May 24, 2011
The Post-American Church (Part Uno)
"Third culture" leaders are the future of the church.
A week ago I returned from a trip to Spain where I was speaking with a team of missionaries working in different regions of the country. Yes, I was suffering for the Lord on a Mediterranean beach. Apart from the breathtaking beauty of Peñíscola, Spain, I was blessed to share time with some spectacular people engaged in very good work.
When many Americans think about missionaries they picture a team of Western, Anglo, people doing evangelism and church planting among dark-skinned “natives.” Perhaps that image was true at one time, but it’s definitely not anymore. As someone has recently remarked, missions today is “from everywhere to everywhere.”
The team of missionaries I spoke with in Spain included people from the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the Netherlands. And they were serving among Spaniards, Portuguese, Chinese, Moroccans, Latin Americans, and Arabs. In many cases they reported greater receptivity to the gospel among immigrant populations in Spain rather than among native Spaniards. It was a striking example of how globalization has radically “flattened” our planet.
And the nature of the ministries engaged by these workers was just as diverse as their passports. Some were planting churches, others had started a mission to rescue women from human trafficking, another team was doing marriage and family counseling, and others were helping immigrants from North Africa learn Spanish and find jobs. In other words, despite having a shared denominational background this team was not limited to a single missions playbook.
I came way from my time in Spain with two observations that may have some relevancy to the church on this side of “the pond.”
OBSERVATION ONE: The future leadership of the church belongs to “third culture” kids.
With only a few exceptions, nearly every missionary on the Spanish team was raised in a culturally diverse context. Some were missionary kids themselves who grew up in Southeast Asia or Latin America. Others were the product of diverse communities or multi-ethnic homes.
One couple from the U.S., for example, were both children of Chinese immigrants. They grew up having to navigate both American culture and the Chinese language and culture of their families. This equipped them with the skills necessary for cross-cultural ministry. Now they serve in Spain among Chinese immigrants in Madrid. And their children are taking it a degree further. They are ethnically Asian, fluent in Spanish language and culture, but carry American passports.
The examples are endless. I met 10-year-old Puerto Rican kids who spoke Spanish, English, and Arabic. Families from the Netherlands fluent in Dutch, English, Spanish, and Portuguese. And one leader responsible for church planting in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia was the son of Dutch immigrants to Canada. He’s spent his adult life in Africa and Europe and speaks French, English, German, Dutch, and who knows what else.
What’s my point? As demographics shift and populations continue to mix, it won’t be enough for us to master the leadership dynamics of our small community. We will need the skills to move between and among diverse groups and draw them together--often utilizing very different leadership values in the process. Kids with diverse cultural backgrounds who do not find such accommodation threatening, even second-nature, are going to be better equipped for this task. But many American churches, and the homogeneous unit principle they’ve been built upon, will not be the incubators for this kind of leadership.
Dave Gibbons has spent the last several years talking about the importance of “third culture” leadership which he defines as “the mindset and will to love, learn, and serve in any culture, even in the midst of pain and discomfort.” And while folks in the American church have been willing to listen to his exhortation, I’m wondering how seriously they’re taking it. It seems like most of what I read concerning “leadership principles” in the church are really “upper/middle-class Anglo-American leadership principles.” While such ideas are helpful and legitimate, they are often blind to the rapidly changing reality both overseas and right here in the U.S. (I remember being blindsided by African-American and Latino church leaders explaining why small groups are only effective among white people.)
If the dominant Anglo-American church doesn’t starting opening it’s ears, minds, conferences, books, magazines, and blogs to more global voices, it will quickly find itself unprepared for life in the post-American church world. But allowing diverse and divergent voices into the conversation is not only challenging, it’s messy. That is why we also need to begin cultivating church leadership environments that are not predicated upon uniformity and efficiency.
What to I mean by that? Most of what I’ve read/heard about church leadership says we should fight tenaciously to maintain clear purpose, vision, and values within our organization. And recruiting other leaders who conform to these is vital. Allow too many people inside who hold divergent ideas and you’ll derail the organization. But this mindset assumes that efficiency is the ultimate value to which all others must surrender. The best organizations, this view teaches, run like well-oiled machines with high capacity and high output. But in many cultures efficiency is not the highest good. And third culture leaders understand that in many cases clinical efficiency simply is not possible when seeking to lead diverse populations.
The future, as I saw in Spain, is both beautiful and complicated. It is marvelous and messy. If the Anglo-American church remains enamored with institutional corporate values and efficiency, we will not be positioned either to lead within or benefit from the changing world.
Stay tuned for Skye’s second observation concerning the post-American church.