Yesterday I met some new friends.
These four people, all from Korea, have come to the United States to pursue theological education. They have recently been introduced to my theological tribe, the Church of the Nazarene, and have decided to unite with us. They are mature, passionate, and gifted. I am looking forward to working with them and seeing how God will use them. But that is not why I am telling you about them.
Each of these four young people said something marvelous and eye-opening, and so relevant to what I am thinking and feeling these days that I need to ask you to think about it too. All four of them left Korea, and none of them plan to go back. Two plan to go to China as missionaries, and two plan to remain in the United States and work among diverse groups of Asians living here. As they were sharing the story of their call from God, each one made a prophetic statement that was the last thing I thought about last night, and the first thing I thought about this morning.
They each said, "In order to be a missionary, we must give up our culture for the culture of the kingdom of God. We gave up the culture of Korea, so that we could embrace kingdom culture." They each said it, and they said it with such honesty and transparency that it was clear they did not realize how revolutionary the statement was. There was no sense that they were disrespecting their own nationalistic and tribal culture. They were simply proclaiming the primacy of kingdom culture, and recognizing the need to place everything about themselves under the authority of Christ.
Now you may be thinking, "Mike, what's the big deal? They are missionaries. Of course they have to give up their own culture. That's what missionaries do."
Well, let me try to explain why I found it so radical, and why the 20 or so other pastors who sat around the table with me also found it so radical.
1. It was such a clear statement of priority. We all know how much of our personal identity is tied up in our culture. We are products and children of our culture. The conscious decision, and the verbalization of it, that we are giving up our culture is a straight forward testimony that we are new creations in Christ Jesus.
2. It was such a clear statement of initiative. Christianity, at its best, has always found a way to bring the teachings of Christ into a relationship with culture that both prophetically challenges and embraces every culture. When we are willing to say - "I set aside my culture, the culture of my birth, for the culture of my new birth" - we are then able to embrace and speak to and alongside every culture, not in judgment but in love and grace.
3. It was such a prophetic statement to the American church. These folks left their culture, not to embrace the culture of another country or tribe, but to embrace the culture of the kingdom of God. Yet it is so difficult for us as Americans to understand the difference between American culture and kingdom culture. We have such a difficult time placing our culture under the authority of Jesus and the kingdom. We are not able to bring our culture to God and give it up for the sake of the call.
So today, as I thought about my new friends, I walked into our church. At the front of our sanctuary there are two flags. On one side is an American flag, and on the other side is a flag that has been designed to represent the Christian church. Most of the folks who come into our sanctuary probably never see, much less ponder, the inherent tension in that symbolism.
For me today, the tension is palpable.