If you read the account in Luke’s gospel in Chapter 2:41-52, you’ll find a story that is inconceivable to us today. In verse 41-42, we find Jesus, Mary, and Joseph traveling to Jerusalem to take part in the Passover feast. Then, in verse 43, they left Jerusalem…without Jesus…and neither of them knew it. They traveled for a day’s journey, which is anywhere from 16-20 miles…by foot and caravan…among many kinfolk and friends. The custom for the Jewish culture at that time was to treat a 12-year old boy as a young man that needed less intense supervision. Not only that, but if Jesus were among family and friends, there would have been many eyes that could have been responsible for seeing that Jesus was safe and traveling with the group. It’s only when they all stopped for the evening and Mary and Joseph went looking for Jesus that they discovered He was missing. It sounds careless to us, but back then, in that culture, that was the way it was done. They did not love Jesus any less than we love our own children, and verse 48 says that they had “sought” Jesus “sorrowing.” So they weren’t what we could perceive as careless…just different in the way that family was constructed and what was actually the norm for that culture.
In today’s society, we have multitudes of families from multitudes of ethnicities, each bringing with them some quirks, oddities, and strangeness. These families are in the same communities that our churches are in, and, they are the very families we try to invite into the church through various outreach ministries. Once they come into our church, these families are the ones we want to disciple and teach, and see improve. We all know the Biblical standards families ought to strive for, but exactly what does that look like? Is there a cultural mold that each family, despite its ethnicity, must conform to before we can say for certain that the family is exhibiting signs of being a “godly” family? Just look within a family of four and see how each member may be a godly person, saved, and serving the Lord, but their personalities all express that truth differently. And that’s just within the same family. It’s the same with multicultural and ethnic families. They may be “godly” families, but their unique way of expressing that godliness may seem strange to us, leading us to pass a rather unjustified judgment on them. Different does not always mean wrong.
Monica McGoldrick, a sociologist, explains: “Ethnicity patterns our thinking, feeling, and behavior in both obvious and subtle ways, although generally operating outside our awareness. It plays a major role in determining what we eat, how we work, how we relate, how we celebrate holidays and rituals, and how we feel about life, death, and illness.” I am an American, but my ancestry is from Canada. Our holiday celebrations are filled with ethnocentricities straight from the French-Canadian cultures. The foods Canadian families eat, especially around New Years Eve, are very different from delicacies that might be enjoyed by Asian families. Food is just one area that ethnicity really shows itself in its diversity.
It’s not uncommon, even in rural churches, to have several different ethnic families. Asians, Africans, Central Americans, South Americans, and Eastern Europeans are well represented throughout America. Because of that, we need to be sensitive to the fact that there is a need to know something about the ethnic backgrounds of some of the families in our churches so that we don’t look at their differences and quirks and pass them off as “hurting” or “ungodly” or “lacking spirituality” and so on. One does not need to become adept in every intricacy of every family of every ethnicity, and all it takes to understand a family’s cultural dynamics is to ask.
The term ethnicity has three distinct meanings. First, it’s believed that ethnicity is determined by shared physical and cultural characteristics. Another definition of ethnicity has to do with the differences in the language, religion, color, and ancestry around which a group is defined. Lastly, the word ethnicity is derived from the Greek word ethnos, which means “nation.” These would be people set apart by national origins and/or distinctive cultural patterns. A good example of the intermingling of these definitions is to look at the Jews today. One could claim to be a Jew because they were born in Israel, or are born of descendants of Israeli lineage (ethnos). Others will claim they are Jewish because they practice the Jewish faith (ethnicity defined by religious affiliation). Still others will consider themselves to be Jewish because they adhere to Jewish customs, morals, and principles (ethnic through cultural affiliation).
So, dealing with varying races, ethnicities, and cultures appropriately 100% of the time would be impossible. Nor is it possible to stereotype every race, ethnicity, and culture with a broad brush and expect to get it right each time you deal with a family of a particular kind. But there are some things we need to get into the habit of doing if we want to minister to these families and be of the utmost help to them. Here’s a list of seven things we can do:
- With diversity on the rise, and more and more ethnicities and cultures being represented in our churches we need to be open to different conceptions of the family. Unless their concept of family opposes biblical morals and truths, we should not harbor one definition to be superior over another definition.
- Within the concept of culture and ethnicity is how families are to be understood. You can’t understand an Asian family by looking through your own cultural construct that may be African or Eastern European in origin.
- When you do come into contact with a family of another ethnicity, learn as much as possible from them and understand them and don’t be critical based on your own contrasting definition forged by your culture.
- Understand that families are structured differently in various cultures within generations and gender-roles, and such. Accept that, and work with that, so long as, again, it does not violate Scriptural truths and morals.
- Many cultures have pockets within our communities where there is a heavy concentration. Usually, in these areas are professionals (doctors, lawyers, counselors) who are heterogeneous (they are of the same culture) and make up a support system for the families in that area. This network of people can be an invaluable resource to utilize while ministering to a family.
- If we want godly families, and we have a predetermined definition of what that looks like culturally, we need to redefine our goals and what we expect to see as a family grows in the Lord. The more we understand a family’s ethnicity, the better able we are to recognize that this family is indeed growing spiritually.
- Don’t always assume each family will fit its ethnic stereotype. For instance, a third generation Asian couple and their two children may visit the church. They have no accents. Both parents work outside the home. Their children are dating non-Asians (a big no-no for the Asian culture). They are, for all intents and purposes, Americans. They have gone through a process called acculturation, which is a watering down of the culture of origin until the dominant culture (in this case, American) takes over. Treating this family like an Asian family won’t work in this case.
It’s God’s intention that we embrace multiculturalism. Consider Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek (ethnicity), there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ.” The point about neither Jew nor Greek not only helps explain the availability of salvation to all peoples, but the mere fact that all peoples are being reigned in to the Church leads one to believe that they can’t all be of the same ethnicity and do all things the same as everyone else. Yet, certain aspects of the relationship between the believer and Christ will transcend ethnicity and culture. One day, “…at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE should bow, of things in Heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that EVERY TONGUE should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
That’s the focus to disciple new families to the church regardless of their cultural background. Put them under the Lordship of Christ and let the Holy Spirit lead you into dealing with aspects of their family’s culture that are wrong, and leave the rest alone. For example, Asian ethnicities holding firm to the belief their children should only marry within the Asian culture is not a point that needs to be contested with families. That’s a cultural preference that may not be against any biblical principle. In contrast, an Eastern European family drinks wine with their meals. In European homes (especially the French) children and teens will drink fermented wine with the dinner meals. That is an example of something that needs to be dealt with, as cultural relativism does not apply in this case because it goes against a biblical mandate to abstain from alcohol.
The Native American culture is another good example. Native Americans often hold great value in laughing. They believe laughter relieves stress and brings people together. Often, at their evening dinners or tribal meals, the food takes a backseat to laughter, skits, and joke and storytelling. We may find it odd and quirky if we compared their idea of family mealtime with ours, but again, nothing’s wrong with the way they conduct themselves at the dinner table, so long as the jokes aren’t of the Joan Rivers variety. However, Native Americans are also very spiritual, as a people. Not only do Native Americans enjoy family ties with blood relatives, it’s likewise not uncommon among tribal people to become members of a family by being “claimed” by that family. The Native Americans believe family is not only a matter of blood, but of spirit also. Obviously, that could have moral and legal ramifications to be wary of.
It’s unfortunate that a detailed look at the family dynamics of some of the more common ethnicities in our churches cannot be done at this time. Instead, I hope you have had your mind opened to the fact that our churches are multicultural. These families should be allowed to express their cultural and ethnic beliefs and behaviors in complete and total freedom, with the caveat that it does not violate morals that transcend culture. And, think about the richness that could be gained by opening a closed mind to the wonders of another person’s way of living life. Just remember, the family who seems odd, quirky, and strange to you…you probably look that way to them. Without getting to know each other culturally, each family will leave after fellowshipping uttering those words, “I Just Don’t Understand That Family!”