Diaspora Missions

Break the Rules: Engaging Internationals as an American

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A big part of my job is talking to church leaders about how they accomplish the Great Commission. It’s a ton of fun, but over time you start to see some patterns.

In recent years, the topic of immigrants and refugees comes up more and more in those conversations, as it should. The fact is, the face of American Christianity is changing, and now more than ever we have opportunities to engage some of the hardest to reach peoples in the world by sharing the gospel with our immigrant neighbors. Now, let me be clear, the question for local churches in American is not if they should find ways to meet, befriend, and share the gospel with their immigrant neighbors. That’s a biblical given. We’re told to make disciples of all nations, and when God brings the nations to your doorstep, your local church has a biblical responsibility to care about those he brings. That’s simply not a choice we get to make.

No, the question is really how best to engage our new immigrant neighbors with the gospel, knowing that they are from different cultures with different backgrounds that we may not understand. There are several things well-intentioned church members feel they are not supposed to do when engaging internationals. However, many of those things are actually good.

“The question for local churches in American is not IF they should find ways to meet, befriend, and share the gospel with their immigrant neighbors. That’s a biblical given. ”

Of course, everyone exists inside a culture, and church members here in America are no exception to that rule. That means certain aspects of our culture and worldview give us “rules” to live by when interacting with other people. For instance, here in the States when we meet someone we typically shake hands. It happens so naturally that we do not even realize it is a culturally conditioned response. However, when we start engaging cross-culturally, some of these cultural responses cross wires and cause our communication to fail. In other words, there are “rules” in our culture that make no sense in other cultures.

The following are three such examples where our “rules” in American culture tell us not to do something that would actually benefit our relationship with people from many other cultures. These are things we think would be wrong to do, but are actually good.

Talking about religion the first time you meet someone

In good ol’ American culture there are two things you never bring up in a friendly conversation: politics and religion. This is simply not the case in most other cultures of the world, especially those we find in unreached areas. This idea that the sacred and the secular are compartmentalized is not found in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or pretty much any other world religion. Your religion is as much a part of who you are as your hair color, and so it is a regular topic of conversation. This means it is not weird to talk about it. In fact, when you develop a relationship with a Muslim (a devout one, that is) here in the States, there is a good chance they will think it odd that you do not talk about religion any more than you do. As far as many internationals are concerned, if your faith in Jesus Christ is as important as you claim it is, then you would speak of it often.

Inviting yourself to someone’s house

This is another cultural no-no in the States. It is simply rude to impose on someone by inviting yourself over. However, this is not true in all cultures. In fact, when I was a missionary in West Africa, there were few things I could do that would show honor like coming over to someone’s house for dinner. In cultures that are not as private as ours, this is often a way that you bestow respect and value. If you are willing to enter into their world instead of insisting on your interaction happening in yours, it shows them that you believe their world has value and worth. In many cultures, asking to come over and experience their home and their food has the opposite effect from what a Westerner would assume.

“If you are willing to enter into their world instead of insisting on your interaction happening in yours, it shows them that you believe their world has value and worth.”

A young man named Adam in my previous church approached me for advice concerning a Muslim coworker. This coworker was from Africa and they had many conversations at work, but Adam wanted to move the conversation outside of the work environment so they could become friends. He invited this Muslim man and his family over for dinner on several occasions. Every time the man said he would come but had an excuse last minute (this is also very cultural). I told Adam that next time he needed to invite himself and his family over to the Muslim man’s house. At first Adam was skeptical, as any American would be, but when he did they gladly took him up on the offer the first time. Their relationship became much closer afterwards.

I will say, this is not true of every culture, so I would not make this my first interaction with someone. However, if church members can free themselves to do this, then they can experience a level of hospitality unknown in our culture and develop much closer relationships with internationals.

Going to a mosque or temple

Admittedly, the idea of entering a foreign religious space can be intimidating. Many church members also assume this would be disrespectful, so they mark it off the list of places for engagement. To the contrary, many of these places in the U.S. also serve as cultural centers. They give tours and even teach classes about their culture and religion. Mosques and temples are great places to meet internationals and participate in cultural acquisition. Consider this: if a Hindu man or a Muslim woman walked into your corporate worship one Sunday, would you feel disrespected? I hope you would be excited that they were there.

“Imagine, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ being openly taught inside the doors of a mosque.”

One caveat I would add is that you need to be sure you do not participate in their religious ceremonies. For a mosque, I would strongly suggest you refrain from lining up and praying with them. In a temple, I would not participate in paying homage to the idols that are present. In most mosques and temples, you will not be asked to do so if you are clear that you are a Christian just wanting to meet your international neighbors and learn more about their religion. However, every now and then they may offer. It is perfectly fine to politely refuse. It may even lead into a gospel conversation.

I know a number of churches now that have men (and even women) who regularly visit a number of mosques in their city. By doing so, they have developed close relationships and opportunities for regular religious dialogue (read as gospel proclamation). In fact, I know of instances where mosques have asked for weekly meetings to discuss the differences between Christianity and Islam, and they are letting these Christians essentially teach courses out of the Bible. Imagine, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ being openly taught inside the doors of a mosque.

These are only three examples, but I am sure there are others. In your experience, what are some things you would add to the list?

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published here on October 30, 2015.

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Keelan Cook

Director of the CGCS

Keelan Cook is the Director for the Center for Great Commission Studies. He also serves as instructor of North American missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Keelan’s areas of focus cover both North American and international missions. He has a passion for mobilizing the church to the nations, and a love for missions history. In previous years, he spent time as a church planter in West Africa with the IMB and doing ethnographic research in Washington, DC with NAMB.

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