Horizon Six: Using Biculturals
Their Day Dawns Again
The strategy that catapulted the Church across the Roman Empire may foreshadow mission breakthroughs on the final frontiers.
Truly, we are racing through the last chapter of history. As our God pens the story, our eyes follow Him just a few lines behind--drinking in the wonderful tale of Creation He has woven. Reports of incredible victories for His Kingdom pound in our ears like the unstoppable tide. His glory will cover the whole earth as the waters cover the sea.But some beaches lie deathly still. The waves of glory have yet to penetrate these stagnant lagoons. Centuries-old isolation, misunderstanding and resistance, like an unseen breakwater, have rebuffed the relentless swells of Holy Love. Their impact on the barriers sound like the knocking of a persistent friend who will not be turned away.
The Author of Life pauses as He recounts the story of one of these untouched shores. He looks up from His work, catching our eyes, arresting our attention. Then with the playful grin He often displays upon arriving at the turning point--the breakthrough moment--He turns over a new page and sets the pen to work again.
What is He writing? We seek to glimpse over His shoulder. As we linger a bit longer in His presence, the tale reads strangely familiar. . . We've seen it before--many times before.
Today, as we discuss "New Horizons in Missions" some of the "new" horizons have been around for 2000 years, but they need to be brought into the light once again.
One strategy we feel should be illuminated again is using bicultural people to advance the mission faster and further. These are people who have already breached the cultural barrier at least once. They are a bridge between two distinct cultures. Because bicultural people are very familiar with more than one cultural pattern, they are potentially more effective at transferring the Gospel from one culture to a new, previously unpenetrated culture.
To be bicultural is actually an attribute which every missionary hopes to develop. By identifying with the local culture, the missionary is more believed, trusted, and received by his targeted group. To the extent that the missionary becomes bicultural, his potential for ministry grows increasingly larger.1
Becoming sufficiently bicultural takes time--sometimes decades. Is there a way to speed up the process?
Perhaps there is. If we look for people who are already bicultural and nurture them, we may find an untapped vein of gifted mission workers. Looking in Acts, we find that God employed this strategy from the very inception of the Church.
Bicultural Jews Birthed the Gentile Church
Why was Paul chosen as Apostle to the Gentiles? At first glance, it is quite inexplicable that our Lord would choose someone who was so violently persecuting the Church to be the very one to take it beyond its infancy in Jerusalem. Someone with impeccable integrity who had faithfully served Christ for years might have been more worthy of such a high honor.
Christ-like character is unquestionably paramount for anyone who takes a leading position in the Church, and God certainly had a regimen of fiery trials prepared to conform Paul to the likeness of His image. However, being a missionary requires even more than Godly character, and the Lord knew that Paul, more than any of the other apostles, was properly equipped for the uniquely missionary task which lay ahead.
At the core of the missionary's business is the crucial need to understand culture. That is exactly where Paul outdistanced the rest--precisely because he was bicultural. It's as if God was looking down in Acts 9 and said, "This is not breaking out of the Jewish world fast enough. Who shall we choose to take this message further?"
Paul and Barnabas are classic Biblical examples of God's judicious use of bicultural people. When the apostles in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to shepherd the Gentile explosion of faith in Antioch, he sought out Paul in Tarsus. Barnabas himself was a bicultural from Cyprus and a wise choice for ministry to Gentiles. Moreover, he knew a good missionary when he saw one, for he and Paul had met in Jerusalem after Paul's conversion.
Paul's hometown was far more "Gentile" than Galilee "of the Gentiles," a region the other apostles knew well. "Tarsus was a fusion of civilizations at peace under the rule of Rome: indigenous Cilicians; Hittites whose ancestors once ruled Asia Minor; light-skinned Greeks; Assyrians and Persians; and Macedonians who had come with Alexander the Great on his march to India."2
Yet, Paul was definitely Jewish. He emphasizes this in Philippians 3:5, (NLT) "For I was circumcised when I was eight days old, having been born into a pure-blooded Jewish family that is a branch of the tribe of Benjamin. So I am a real Jew if there ever was one! What's more, I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to Jewish Law."
Because of his dual-cultural background, Paul probably had fluid command of Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew plus a working knowledge of Latin. His trade of making tents surely exposed him to many Gentiles in the marketplace. Although strict Judaism shunned Gentile contact, the tenacious debater in Paul probably found ample opportunity to refute pagan philosophy and world view. For him, there was no year of learning the language, no major instances of culture shock and no lengthy anthropological research.
Throughout his ministry, Paul went to the Jewish synagogues, sought out the God fearers, and brought them to faith in Jesus. In this way, deliberately maneuvering between the Jewish and Gentile societies, he found people who were prepared in advance for the good news he preached.
He said of his bicultural ministry in 1 Cor. 9:32, (NLT) "When I am with those who follow the Jewish laws, I do the same, even though I am not subject to the law, so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with the Gentiles who do not have the Jewish law, I fit in with them as much as I can. In this way, I gain their confidence and bring them to Christ. But I do not discard the law of God; I obey the law of Christ."
Paul the Bicultural Apostle clearly understood the difference between the cultural expression of the Gospel and the Gospel itself, and therefore God was able to use Paul to infiltrate the kingdom of darkness with His Kingdom of Glorious Light.
Bicultural Hostage Gives Gospel to the Goths
One bicultural in early church history who really shines is Bishop Ulfilas (311-381 A.D.). He was "the man who more than all others was responsible for the conversion of the Germanic races to Christianity." 3 History has left his cultural identity somewhat veiled. We do not know if he was a Goth captured by the Romans or a Roman taken hostage in a Gothic raid.
However, it is clear that he had a profound understanding of both the Roman and Gothic cultures. Ulfilas was probably a native of Dacia, modern-day Romania, but he grew up as a hostage in Constantinople. There he embraced Christ, and he proved himself to be a diligent and devoted disciple. We know that he was skilled not only in Gothic, but Greek and Latin as well, for as a young man he was ordained First Lector, one who would read the scriptures in the worship services.
At the age of 30, he was ordained Bishop of Gothia and spent the rest of his life as a missionary to the Goths, primarily in Dacia. His most enduring work was the formulation of the Gothic alphabet and translation of the Gothic Bible. "His translation, some fragments of which still survive, is the oldest and most valuable monument of the Germanic language and literature."4
In the 40 years of his ministry, he was able to galvanize the Gothic Church. This church, which likely had some scattered God-fearers but no culturally-relevant Gospel, flourished as "mother tongue and mother culture" were endorsed. He brought Roman/Greek Christianity to the Barbarian tribes. These cultures were bloody enemies. No one but a bicultural could have done what he did. He was the "bridge of God" built to transport the Gospel to the Germanic peoples.
Astounding Success with Bicultural Church Planters
The Southern Baptist Home Mission Board has started some 15,000 ethnic churches using bicultural workers.5 The vast majority of these were not planted by a missionary who had to learn the language and culture. Instead, if the goal was to plant a church of Chinese immigrants, the Home Mission Board would seek a bilingual Chinese-American to spearhead the work.
Using the Experiencing God model, to look at where God might already be working in a given situation and to join Him in that work, led the Baptists to precisely the kind of people needed for a mission breakthrough.
Resistant People Softens for a Bicultural Evangelist
Bob Blincoe, a missionary working with Kurds, recounted to me this fresh experience working with a Kurdish bicultural:
"Abdulla and his wife and son fled Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1975 with thousands of other Iraqis. They came as refugees to the United States, bracing themselves for what they would find. Was America 'dirty and godless,' as Abdulla had heard every Friday in the mosque?
"When the plane landed and he and his little family debarked, who met him at the airport? Christians from a local church. Who took Abdulla to an apartment that was furnished and stocked with food? Who took his wife to see a dentist the following day, and got Abdulla enrolled in English as a Second Language courses? You guessed it--these same Christians from the community.
"Abdulla had a world view change; he decided that American Christians were the nicest people he'd ever met.
"Abdulla was baptized. The years went by. He took a job, proud that he never went on welfare for a single day of his life. When the curtain went up on Iraq following the Gulf War, God spoke through extraordinary circumstances, and Abdulla was obedient to his heavenly Father. Abdulla returned to Iraq to do the work of an evangelist.
"Abdulla's success was more than all expatriate workers combined, and there were probably 100 expatriate workers. As he said to me, 'Bob, you can say the same words as I can, and your words bounce off the Iraqi people. But through me, Iraqis surrender to Christ.' This was not an idle boast but a factual observation. That is why I followed him around.
"Abdulla knew instinctively that if hundreds or thousands of Iraqis were to follow Christ, they would have to do it while remaining Muslims. He invented the term 'Muslims of the Holy Spirit' to describe what happened to a person who began to follow Christ. We found our supporting texts from the Koran as well as from the Bible."6
What an example of how one bicultural person--without any formal missiological training--was able to make a major advance where countless other attempts had failed. Plus, notice the innovative moves he made to culturally contextualize the Gospel.
Discovering the Value of Biculturals
In highly resistant peoples, such as the Kurds, who have for centuries been the victims of political maneuvering, neglect and honest misunderstanding, sending biculturals may be a faster, safer road. Many astute, well-meaning expatriates have paid with their lives trying to reach these challenging groups. Biculturals like Abdulla won't necessarily arouse suspicion like foreigners do.
Bicultural people can more deftly navigate the labyrinth of cultural nuances which might take years for most missionaries to discover, much less overcome. "This is not a way to dodge hard work," says Ralph Winter, "but a way to be more efficient, more strategic.... After all--as with the Jerusalem council--if you can find a bicultural Barnabas or Paul, you don't need to send someone to learn the language, etc."7
SIM International, among others, has recognized the value of biculturals. They are facilitating a network of bicultural people, both missionaries who have become bicultural, and international believers who are living in North America. They hope to utilize this network to minister to the various ethnic peoples dispersed throughout this continent. It is their desire that some of these will return and reach their own people or a similar people group. International Missions, as well, has approximately 20 different works among unreached immigrant groups.
For years, countless others have been targeting international students through foreign-exchange programs, campus Bible clubs, and TESOL classes. These are all excellent ways of encountering biculturals, although not all students in these programs have a foot firmly planted in the second culture.
Another valuable source of biculturals is missionary kids. These dear brothers and sisters have grown up on the mission field. They are fluent in more than one tongue, and they are skilled at adapting to new cultural environments. But their valuable skills can sometimes feel like a curse to them. The very fact that they fit in a foreign culture makes it hard to fit in at "home."
As mission agencies help MKs to discover their immense value, we could ignite a powerful motivation in these dear ones. If a Christian college were to create an "advanced-placement" program to harness their giftings, MKs would likely come out of the woodwork. What more could we do to give MKs a place in our world?
Only Seconds Remain, and Success is in Sight
One question that the mission community must ask: If we don't examine and employ this largely overlooked strategy, will we be able to complete the missionary task? We may stall perpetually as we approach the finish line.
A basketball team two points behind in a game with 2.3 seconds left has to choose whether to take it inside for two or go for the 3-point shot. If they go for the 3-pointer they could win outright, but if they settle for two, at best, they will prolong the game in overtime.
In this missionary endeavor, we need not fear utter failure because God has promised it will be completed. It is more a question of when we will finish. How many more generations will pass before people from every tribe stand before the throne?
There are mere seconds remaining. The goal is within reach. Can we win? "We can do it, if we will!"