I spent about half an hour the other day playing a game of two-on-two Dominoes with several of my Ukrainian students. The game was the basic game that I had played as a child, though it has been many years since I had played, and it was fairly easy to follow the progression even though neither my opponents nor my partner and I spoke the same language.
Though my gaming partner and I did lose our little tournament, it began to get me thinking about the nature of cross-cultural ministry on two levels. First, how often we go to great lengths to put on an expensive program or elaborate activities to help us bridge the language barriers when often one of the most significant ways we can bridge that gap is by our simple presence in their lives. That which proved meaningful to my three students was not so much that I was able to play a game that they liked or that I could be competitive with them (then again, my partner and I did lose the game, so I am not sure just how well I did at playing) but it was simply that I was willing to spend time interacting with them on a very basic level outside of the classroom.
Such was the case even when I was teaching students in America where no (or almost no!) language barrier was present. It was not the things that I normally did in the classroom that endeared my students to me and it was not my lectures that they will remember for years to come (as much as I would like that to be the case!). Instead, it was the time that I spent with my students outside of the classroom, living life together, sitting down to arm-wrestle, or working together on a project. It wasn’t even always about the quality of the interaction, but it was the willingness to interact that made the impact.
The second thing that I got to thinking about was in terms of the nature of what “cross-cultural” means. Typically we think of cross-cultural as going somewhere else in the world and bridging a language-barrier. Such activities are essential in working out the Great Commission and I have enjoyed the privilege of being able to do so in a small way myself here in eastern-Europe. Yet one need not travel 5,000 miles away from home to find a cross-cultural context. In seminary, I spent several years doing inner-city homeless ministry — a culture that was very different than the rural middle-class context in which I was raised. Sometimes cross-cultural simply even means sitting down with your grand-kids and listening to their favorite music or sharing a favorite movie of your own with them. You may find out that cross-cultural contexts are as close as your neighbor’s back yard or even your own home.
In putting this all together, I am reminded both of Jonah and of Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritans and others outside of the Jewish context. The Syrophoenician woman, for example, came to Jesus shortly after he had spent time in her non-Jewish town. Jonah, of course, did not want to go proclaim the Gospel to the Ninevites, but God sent him the hard way. The sermon that Jonah finally preached was terse at best and he fled the city hoping to see a mighty display of fireworks. Yet God moved even through Jonah’s half-hearted message. The very fact that God had sent them his prophet must have (at least initially) made an impact on the people and caused them to take notice. Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman was that it was not yet time for the pet dogs to receive their meal; hardly a cordial greeting, but his mere presence in her community told her that he would be willing to help and the desperation she felt for her daughter’s need drove her to be undaunted by this initial rebuke. Even in Samaria, Jesus’ interactions are warm, but brief, yet the impact is profound.
Ukraine may be a long way to come simply to play a game of Dominoes, but no distance is too far to go for the opportunity to share the Gospel and to help develop disciples. Even so, you likely do not need to travel very far to cross a cultural barrier. My encouragement is to look for those opportunities, find a chance to simply be present in the life of your neighbor (even in the Good Samaritan sense) and build a relationship with him or her, for it is out of that relationship that you will have a chance to share the Gospel. Who knows, were Jesus to have come for the first time in this world today — a world of running water in homes and water-fountains in public places — I wonder how he might have engaged the Samaritan woman at the Well…it might have even been through a game of Dominoes.