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How do we raise up the cross-cultural gospel workers we need?

In an increasingly mobile, ethnically diverse, socially divided UK (and world) we need gospel workers who are sensitive (people-orientated, humble and compassionate), skilled (equipped and practiced in culturally-aware gospel ministry) and serious (both in zeal and knowledge). The question is, where do you find people like that? Are they born (born again) like that? Is there a training course or seminary programme that can produce that kind of person?

Of course first and foremost we must pray for these workers (Matt. 9:38). Only God can give the life and heart and boldness and joy and gentleness necessary. But how, humanly speaking, do these workers arrive? Is there anything we can do to be part of that raising up?

I'd suggest that a big part of the answer is: cross-cultural gospel ministry apprenticeships.

Just to define that:

  • Gospel = the news of the Son of God dying instead of wrath-deserving sinners and rising that we can be united to him by his Spirit as forgiven adopted children of the Father, a rescued people called the church.
  • Gospel ministry = serving the church and making disciples of all nations by preaching and teaching that gospel of Christ crucified from the Scriptures.
  • Ministry apprenticeships = the Philippians 2:22 model of a Timothy serving alongside a Paul. [Some prefer the term 'ministry trainee' to 'apprentice' so as to rightly accent the training aspect (2 Tim. 2:2) and avoid the risk of 'cloning' - the apprentice aping the style of the mentor. And certainly training in the Word of God is the key element of a gospel ministry apprenticeship. Certainly the primary dynamic is two forgiven sinners sitting under the Word and seeking to help each other become more like Christ. However, the point of using language of 'apprentice' rather than 'trainee' here is to accent a) the relational nature of this experience - 'as a son with a father' - and b) the practical, hands-on nature of the training - actually serving and being tested.]
  • Cross-cultural = the apprentice is serving in a context outside their 'home' culture (ethnically and/or socially), probably outside their denominational experience, certainly outside their comfort zone.
Cross-cultural gospel ministry apprenticeship is basically what the Jewish Apostle Paul was doing with his half-Greek mentee Timothy as he took him hundreds of miles from home to serve together in Europe and Asia. Cross-cultural gospel ministry apprenticeships are what iServe Africa has been facilitating in Kenya and beyond for 10 years. A young graduate who grew up on the coast of Kenya in Pentecostal churches serves their apprenticeship in an Anglican church in northern Kenya. Another who grew up in the west of Kenya serves a year in central Kenya. Another from central Kenya does a year in an informal settlement in Nairobi then a second year of apprenticeship in South Asia with a church planting network. Another from western Kenya is placed in Nigeria. You get the idea.

And these apprenticeships have produced great fruit in personal transformation and effective gospel ministry. Of course they do not always work well - people are individuals, unique, complex, unpredictable, sinful - but often they do. M. any stories could be told of brothers and sisters who have been grown in servanthood, sharpness and usefulness for the multi-ethnic harvest field. Just to give one - a lady from a conservative baptist church in Nairobi does a year of apprenticeship in a more Pentecostal church outside Nairobi - a challenging environment where she learns servanthood - now she is in a church in Scotland where she is ministering to Syrian refugees among others.

Here are thirteen reasons (they keep increasing) why cross-cultural gospel ministry apprenticeships are so helpful in raising up the workers we need:

  1. The act of leaving 'home place' and people group begins the process of building cultural self-awareness and flexibility. It forces the apprentice to reassess the whole idea of ‘home’ and come to a greater experiential understanding of being an alien and stranger in this world. Leaving home and entering a host culture, being in a minority and facing rejection - all this dethrones home culture, questions where we derive our identity and gives us the ability to empathise with migrants, hopefully to be able to comfort them with the comfort they themselves have received.
  2. Going to live for a significant period of time in a foreign culture where you are reduced to the understanding and status of a child – unable to express yourself clearly, unable to do simple things without help, constantly making mistakes, unknown and un-respected - is a usefully humbling experience that can lead to a greater experiential understanding of being simply a little child in the kingdom of God. 
  3. In particular, going to a foreign culture first time not as a teacher/leader but as an apprentice (a junior, trainee, service-orientated, unprestigious, background role) is a great way to learn to be a learner and listener, acknowledging my ignorance, avoiding the danger of jumping straight in with an (unintentional) arrogance to deploy 'my great expertise' on the 'needy other'. 
  4. The trauma and risk and uncertainty of crossing cultures can be a great time for the apprentice to come to the end of themselves (self-confidence) and learn reliance on the Lord (God-confidence). In some environments the threat level and insecurity will be objectively far higher than the apprentice's home. I think of two Kenyan brothers who spent last year in countries with very high levels of persecution and threat towards Christians – they testify to how they had to learn new level of trust of God in life and in death. Even if the destination is quite safe and secure by any objective measure, the apprentice almost certainly doesn’t feel as safe and secure as in their home place – they don’t know which streets are safe to walk, what the noises in the dark mean, who can be trusted, where to get help. And there is a particular vulnerability of legal status as a foreign national – you can always be deported. New battles with fear need to be fought.
  5. There is an exposure of sin. This happens in many crucibles that the Lord puts us in – workplace, marriage, parenting – but it is certainly true of cross-cultural service that the emotional and psychological toll of operating in an unfamiliar culture and all the unique stresses and insecurities tend to be particularly effective means of revealing the depths of your own heart. A critical spirit or impatience or selfishness that might not have reared its head ‘at home’ comes out strongly in moments of transition and culture clash. We are exposed more clearly as the sinners we are.
  6. In particular there is an exposure of deep seated ethnic/cultural/social prejudice. The racism or snobbishness that lurks at the bottom of the heart, unacknowledged, can come to the surface in a cross-cultural ministry setting. I am forced to deal with questions like, "Why do I assume that I am cleverer?" "Do I think I deserve a higher salary than a pastor of another ethnic group?" "Am I willing to hand over responsibility - real control - to some one of a different ethnic group to me?" "Do I truly believe that an African/Indian/Chinese could be a better theologian, better pastor, better missionary, better Christian than me?" As deep relationships and genuine friendships between different-looking-brothers are built in the trenches of ministry there can be a repenting and moving beyond prejudice to cross-cultural partnerships in the gospel.
  7. In a cross-cultural setting the apprentice is forced to re-examine their own thinking and living and what is genuine Christianity. While living in your own culture your own culture is hard to see largely invisible to you. In some ways, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, reading old books from different times and worldviews can help but there is nothing quite like crossing cultures and living in a different place that works to different rules and assumptions to help you see the things you thought were ‘obvious’. You are forced to do some hard thinking about whether you don’t like something because it is wrong or just because it is different. You are given the privilege of having a bit of distance on your own culture as well as a view into a different one and you can start (although you will still be trapped and blind in many ways) to appreciate and critique things in both. In this way your convictions about the really core, trans-cultural, vital things in your faith hopefully get clearer and firmer.
  8. Simply being in a different culture can also make an apprentice more open to learning new things - not particularly cultural things, just straight doctrine and Bible. I have lost count of the number of times someone went to train and learn the Bible in a different country and they were struck in a very powerful way by a truth they had been taught many times in their home country but they only heard it when it was taught them abroad. I suspect that there is something about a fresh environment and transition which opens the mind and heart to receive things. 
  9. There is also much value gained from being in a different ministry setting to your home church in the sense that there will be things that are genuinely better - enriching, helpful, learning points. Every church needs the wider global church. Every gospel worker benefits from a range of influences and teachers - different people pouring into their life. Even someone who has grown up through excellent churches, when apprenticed to a not-so-amazing-but-faithful church in a very different cultural context will almost certainly find things that the host church and mentor pastor does and says which are very helpful and true and show up a deficiency in their home church. It may be a form of hospitality or a concern for the poor or a perceptive reading of the Scriptures or boldness in evangelism or carefulness in planning or reverence for the Word.
  10. Crossing-cultures exposes apprentices to varieties of need. When we go to somewhere very different from our home we are at least given a point of comparison. We find that spiritual and physical resources are not evenly spread. A Macedonian call may be heard. Our very definition of need (for ourselves and for others) starts to be challenged. 
  11. As well as encouraging cultural flexibility and sensitivity with respect to the broad cultural setting within which the apprenticeship is happening (so the apprentice grows in the ability to live and work and minister in a foreign culture), cross-cultural apprenticeships also have the great benefit of growing the ability to work in a cross-cultural leadership team. This is hugely important. Cross-cultural church leadership is modeled in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 13:1), it seems pragmatically effective in promoting ethnically diverse, culturally-sensitive churches and it is just a wonderful demonstration of gospel unity - not only does Christ allow us to sit next to each other as brothers but even to work very closely together and value each other as co-labourers and get through the inevitable frictions and tensions coming out the other side richer and wiser. A cross-cultural apprenticeship is an introduction into this world of cross-cultural Christian leadership teams and very useful preparation for those unique joys and challenges.
  12. Cross-cultural apprenticeships tend to avoid the problem of 'cloning'. When someone you are apprenticed to is quite unlike you culturally/socially/ethnically you tend to pick up the substance more than the style. As C.S. Lewis says of old books, you are likely to be quite able to distinguish the good (to take) and the bad/blindspots (to leave).
  13. Cross-cultural apprenticeships tend to foster kingdom-mindedness at the same time as faithfulness to a particular local church. Both of these - a heart for the nations (not just my tribe) and local loyalty - are vital but rare to find together. A cross-cultural ministry apprenticeship can be a great place to learn both, away from your home community and denomination but submitting to local leadership.
It doesn't always work like that. Cross-cultural apprenticeships can lead to pride or liberalism or hardening or backsliding or depression or 'going native' in a bad way. There are ways to guard against some those adverse reactions to the challenges of transition but that would be another post. Suffice to say here that the positive benefits of cross-cultural apprenticeships can be huge and worth the investment and risk. One mission leader in West Africa told me that of the best guys in his country who are standing firm and fighting strongly in gospel ministry all have had a cross-cultural training experience outside the country.

Apprenticeship is a powerful means of training and personal formation wherever it is done. With the added cross-cultural element it is turbo-charged and even more helpful in forming the robust, godly, flexible, skilled gospel workers our nation needs.


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