned was portable. The Hellenists were settled, comfortable in their culture. But both were under the rule of the Romans, so they had that in common.

In other words, the Jews and Hellenists were a cultural train wreck waiting to happen. It was only a matter of time before they would get into a tussle of confusion over customs, beliefs, and words. In other words, this was a huge hurdle to cross. This would be like me trying to preach Jesus to a Buddhist King from Cambodia who happened to know some English.

But something impelled a few courageous believers to jump the cultural and class hurdle; something empowered them to keep the story unfolding such that an intercultural church with a mission-vision could sprout up in the heart of that Greek colonial city ruled by Romans.

What gave them the initiative to do that? Or to relate it practically, what could motivate and strengthen us to do the same? I mean, we are wired to prefer our own kind of music, food and dress. We like our schedules, our politics, our entertainment. And we prefer being around people who share our likes and dislike our dislikes! What reasons could be strong enough to push “Play” in our lives, and in our church, to keep the story rolling?

Rewind – Transformation of mind and heart
Something very significant had recently happened. The Holy Spirit was changing the rules of the game, and the lesson came most strongly to the person who, if he changed, everyone could change. He was the sanctified godfather of the early church. His was the vote that broke any tie, or the veto that canned any plan. He was Peter, the pillar of the Jewish church.

But over the course of 24 hours, this devout Jew, comfortable in his own skin, his own culture and beliefs, the top leader of a new Jewish sect, uncontaminated by fellowship with any non-Jews, went through a metamorphosis from God, and was transformed. He emerged as a leader persuading his fellow Jewish elders that God had cleansed all food, and that anyone who believed in Christ could be saved, regardless of culture, color, or class.

What had happened?  What cracked this cultural Rock of Gibraltar? How did the Holy Spirit lead Peter, a bull-headed leader through such a revolutionary process? Whatever it was, it gave the whole church the freedom to cross boundaries; it emboldened certain men in Antioch to talk to Hellenists.

And whatever it was, it is the very thing we need today if we are to get off Pause and push the Play button. It is what we need to line up our default preferences for our own kind and culture, and align with God’s call to reach out and include those who are different.

Peter was staying with a friend in the coastal town of Joppa. About three in the afternoon Peter goes up on the roof to pray, and of all things he falls into a trance.
Heaven opens, and a huge sheet is let down, filled with a smorgasbord of foods that good Jews were forbidden by the O.T. to eat. Then a voice from heaven, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” “No Lord, I’ve never eaten anything common or unclean.” This was the right answer, the one that passed the test, that got the A+, that kept the Jewish universe on its axis.

But the voice came back a second time: “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” We cannot imagine how revolting this must have seemed to Peter…how revolutionary. This was a 180 degree change that reversed 2000 years of instruction and obedience. Even Jesus normally cooperated with the Law.

What does the Spirit of Jesus do to empower a multi-cultural transformation? He gives a new vision. He speaks from heaven with a new command.

Have you seen the vision? John 17:20-21 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” Jesus longs for a new thing, a unity tying together all His diverse followers.

Have you seen the vision? Eph 2:14-18 “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off, and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.” Jesus is the great peace-maker between former enemies. He is the divine wall-breaker, removing obstacles, giving access to everyone, equally.

Have you seen the vision? Mark 11:17 Jesus said, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’” But you have made it a ‘den of thieves’”. The cross is a huge doorway for all to enter. It isn’t shaped for white folk, or tall folk, or menfolk. It is for all folk!

Have you seen the vision?  1 Cor 12:20-22  “But now indeed there are  many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.”

Woe to us, if we have been content with a body that looks just like us! If we are content to worship in our comfortable sanctuary, with our customary rituals, without the messiness and the hassle of the weaker parts of the body, without the ethnic peoples that are unrepresented here, without the poor who feel out of place here. They are the weak, the unpresentable parts that belong to the body.

Woe to us, for thinking we have no need of them, for in fact they are more necessary. For without them, the graces of Christ dry on the vine. The love and forgiveness and mercy and deference that give off the cologne of Jesus are kept safely in the bottle, unable to woo the skeptic with its aroma.

Have you seen the vision?   Rev 7:9,10  “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

I don’t know what your vision of heaven is, but I know the one Jesus longs to see. The heaven Jesus anticipates isn’t a bunch of white folk, or black folk, or brown folk. It is going to be one multi-colored gathering. And we best start rehearsing for the mother of all gospel choirs, because that is what we are going to join. And we better start searching for an answer to why—as one of my friends puts it—why, if heaven isn’t going to be segregated, why on earth is the church?!

A fresh vision from God is imperative. But if we learn anything from Peter’s transformation, it is just the beginning of a great adventure. As Peter reflected on the vision he had seen, a knock came on the door downstairs. The visitors — two house servants and a soldier — had been sent by, of all people, a Roman centurion. A Roman, one in command of 100 men. What more despicable delegation could possibly be received? Romans were the occupiers, even more despised than the Greeks!

But the Spirit of Jesus whispered to Peter to get up, go with the men to see their master, because God had sent them. To his infinite credit, Peter went down to greet the visitors. They told him that their master and commander, Cornelius,  had been praying to the God of heaven, and was told by an angel to send for you, Peter, to come. (By the way, take note: God heard the prayers of unsaved Cornelius: “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God” Acts 10:4.  That rather shatters the notion that God does not hear the prayers of an unsaved person!)

And then Peter did something so cataclysmic, so revolutionary, that it is unimaginable to us. He took the first step in a journey that changed the history of the church, a first step that can change a family or even an entire church. He invited the strangers into the house. And the next day He went with them to the home of Cornelius, the Roman.

You can’t take this journey vicariously. It won’t happen by reading a book or watching a documentary. Doesn’t happen by listening to a sermon. A church won’t become inclusive by saying, “Anyone is welcome here.” Because what that means is they can come as long as they are willing to do things our way. But ask us to adapt what we do to accommodate them, no way! Ask us to change? Hey, this is our church.

Do you want to know what it feels like for someone from another culture, another country, another religion to come into your church?  The same way you (a committed Christian) would feel by going to worship at a Buddhist temple. The same way you would feel when entering a mosque on Friday afternoon. Don’t be so ethnocentric as to think they would like it in your church.

Friend, the onus is on us, to invite them into our homes, and to go to theirs; to take difficult steps in a risky direction.

Which leads to the third part of the adventure. Peter must have cringed when he heard where Cornelius lived: the town of Caesarea; hear it? “Caesar—ea” This was Rome central. Regiments of Italians probably marched nearby as Peter rode into town. Herod himself had a retreat here. The smell of pasta and fettuccine filled the air. The aroma of grilled pork, a stench to Jews, wafted across the streets.

Cornelius had called together all his relatives. As Peter approached, the Centurion ran to greet him, kneeling in respect. Peter entered the home and said, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)

Cornelius describes the visitation of the angel, with instructions to call for Peter. They are ready to listen. And Peter lifts up the hood to unveil the theological engine of the mission of God. “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.” (Acts 10:34-35)

Peter shares the message of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and granting of eternal life. The stamp of approval on this colossal new development comes with a thud — the Holy Spirit falls on them all. Peter concludes this is the same Spirit that had come upon the Jews not many months earlier, and baptizes them all in water.

What is the lesson here? To align the calling of our church with God’s mission, we must break the rules that protect our comfortable enclave. AND, we must be willing to be criticized by the powerful people who haven’t seen the vision.

That brings up back to where we began: on Pause
The early church is scattering and on the move, but at a standstill in the mission of God—Jews speaking only to Jews. Word arrives that Peter, our senior pastor!, has gone to the home of a Roman centurion! And the Holy Spirit has been given to the Gentiles. The remaining elders in Jerusalem, when they hear this, drew silent, and glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” (Acts 11:18).

So a few folks from Cyprus—islanders, that’s what you’d expect from them– and a few brothers from Cyrene – Africans, that explains it—they came into Greeksville and spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus.

And the church got off Pause…

and Played.

You know what is fascinating? God has brought Romans and Hellenists right into your town! Many of them have never heard an explanation of who Jesus is. Many have never gotten to know a Jesus-follower. Many international students, many foreign-born engineers, medical practitioners, have never been invited into the home of an American. They’re cautious… but curious. And many of them have been called by God into His forever family.

Who will invite them home for a cup of tea?
Who will explain an English word, or show how a chocolate chip cookie is made?
Who will ask them how they are doing?
Who will take them to a ball game or a bowling alley, or a museum?
Who will offer to take them to their appointment or pick them up at the airport?

Those who see a new vision.
Those who take difficult steps in a risky direction
And those who break the rules that protect a comfortable enclave.
Those who push play, no matter the cost.


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