Before being called into pastoral ministry, I worked for 25 years in business settings. One of the common themes across my various work experiences was the pervasive use of jargon. Regardless of the company, certain terms, abbreviations, and acronyms helped form a common language to convey a business condition, action, need, or response.
Those new to the organization always faced a learning curve, which invariably resulted in periodic misuse of our terminology. Learning new modes of communication can be difficult. I am still amazed at the myriad of ways our 26-letter alphabet can be organized in three-, four-, or five-letter acronyms.
The Church has its jargon, too; it always has. Much of it is taken directly from Scripture, while other jargon gained traction as a result of the various councils convened in the postapostolic period as issues of orthodoxy were debated and resolved. All of the various branches of Christianity and the respective denominations that flow from those branches also have their jargon. Anyone who has ever sat in a local ministerial alliance meeting can attest to this.
Jargon use becomes increasingly easy to use as we are initiated into our respective cultures. The list of terms we use to communicate with each other grows as we seek meaningful and creative ways to minister to increasingly diverse populations.
A learning curve and periodic misuse of certain terms comes with this. Two relatively new examples of jargon misused extensively in the Church are multicultural and cross-cultural. These two terms are often treated as equivalent expressions. However, they are not necessarily the same. While it is possible for churches to be both multicultural and cross-cultural, it is much easier to be the former without being the latter.
As one who pastored in a church setting with different ethnicities and racial groups, I view multicultural as most often referring to the regular presence of different ethnicities and/or races within a congregation, with both their shared and distinctive norms and values. In a strictly multicultural setting, little or no explicit attention, value, or focus is placed on learning about, understanding, or respecting different cultural dynamics and how those differences may influence response to biblical truth and biblical community. It is more likely that there is an underlying assumption that those who regularly gather for worship, prayer, study, or outreach are like-minded about Christ, and that likemindedness is all that really matters.
A visual for this could be a dinner plate with three kinds of vegetables, each occupying its own space on the plate. The zucchini, green beans, and broccoli are all vegetables, and each has a distinctive visibility and taste; but no more attention is paid other than to what is obvious through observation.
Cross-cultural, in that same church setting, suggests that explicit attention, value, or focus is placed on understanding and respecting cultural dynamics and how differences may influence response to biblical truth and biblical community. These settings include a “reaching over” or “crossing” of cultural boundary lines beyond simply being aware of differences in appearance or language. Effort is made to understand and appreciate differences as being valuable to the formation and sustenance of community. Visually, it would be more like succotash, with the different vegetable ingredients creating an entirely new thing. Here are a few examples a local church might consider if seeking to become cross-cultural.
• Have you noticed how some cultural groups seem to prioritize relationships and connectedness over adherence to set time schedules or vice versa? Are there any learning opportunities here?
• How might the dynamic of “call and response” during a sermon (congregants verbally reacting to the preacher, commenting and encouraging him or her) affect overall congregational mood? What are the implications if this is encouraged or discouraged?
• Why do some groups have a strong negative reaction to allowing children to refer to the adults in their circle by their first name? What is the norm for your church?
• How might a cultural group’s orientation to group over individual identity affect the dynamics of your small group ministry?
• What do you think about the value of your English-speaking folks learning a new language in the same way those whose first language is not English have learned or are learning English?
• Are there any subtle ways in which the dynamics of dominant and minority status manifest themselves in your church?
For reasons such as these, I think interchanging multicultural with crosscultural is bad socio-cultural hermeneutics. This may seem like a small point, but I argue that it is anything but small.
Preparation for pastoral ministry includes significant time and effort in hermeneutical study. We, hopefully, continue that discipline as we proclaim the truths of Scripture because words and phrases are important to biblical exegesis. Misuse can result in false assumptions, false beliefs, and a bad grasp of doctrine by those over whom pastors exercise spiritual care.
Pastors and local churches also have to exegete community, society, and culture. The only exception to that would be an unfortunate choice to be hermetically sealed-off from the world that God so loved (ref. John 3:16).
Excluding this, we need to be as deliberate in the careful use of words that describe sociocultural dynamics as we are in preparing sermons for Sunday morning. If we’re going to use jargon, let’s use it correctly. More and more churches are becoming multicultural, and I believe that is a positive, revealing progress from the rigidity and bias of church social structures built on false foundations of sameness and privilege. Understanding the difference is just a beginning in our collective growth in grace.
If we move on to being cross-cultural, we will become a community that looks more and more like succotash. That, I think, is closer to the spirit of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”