Crossing cultural barriers in missions

Like the chambers of a heart, the four MWC commissions serve the global community of Anabaptist-related churches, in the areas of deacons, faith and life, peace, mission. Commissions prepare materials for consideration by the General Council, give guidance and propose resources to member churches, and facilitate MWC-related networks or fellowships working together on matters of common interest and focus. In the following, one of the commissions shares a message from their ministry focus.

Genesis 1–11 is considered prologue to the entire Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. God’s intention for humans to multiply and scatter over the face of the whole earth is a central theme in the prologue.

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). This intention is repeated in Genesis. 8:15–17; 9:1; 9:7. It is also reflected in what has been dubbed “table of nations” in Genesis 10. This celebrates the diversity of cultures and nations from Noah’s progeny (Gen. 10:5, 20, 31).

This chart was developed by Dr. Betsy Glanville, Fuller Theological Seminary

The celebration of the diversity of creation including cultures and nations mirror God’s celebrative pronouncement at the end of creation, “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

This diversity can also become a barrier.

Culture is how people make sense of the world. It is “created and contaminated by human beings,” says Sherwood Lingenfelter. “Culture seeks to maintain social control through its rules, norms, and sanctions for behaviour, and thus it limits certain kinds of sinful or deviant behaviour. Yet the rules of culture reflect a natural knowledge of God (Romans 2:14–15) that serves to expose sin rather than bring people righteousness.”

Through the lenses of culture, we view the world.

Anthropologist Paul Hiebert defines worldview as “the foundational cognitive, affective, and evaluative assumptions and frameworks a group of people makes about the nature of reality which they use to order their lives.” He also writes, “The biblical worldview of others and otherness affirms the common humanity of all people…. There are no others – there is only us ...we are one humanity.”

As God’s people in mission in the world, we must take time to study, understand and build relationships with others to develop mutual understandings and successfully cross-cultural barriers to embody God’s good news of reconciliation and shalom.

The Mission Commission of the Mennonite World Conference brings together the Global Anabaptist Service Network (GASN) and the Global Mission Fellowship (GMF) to enable dialogue around pressing issues and provide opportunities in global witness and service.

In doing this, we follow the example and respond in obedience to Jesus who crossed many cultural barriers in his own ministry as illustrated below (fig.1). It culminated in a commission to his disciples to likewise go as the Father sent him (John 20:20).

One way that I have found to be effective in crossing cultural barriers is eating together with people from different cultures. In cross-cultural mission, however, in order to eat together meaningfully, those from dominant cultures who tend to operate from a host theology (derived from money, power and privilege) ought to learn to cultivate a guest theology (normally the theology of missions recipients). In so doing, we might facilitate a mission with approach rather than mission to which has been the norm in cross-cultural missions for more than 200 years of the modern mission movement.

Reimagining cross-cultural mission for the 21st-century will entail dialogue on aspects of barrier crossing such as ethnicity, power, ethics, doctrine, leadership, kinship relationships, heritage, rituals, etc. Through its 72 global partners, the Global Mission Fellowship looks forward to facilitating such dialogue.


1. Where is your home culture?

2. What barriers do you need to cross?

3. How might the GMF resource you in your cross-cultural work?

—a Mennonite World Conference release by Nelson Okanya, chair, Global Mission Fellowship, member of the Mission Commission.


Sources used (in English):

Hiebert, Paul G. 2008. Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

____. 2009. The Gospel in Human Contexts: Anthropological Explorations for Contemporary Missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood G. 1998. Transforming Culture: A Challenge for Christian Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.