By Naomi Haynes

Keeping the Unity of the Spirit

As an undergraduate at Wheaton College, I read an analogy that has become central to my thinking about the global body of Christ, as well as my personal vocation as an anthropologist. Andrew F. Walls uses the image of a theater to illustrate the importance of cross-cultural communication in the life of the church. Picture the whole of Christendom sitting in an auditorium, Walls writes. Inside, believers from around the world are watching the drama of the gospel on stage. This story is presented in such a way that, while everyone is able to grasp the central message of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, no one can claim an unobstructed view of the play. Some folks may be sitting a bit too close to the orchestra to be able to hear the whispered dialogue, while others are positioned near a pillar that forces them to crane their necks in order to see what is happening on stage left. If this analogy is in any way an accurate representation of the global church, Walls concludes, the wisest thing that anyone who wants to more fully understand the drama of the gospel can do is get up during intermission and talk to someone sitting in another part of the theater.[1]

As a Christian, I find the possibility of building up the church by increasing her understanding of the gospel through intercultural connections exciting and important. As an anthropologist, I consider the task of cultivating dialogue among people who are situated in different cultural contexts central to my vocation. While creating space in our lives for meaningful conversations with those who watch the drama of the gospel in another part of the theater is difficult work, it is not only worthwhile, but increasingly vital for the future of the church. In this brief article, I would like to elaborate on why I believe that cross-cultural communication must be part of the life of every Christian, and to discuss some practical ways in which Western believers might more effectively live out their citizenship in the global body of Christ. These ideas have largely been shaped by my experiences living in Zambia, first as a missionary and now as an ethnographer.

Today, many Christians are aware that the demographic center of the Christian faith has shifted away from the West to the Global South. Evidence of this transfer abounds — witness the current tensions within the Anglican Communion, the debates about the possibility of a non-white Pope after the death of John Paul II, and the increasing number of missionaries going out from countries that have traditionally been recipients of mission activity (e.g., South Korea, South Africa), often bound for former missionary-sending countries in Western Europe. While it is important to bear in mind that there are large swaths of the globe where people have virtually no opportunity to hear the gospel, the fact remains that at the beginning of the twenty-first century the church is by far the largest and most culturally diverse that she has ever been. Add to this unprecedented heterogeneity the degree of interconnection made possible by communication technologies, and the era of church history in which we find ourselves emerges as fantastic and exciting. To return to the theater analogy, contemporary Christians have the privilege of living in a time when it is possible to share an unparalleled number of views of the gospel drama and through them to grow in their understanding of Christ and his church.

Let me pause here to offer a brief caveat. While I have no doubt that we live in an exceptional time in church history, the kinds of cross-cultural connections that make this period so exciting are by no means a given. In addition to the cultural and linguistic differences that so often hamper meaningful interaction, there are serious issues of access when we begin to talk about communication technologies. It would be foolish to assume that because Christians on the Zambian Copperbelt, where I live, can easily connect to the internet that they are able to easily reach their sisters and brothers in other parts of the world. That said, I do not think that these very real barriers to cross-cultural communication excuse believers from pursuing such connections. If anything, the fact that these are not easy to come by and have often gone unrealized underscores their importance.

There are a number of reasons why I believe that building bridges of solidarity with believers in other parts of the world is so important. For one, Christian unity is a central part of evangelism. Francis Schaeffer makes this point clear when he refers to the “seeable,” “practicing” oneness of Christ’s body as the “final apologetic.”[2] He supports this argument by citing Jesus’ prayer that his followers “be brought to complete unity to let the word know that you have sent me” as well as his commandment that his people love one another so that “all men will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13.33-35; 17.20-26) Because of the parameters established by these passages, concludes Schaeffer, “We cannot expect the world to believe that the Father sent the Son, that Jesus’ claims are true, and that Christianity is true, unless the world sees some reality of the oneness of true Christians.”

I believe that one reason the unity of the body of Christ is so clearly linked to the proclamation of the gospel is that when the church is united, particularly cross-culturally, she prophetically announces the kingdom of God. By “prophetically” I mean that intercultural connections among believers provide a present revelation of a future reality. Scripture is clear that God’s kingdom is a place of cultural diversity, and that the unified worship of people from all ethnicities is the central activity of its inhabitants (Revelation 7.9). When we actively practice intercultural oneness in this world, the church acts as an arrow pointing to what we know from the Bible to be true about the kingdom of God.

Cultural and linguistic diversity not only reach forward to a heavenly future, they also proclaim the heritage of Christ’s body since the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost. Reading the book of Acts with an eye toward culture reveals the gradual (and often conflicted) way in which the apostles and early Christians came to realize that the new faith of which they were a part was for everyone. One can almost hear the wonder in Peter’s voice when he tells Cornelius, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10.34-35, NIV). Those of us who have had an opportunity to worship with Christians from a different background, whether as part of a short-term mission trip or a visit to an immigrant congregation in another part of town, can relate to this sense of excitement.

I am always struck by the testimonies of the high school students from my home church who go on summer mission trips to Mexico. Without fail, one of the most meaningful aspects of their experience with believers in another country is the moment when they realize that despite the fact that they are surrounded by people whose lives are incredibly different from their own and whose language they often do not understand, they are brought together in the worship of the same savior. Personally, my faith in Christ has been challenged and strengthened by the opportunities that I have to pray with Zambian believers. By joining a family in praying for food to eat that day, I have come to understand more clearly what it means to rely on God for daily bread. Visiting with Christian widows who fall to their knees with each new school term asking for the necessary funds to educate their children has brought me a deeper revelation of the God who is “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68.5, NIV).

However, while we can and should celebrate the heritage of diversity that we have as Christians, it is equally clear from the New Testament that relationships among these early believers were often fraught with tension. The church is born in Acts 2 with the supernatural proclamation of the gospel in dozens of languages, enabling the message to quickly spread across the world. Nevertheless, by Acts 6 we observe a conflict that reminds me of many of the misunderstandings I have observed between Zambian and Western Christians today. Scripture tells us that, even as the number of believers was increasing, the Greek and Hebrew Jews began to disagree about the way the widows in their respective communities were being cared for by the church.

Then as now the distribution of resources was a point of contention among believers from different backgrounds. As a Western believer living in Zambia, I am approached at least every few weeks by people seeking material support for their ministries. Zambian church leaders have shared with me stories of relationships with believers from the West with whom they’ve had contact via the Internet or through conventional or short-term missions that have either turned sour or disintegrated altogether over the issue of resource distribution. As the numeric center of the church continues to shift toward the materially poor Global South, while almost all of the church’s resources — not only money, but seminaries, publishing houses, and mass media — remain in the wealthy North, these kinds of conflicts will surely continue to challenge cross-cultural relationships within the church.

This situation may make the prospects for effective connections with believers in other places appear rather bleak. While the potential to forge such links with believers in other parts of the world to a degree unprecedented in church history is exciting, the inevitability of conflict in such relationships makes it significantly less appealing. After all, isn’t the whole point of building intercultural bridges to prophetically announce the kingdom of God through a demonstration of the oneness of Christ’s body? Here, we must return to Francis Schaeffer, who even in the midst of arguing for Christian unity recognizes the reality of conflict. For Schaeffer, however, this is no reason to abandon efforts at strengthening the church. Disagreement in the body of Christ, he suggests, is in itself a potential witness. While it is more than likely that the world will not have a clear sense of what causes conflict among Christians, they ought to be able to see that the way we disagree is qualitatively different than the way that people outside of the church disagree. That is, even in conflict, it is possible for people to know that we are Christ’s disciples because of the way we love one another.[3]

So it is that active connection with Christians from other cultures, whether joyful unity in worship or painful unity in conflict, announces the truth of the gospel and points to the coming of the kingdom of God. While I’ve spent some time laying out the reasons behind my passion for cross-cultural relationships in the church, the fact remains that such connections are not necessarily easy to come by. Though we live in an increasingly interconnected world, there is not much about life in the contemporary West that invites active solidarity with believers in other places. Barring uprooting our lives and moving to new neighborhoods in American cities, or even to other countries, how can we as busy professionals cultivate connections with sisters and brothers from other cultures? The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but outlines particular strategies that I have seen work for Christians in the West.

  • Seek out opportunities to worship with Christians from other cultures. This might take any number of forms, depending on where you live. Those who reside in major cities are almost certainly within driving distance of a congregation of believers from a different ethnic background. In particular, those of us whose lives center around universities can attend the campus’s international student fellowship (which will almost certainly be in English).
  • Turn your short-term mission trip into a “short-term listening trip.” Short-term mission trips have received increasing criticism in recent years, much of it warranted.[4] However, traveling to spend time with and support believers in other parts of the world can be a wonderful way to build up the church. Indeed, when Paul heard of believers in Rome, his first impulse was to go and see them “that [they would] be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” (Romans 1.12 NIV) As more and more Westerners head out on short-term missions, let us make it our first priority to know and understand the believers in the place we visit.
  • Keep the body of Christ in mind when you make decisions of global significance. Today, these kinds of decisions are everyday occurrences. For example, we regularly purchase goods that were produced abroad. How would our consumption patterns change if we considered the circumstances under which particular products were manufactured or foodstuffs traded, bearing in mind that some of those who must live with these circumstances are sisters and brothers in Christ? Similarly, Western governments are implicated in policies that have a direct effect on the lives and livelihoods of fellow believers. What would it mean to look out for their interests with our political involvement? Making decisions in this way can easily become overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to start small — for example, commit to buying fair trade coffee or get involved in campaigns for debt cancellation (two choices I’ve made). In these efforts, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to continually remind us why we’re making these choices — it’s not just because social responsibility is trendy, but because our hearts are oriented towards the way that God is announcing his kingdom through his church.
  • Read the news with an eye to the church. When you hear reports of natural disasters, political change, or economic progress in a particular country, pause to consider how these things may affect the sisters and brothers who live there. Resources like Operation World and the Voice of the Martyrs websites can be helpful in this exercise, as they seek to highlight the state of the church in a given country. Use your knowledge of current events as an opportunity to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.
  • Organize public acts of solidarity with the global church. I have sat with American believers and whispered hymns as a way of remembering those who are persecuted for their faith and must therefore meet in secret. When I was in college, several students who were particularly concerned about the Iraqi church ahead of the impending war committed to one week of eating the equivalent of the meager rations that these believers were receiving from the UN. This attracted attention in the dining hall at dinner, affording them an excellent opportunity to talk to their peers about the challenges facing the Iraqi church. These students also skipped lunch during that week to meet to pray for their Christian sisters and brothers in the Persian Gulf. This kept participants focused on the One who died, and united them with people worshipping and struggling far away. Public actions like these proclaim the here-and-now reality of the multicultural body of Christ, while also helping us to become prophetic voices by acting as what N. T. Wright calls “symbol-makers and story-tellers for the kingdom of God.”[5]

In whatever way Christ helps us to actively build up his body, the most important thing for us to remember is that humble petition must be at the heart of what we do. Without a thick covering of prayer, all our efforts at keeping the unity of the spirit that comes from the bond of peace will either be tripped up by pride or stymied by feelings of futility. I leave you with one such prayer, taken from Stanley Hauerwas’s lovely book, Prayers Plainly Spoken:

Saving God, free us from hardness of heart, take from us all pride and pretension, strip us clean of all that makes us incapable of being witnesses of your gentle love. Make us worthy agents of your peace, so that even as we contend with one another the world may say, “But see how they love one another.” Amen.

 

Find other articles from this series at Marcia's Picks.


Footnotes

[1] Walls, Andrew F. 2000. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books. p. 43-46.

[2] Schaeffer, Francis. 1970. The Mark of the Christian. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. pp. 14-21.

[3] Schaeffer, ibid. pp. 22-23.

[4] For some of my thoughts on this, see my review of Serving With Eyes Wide Open in The Journal of Latin American Theology vol. 2 no. 2: pp. 260-3.

[5] Wright, N. T. 1999. The Challenge of Jesus. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic. pp. 188.

 

 

About the Author

Naomi Haynes received her PhD in anthropology from the University of California, San Diego, and is currently a Chancellor’s Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.  Her scholarship has examined the relationship between Pentecostal Christianity and social life in urban Zambia.  She is a co-curator for anthrocybib, the Anthropology of Christianity Bibliographic Blog.  In her spare time, she enjoys running, baking, and reading novels.

Comment via Facebook