It wasn’t all that long ago that you could walk down the street and only run into people just like you – people who shared similar upbringings, values, interests, beliefs. We were all basically the same, like smurfs among smurfs, or Temuera Morrison among the clones. Sure, we knew that there were people somewhere who were entirely different to us, but they were far away from our world and (most probably) far away from our thoughts. We knew of missionaries who had braved the elements and set sail to those ‘others,’ but only the elite few possessed such a calling.
But worlds collide.
Not long after we discovered Chinese food and Thai curries we realised that our once homogeneous cities were becoming increasingly diverse. Thanks to a number of factors – globalisation, convenient international travel, the internet, refugees seeking asylum to name a few – we regularly find ourselves rubbing shoulders with people different to ourselves, with ‘others.’
In fact, in 21st Century New Zealand you’d have to make quite an effort to avoid crossing paths with Asians and Africans, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists on an almost day to day basis. And this isn’t merely the case in a few western cities. Almost the entire world, from America to China, from New Zealand to India, is now culturally and religiously plural. And guess what: we’re at the heart of it. New Zealand is now home to more ethnicities than there are countries in the world (213 compared to 196) and by 2021 one-third of Aucklanders will identify themselves as Asian.
If we’re honest, many of us would admit that we once imagined the ‘average Kiwi’ to be white Pakeha living alongside a minority of Maori and Pacific Islanders. Maybe there was once some truth to such a perspective, but these days there simply isn’t such a thing as the ‘average Kiwi.’ New Zealand is simply too diverse to allow for such a category, and until we recognise that, we will stand in the way of what God is wanting to do in this nation.
A missed opportunity
Cross-cultural mission was once about going ‘over there.’ If we were to do as Jesus told us and make disciples of all peoples, then our only option was to get on a boat or a plane and actually go to them. Why? Because they were not here!
How about now? I’m married to a Norwegian. On one side of our home lives a lovely, young Korean couple. On the other side, a retired Welsh couple. So, in my small patch of New Zealand, I’m the minority as a Kiwi European. And it’s the same across the country. It’d be hard to find a classroom that didn’t capture some of this diversity: Asians, Africans, Europeans, Pacific Islanders. And while some are immigrants, many were born here – New Zealand truly is their home.
This cultural diversity is an opportunity I’m afraid the majority of the Church has missed. We’ve missed it badly. While we’ve been worrying about running our programme and sending people to the ‘others’ overseas, we haven’t noticed that world has come to us! People from some of the most unreached parts of the world – regions virtually untouched by the Gospel – are now at our doorsteps. And we don’t know what to do about it!
With cultural diversity comes religious diversity, and that can be threatening. But we can’t hide behind the walls of the church and deny this new cultural landscape. The plural world has become our plural world, and we need to learn what it means to not only confront the religions, but also coexist with them. It’s time for the western Church to grapple head-on (and with humility!) the question of “Jesus and the religions.”
Jesus, Gentiles and Samaritans
Christians have almost always lived along people of other faiths, yet strangely very few – almost none – have considered that Jesus himself interacted with peoples of other faiths, with Gentiles and Samaritans. It is about time that we turn to Jesus for a model of how we should relate to the ‘Gentiles and Samaritans’ of our world.
Jesus encountered people who worshiped idols, some who had an incredibly distorted view of the God of Israel, and probably some who worshiped Caesar as if he were a god. And how did Jesus respond to such people? He healed their children and servants (John 4:46-54). He praised their limited faith (Matthew 15:21-28). He pointed to them as models to emulate (Matthew 8:5-13). He accepted them despite significant cultural prejudices (John 4:4-42). He petitioned God to forgive them when they nailed him to a cross (Luke 23:34). He didn’t separate himself from them but received them, showing God’s welcome, love, justice, mercy and grace.
Jesus is our supreme example of what the human life can and should be. It’s only fitting that we see in him a model of how God would have us relate to the ‘outsiders’ of our world, the ‘strangers’ among us.
What is the cultural and religious make-up of your neighbourhood? What research could you do? (A start could be the New Zealand Religion Map)
Read some of the passages mentioned above. What challenges you about how Jesus treated people with different religious and cultural beliefs? What’s one thing you can work on?
Exploring today’s missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of Intermission will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. Why not take up the challenge and start using Intermission in your community? For more information or to order copies click here.