Other-focused people are great learners. When I first started teaching at Lincoln Christian University, the name of the department in which I taught was “World Missions.” Missions is a good word, but many see it as having a one-way focus: I am on a mission to tell you something. Much of the mission work done by Western missionaries in the last two centuries has involved cultural imperialism, with the gospel often presented in such a way as to expect converts to accept Christ and Western “civilized” culture simultaneously. So we decided to change the name of our department from “World Missions” to “Intercultural Studies.” We still understood that we had a core gospel message we needed to share—the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18–20)—but we also knew we had much to learn from other people about their own cultures and beliefs. Indeed, we could never share an appropriately contextualized gospel message that would be received and understood as good news until we took the time to learn the language and culture of others. The department title “Intercultural Studies” is humbler and wiser: It is other-focused.
The world is becoming internationalized today, especially in urban areas. And we have much to learn from other cultures. Every culture has both good and bad elements, every culture has its own blind spots. When we develop intercultural relationships, we can help each other see our own cultural blind spots. I believe in absolute truth, but because of my cultural filters, I cannot absolutely apprehend it but only partially grasp it. That is why relationships with Christian brothers and sisters who are from other cultures are so important. They can help us correct inadequacies in our own theology, and we can help them correct theirs.
The world has come to America, with more than 900,000 international students studying in the United States every year. How sad it is that many Americans don’t even notice. Most of these students want to make American friends, but most will never be invited into an American home. The majority of these students come from unreached areas of the world, and most have never heard the good news of Jesus clearly presented. When they return to their home countries after graduation, most of these students will have positions of influence in politics, education, and business. I cannot think of a more strategic focus for intercultural ministry today. But we need other-focused Christians in America to notice. And so I encourage the students on our campus to get to know as many international students as possible during their years in university. I tell them that each international student is a walking cultural library. What a shame it would be to spend four years on the same campus with an international student and never take the opportunity to tap into the wisdom of that student’s culture. Because every human being from every culture bears the image of God (Gen 1:27), we can learn something about God from any person we meet—if we are other-focused.
Several years ago when my father hosted a Congolese church leader in American for a short visit, they traveled to many different churches across the Midwest. Near the end of the leader’s visit, he sadly said to my father, “Everywhere we have gone, people have showed me things and have told me much about America. But could you have someone ask me about my country?” Life is too short to focus only on ourselves.
REFLECTIONS: Do you notice international students in the colleges near you? Would you be willing to contact the international student office at a college to volunteer to be a host family? Have you intentionally begun a friendship with an international student for the purpose of learning about a different culture or helping you see your own cultural or theological blind spots?
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”