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When I teach missions, and I explain just the sheer growth in terms of numbers in the global church, places like Southeast Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, the students wonder why the church is growing so quickly. It’s a zeal for God. It’s just a passion for who God is that translates into a passion for telling others about who he is—the zeal for mission. It’s about this expectant faith where you truly believe that God will answer prayer, and that God will show up in these incredible ways. People are willing to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel.

This material was originally recorded as part of the Renovations Project. It has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Hospitality is a key part of ministry

Hospitality is such a key part of what the global church communicates. Especially in the majority world church, hospitality is a key part of ministry. Hospitality is such a huge part of what’s happening in the global church to attract people to Christ and for them to understand the gospel. It’s hospitality that happens in people’s homes. It’s hospitality that happens in local neighborhoods. 

Related: How did people practice hospitality in the Bible, and what does hospitality look like today?

A huge part of this as well is a theology of neighborhoods and a theology of what it means to be a neighbor. Your neighbor may or may not care what you think, but they really care about what type of neighbor you are. Are you a good neighbor? Are you not a great neighbor? Do you take care of your place? Are you causing trouble? People care about the way we present ourselves as neighbors. So a lot of times these things can go hand in hand. What does it mean to be hospitable? What does it mean to be a neighbor? What does it mean to be in community? So much of the growth of the global church is wrapped up in these ideas.

Christianity isn’t for the individual

The global church really pushes back on this idea of Christianity as an individualized faith. That’s one of the big challenges in North American and European thought: thinking about the autonomy of the individual. This is a huge cultural challenge. Many people, myself included, who have moved to the United States, and are asked about some of the cultural values that stand out, say that it is individualism, especially people thinking about individual rights. That’s language that you hear all the time, but you don’t hear it everywhere around the world. People may talk about rights as it relates to certain issues, but this core concept of, “I have rights that people cannot get in the way of, people shouldn’t interfere with,” is such a huge cultural value that actually works a lot of times against the fabric of the gospel and the fabric of what the church should be.

The church should be pushing us toward each other and not away from each other. The church is a faith that’s done in community and isn’t necessarily a privatized, individualized faith. That’s a lot of what the global church can teach us. What does it mean to be a church that’s truly a community? What does it mean to be a church that is looking to transform neighborhoods? What does it mean to be a church that practices hospitality?

Related: How I’ve come to see the church as a warm nest of community and belonging

I don’t want to infer that the global church has it all figured out, but when you step back and look at patterns of what is causing the church to grow, these are some of the patterns and trends that you see: people making time to be present with each other, people making time to invite others into their lives, people making time to look at their local neighborhood and seeing what their neighbor would care about and meeting their neighbor in that space. That could be a physical space, it could be an issue related to justice, it could be an issue that they need to advocate for, it could be a way to reimagine what that community looks like, what that neighborhood looks like.

Related: How prioritizing the needs of your community increases your welcome

Many things should unite us as neighbors—the shared physical space that we’re in, the shared community that we’re in. As individual Christians, we can ask, “What things do I have in common with my neighbor?” We can then work together toward, “I’m doing it as a Christian. I’m doing it as a follower of Jesus. My neighbor may or may not be doing it from the same perspective.” But again, it creates space; it creates ways for us to be present with others in a way that actually is contributing and is very significant for the places and the communities in which we live.

Be ready to listen to and learn from others

Those are some of the lessons that the global church will bring to us if we have ears to hear them, and especially if we have a posture where we are truly open to hearing. That is a big challenge and a big cultural value that I’ve seen coming to the U.S. We’re wired in the U.S. to think that we have all of the solutions, even in the church: “We already know what we’re doing, thank you very much. Our job is actually to tell many other people around the world what they should be doing.” 

This idea that we would actually be able to sit back and to receive from others and especially others who are from different places around the world—that cuts against one of our often dominant cultural values. It’s a very common pattern in short-term missions where we go with the answers, where we say, “This is what we think you need to hear.” Instead, acknowledging that we can learn from a Christian believer, a brother or sister in Christ, who is in Malaysia, or who is in Guatemala, that is almost a radical idea. But it really shouldn’t be. There are so many things that we can learn, and, I would argue, that we need to learn.

One of the questions we’re going to ask ourselves broadly in the North American church is, do we have the tools to get where we need to go? I’m not sure that we have the tools that we need. We actually need to reach out to the global church; we need to draw from others who have much that they can communicate and much that they can teach, if we’re in a posture and in a position where we’re ready to listen.

I grew up in Northern Ireland. I moved to Scotland when I was 18. I went to four years of college. As I was wrapping up my undergrad degree in theology, I was very interested in theology, Scripture, and the church, but I really didn’t know what my next step was. I got very interested in thinking about short-term missions, thinking about discipleship and traveling. I decided to join a missions organization and looked at different places around the world but ended up in southern California. I did some short-term mission training there in Los Angeles, and I was able to go to a number of places around the world. And that’s really where I began to see these incredible things that God was doing—to just get a glimpse of what God was doing in all of these different places around the world.

Related: The future of the church in Europe and what the North American church can learn from it

Southern California itself was just a fascinating place to be for those couple of years, a really rich mix of different cultures. Even though it was really different, I felt like it was in many ways quite easy to fit in. Southern California, Los Angeles, is so diverse, you can be from anywhere and you can be any type of person, and you can fit right in. I met my wife, who’s from the Midwest, and when we married, we moved to the Midwest to be closer to her family. I had a much more difficult time moving from southern California to the Midwest than I did moving from the UK to southern California. 

I come to the Midwest, and I’m really wired to think about global things. I love thinking about international travel; I love thinking about the ways in which cultures are the same and different from each other. What I found in the Midwest are people who, in my experience, oftentimes were really limited in terms of their perspective. Many knew things that were going on in their local community, but really didn’t know much about what was happening outside of either the Midwest or the United States. That was a real challenge. There just were real cultural barriers that you would run into. Many times, when people would ask where I was from, and I would tell them I wasn’t from the United States originally, the conversation would completely dry up. People have no idea what to say; they have no idea how to relate to me.

Even at home, my Midwestern wife has a certain perspective on what it means to live your life, what values are important, individualism, autonomy, this American can-do kind of spirit. We celebrate these values because there’s a lot of positives to them. But coming from a different culture, those aren’t the values I was raised with. I joke with my wife or I joke when I teach, and I say, “I grew up in a country where we weren’t number one at anything, and it just didn’t matter. We didn’t care. We were perfectly happy to not be number one at anything. We’re just fine.” My wife says it’s just a totally different mindset, and my students think that’s hilarious. 

Lean into a communal life

The ways in which culture is expressed can come through in big ways, but it often comes through in subtle ways—conversations, the way you view the world, the way you view faith, the way you view church, high value on individualism, high value on the way you think about time, and strong focus on family, but often family based around activity versus family just simply spending time together. Of course, these are big generalizations, but you see patterns where people oftentimes have life very compartmentalized in these nice, neat areas, and very activity-based. Whereas for a lot of cultures around the world, life isn’t so compartmentalized. You organically live life together. In the United States, I find a lot of those spaces where people can more organically live life together can be missing. When we hang out with people, it can seem quite manufactured, whereas in a lot of places around the world, those interactions happen a lot more organically.

I teach cross-cultural studies, where we look at how cultures are similar and different from each other. There’s different ways you can do that, but you can scale a lot of these cultural values. The U.S. is the most individualistic country, and many countries around the world are very low on individualism and very high on this more communal way of thinking about life. I’m always telling either short-term groups or students, “This will be your biggest challenge: being able to reframe away from the individual getting to make every decision, and that the individual is at the heart of everything.” When you go into a more community-minded or communal type of group, it’s the group consensus that really drives things. Individuals really begin to see themselves primarily as part of a group. It’s virtually impossible for many of us to even conceptualize what that might look like.

Related: These four things are imperative for the North American church today

We’ve done a lot of mission work over the years in Japan, and there’s a huge cultural difference there in terms of being much more community-minded or communal-minded versus being individualistic. I always try to let our teams know that it will be a struggle. They will wonder, “Why are we taking so long to make a decision?” It can be about where you’re going to go to eat, or anything really. They have to remember to consider if that is what the group wants to do. They might say, “Why don’t three of us go to this one place, and the rest of us can go over here?” No, that fractures the group. What is it that we can do to stay as a group? Let’s talk it through, and let’s figure out our next course of action.

I don’t want to leave the impression that every solution is found in the global church, and that the global church isn’t wrestling with things in its own context. Pastors and church leaders around the world are wrestling with really significant challenges. They are learning as well, continually, where they are. They are always thinking about how the gospel translates to their own cultural context. The idea is that we can learn together and really draw ourselves together in a way where we have mutual relationships and we can position ourselves to receive from others and to really grow together. That is such a huge thing that we can do as a global church. Think about the unity of a local church congregation, even magnify that and think about it as a global church: how do we draw ourselves closer together in unity? I think there’s lots of ways that we can do that.

Another dynamic is when you think about churches that are not white, like the Black church, the Latin church, or Hispanic church. I’ve talked to students who think about global mission from their position as maybe an African American, and they go to sub-Saharan Africa, and that’s a really different experience for them than it would be for me. I’ve talked with people here who are Latinx or Hispanic, and they say, “Look at the fact that our churches raise all sorts of money every year, and they fly the youth group to Guatemala, but then they’re very opposed to Guatemalans seeking asylum in the U.S. Those two things don’t line up.” We can go to Guatemala and can see that God loves them, and they are amazing people with an amazing culture. And yet, if that person came to us in our local community, we wouldn’t, through our social structures, be encouraged to think about them the same way. 

Those are really big questions for us to wrestle with: the continuity across borders of how we think about people and how we relate to each other.

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Dr. Graham McKeague

Dr. Graham McKeague is dean of professional and graduate studies at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He equips ministry leaders to serve in increasingly diverse cultural contexts. He participated in listening sessions about innovation hosted by the Reformed Church in America.