A match made in heaven
By Joshua Bogunjoko, SIM International Director | international
A year after we moved to the US, the bishop of an African-American church in South Carolina invited our family to visit his church. We had never attended an African-American church and our only experience for many years was this visit.
The experience left me thinking we did not belong. I found the singing and music very fast and loud. I did not understand the order of service, and I confess I did not try to understand it. It was already planted in my head that we would not find a home there because they may not welcome someone from Africa. I did not follow the preaching because of the constant interruption of ‘amen’ and ‘preach it, brother.’ I was simply lost for most of the service.
Later, after reflecting on my experience, I realised nothing was wrong with the church. The Bible does not prescribe an order of service or instruct about hymns or instruments. No one wrote to Timothy or Titus that a brother or sister should not say ‘amen’ during preaching. In short, my own ethnocentric perspective robbed me of the opportunity to enjoy the worship and preaching of fellow pilgrims. I lost out because I did not kneel to worship, pray and humbly learn; instead, I was evaluating and judging.
I was the one who needed help, not the church. Thank God, He gave me another chance, which I do not have space to write about here. The sad reality is that my judging gave me the feeling that they — the people in whose church I sat — were outsiders to my way of the faith and way of church. In my mind, they were the ‘other,’ even while my family and I were their guests. And their otherness eclipsed my interaction with them. I did not see strength, I saw weakness. I did not see different, I saw other. I did not see contribution to the diversity of the body, I saw lack of conformity to my view of the body, even my ‘biblical view of Christianity.’ I was a judge, not a worshiper; a critic, not a partner in the gospel. I saw a crooked picture instead of gaining perspective by kneeling and worshipping with them.
"My identity is rooted in my faith in Christ, and my understanding of being Christian has been shaped in a particular context and by particular practices."
Why did my brothers and sisters in that church seem wrong to me? The answer is simple. My identity is rooted in my faith in Christ, and my understanding of being Christian has been shaped in a particular context and by particular practices. Similarly, my understanding of being in mission and being a mission worker has been cemented by the people I listen to and books I read. Deviations from familiar practices not only threatened my understanding of how faith should be practiced (including how to do church), it also threatened my identity. It undermined my safe place for faith and ministry.
One of SIM’s core values is ‘strengthened through diversity’: We are intentionally interdenominational, international, and multiethnic. We believe this expresses the unity of the body of Christ in the world. We believe we will be more effective in ministry as we incorporate the richness of cultural diversity in SIM and celebrate our oneness in Christ.
All three of the synoptic Gospels record an encounter between our Lord Jesus Christ and his disciples. "When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked the disciples, Who do people say I am? They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and others, one of the prophets." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ." Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him (Mark 8:27-30).
This account illustrates a lesson in discovery. The Gospels reveal that Christ often knew people's minds and secret discussions. Yet He still put these questions to his disciples. Why? We know this was not an opinion poll for political purposes. It was not because Jesus wanted to adjust his message to please the crowd. So, why did He ask?
Perhaps, part of the answer was to get the disciples to verbalise where they were in their journey of knowing Him. It may be to help correct their perception of Him and gain the right perspective on who He truly is. When Peter rightly professed Jesus as Messiah, our Lord told him that flesh and blood had not revealed this to him. In other words, this is not an idea he thought up by Himself. Divine power was at work in Peter.
Conceptions range widely about mission teams or mission workers. Different cultures and subcultures differently perceive the cross-cultural worker and team, just as we perceive one another differently. So, how do we discover how we are perceived without asking? How do we learn to be loving and comfortable with diverse people unless we gain God’s perspective through humbly living among them and serving together?
SIM is committed to being a global family, strengthened through diversity, welcoming people from diverse backgrounds into our organisation. Our Faithful Witness initiative embodies this, as we seek to place multi-cultural, multi-skilled teams in communities where there is virtually no Christian witness.
"SIM is committed to being a global family, strengthened through diversity, welcoming people from diverse backgrounds into our organisation."
But how are we perceived and perceiving? Do our teammates and people outside of SIM believe that? Would observers in their local context conclude that we welcome global members of God’s family, or conclude we are an elite, a group meant only for certain type of people? Will they understand our explanations about our systems, our policies, our principles and practices, or will they see a mountain blocking their participation with us as equals? While we may be comfortable recruiting and sending local workers to teams in other countries, are we comfortable recruiting such workers as members in our local ministry? Are we glimpsing the view of the church and of our team that the Greatest Artist in all the universe is painting?
Crossing national boundaries has been our historical norm, but as we respond to our time, including disruptive events such as pandemics and security threats, should we ask how this historical norm is now perceived locally and how it might imperil our work long-term? Should we question the perspective from which we saw before and from where we should be seeing now? Of course, the perspective today will differ from that of our pioneers who laboured on dry grounds that had no church.
In my experience of a church that I did not understand, I did not just observe in an unbiased way, taking in local practices, worship, and sermons; I judged. And I drew conclusions.
Could our hosts and multi-cultural team members be perceiving us wrongly, and vice versa? What difference could it make to our global family if we kneeled in humble worship alongside our diverse teammates, asking God to reveal his perception of us, other’s perceptions of us, and the perspective from where He wants us to see one another?
On our knees in humility and worship, let us reflect again on our Lord’s prayer: “…that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, (note), so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21).
I invite the church into conversation around perception and perspective. Let us take time together to prayerfully examine ourselves, to question the perspective from which we are seeing, and to agree to worship God as we make changes that will honour Him and bless His Kingdom work and His people.
For more information about Faithful Witness, visit the Faithful Witness page.
Pete Greig, The Vision and the Vow, (Kingsway Publications, 2005) p.17–18.