Reaching people in their cultural/ethnic context

by Antonio Santos and Mark Gray
Thursday, July 25, 2013 | 272 days old

Do you have a favorite restaurant for you and your family, or an automobile you like to drive? On television, what’s your favorite program? At church, do you prefer the wonderful, traditional hymns that teach great theology, or do you prefer contemporary music with the drums, guitars and the band lifting hearts toward God? Relative to sermons communicating God’s Word, do you prefer the preacher reading the message from a well-thought-out manuscript, or do you anticipate a challenging sermon without the use of notes or outline? What’s the point? We all have preferences. It’s not that our preferences are either right or wrong; it’s just that we are different.

God has been bringing the world to our state, and it has become incredibly diverse. The 2010 census indicates that of North Carolina’s population of 9,535,483, a total of 3,006,533 are non-Anglo. The growth rate among non-white ethnicities in the state is 33.94 percent, a rate nearly double that of the total population growth. Many of these new residents are coming from places like Mexico, El Salvador, India and Vietnam. North Carolina Baptists have been given the opportunity and responsibility to reach everyone with the gospel. The Bible says we are to be “fishers of men,” and a smart fisherman knows the fish he is fishing for.

Language is a major consideration in reaching people with the gospel. Presently, there are over 235 languages spoken in the state. People are most responsive to receiving the gospel and growing as disciples in their own “heart language.” When first generation immigrants come into the country, they may be able to speak limited English, but their desire is to improve their English skills. For Christians this means purposely attending an English-speaking congregation. However, that is precisely when the lack of cultural context becomes very obvious. Even though they can understand most of the words coming from the pastor’s mouth, they do not seem to understand why the people around them are laughing. They do not get the jokes, the idiomatic expressions, and the nuances of the language. Why is this true when they understand most of the words coming from the pastor’s mouth? Those words are void of appropriate cultural context and, therefore, no true communication is taking place. We sometimes forget that language is not simply the expression of thoughts. In reality, it is fundamentally a social instrument and therefore should not be void of context.

Another significant issue in “fishing for men” is an understanding of culture. This state is blessed from the Appalachian culture in the rolling mountains, to the quaint fishing villages of our shorefront coastal waters. We have the quiet life of farmers in the rural areas and the high-density urban centers of our busy and growing cities. There are motorcycle riders who rev their engines as new believers are resurrected from the baptismal waters and cowboys where the arena may be dusty and hot, but the gospel is proclaimed and people are regularly coming to Christ. Is there anything wrong with these cultures and the churches designed to reach them with the gospel? Probably not! And the gospel that reaches and transforms their hearts remains the same.

What about worship styles? Some prefer churches where, at the conclusion of the message, the pastor’s shirttail is hanging out and he is sweating just a bit. Otherwise, “the pastor wasn’t too with it today.”

Some North Carolinians prefer a worship style that is more instructional with less emotion, where the Greek and the Hebrew are articulated, and where lives are quietly changed and communities are significantly impacted with the gospel. Interestingly, most choose a church worship style which best fit themselves, and sometimes wonder why everyone doesn’t “get it” just like they do.

Bottom line, this state is overwhelmingly filled with people who are unchurched and far from God.

On any given weekend, only 21 percent of people will be found in any church. Studies indicate that 75 percent of these unreached people live within the greater eight urban centers of North Carolina. Only 40 percent understand the meaning of “the gospel,” while 60 percent may have no relevant understanding of the meaning of the term “saved.” Unfortunately, this 60 percent is the growing group in the state.

What shall we do? It takes different kinds of churches to reach different kinds of people.

If we are to reach the growing diverse population of our state, we must communicate God’s Word in a variety of styles, languages, and approaches in order to reach the numerous cultural groups in our communities. If we are to be effective fishers of men, we must know the fish we are fishing for and utilize the most effective tools available to reach them. The key is to catch the fish you are best at catching. But, one thing we must do is “Go fish!”

Antonio Santos is a Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC) consultant for Hispanic ministry. Mark Gray is BSCNC team leader for church planting. To learn more about the impacting lostness strategy, visit the Strategy Page.