Recently, my family invited some boys to our house for a barbeque. Because of the ongoing pandemic and safety concerns, there was a discussion about safety and social distancing. On the morning of BBQ day, my wife suggested several rules which seemed overly draconian to me. “Everyone should wear a mask. Everyone should be assigned a cushion for seating and not move around…” My reaction was, “We already talked about this, and agreed to limit the number of guests. It will be fine. None of us are sick and none of the boys we invited are sick either.” I imagined 4 or 5 boys coming over and having to wear a mask and sit on their cushion without moving. Inconceivable to my American mind! But my Japanese wife imagined what would happen if we did not take reasonable safety precautions and someone got sick. In short, we did not see things the same way.
Our lack of unity was caused by the fact that “reasonable safety precautions” meant different things to each of us, because of our cultural viewpoint. And in the middle of our discussion, my third-culture daughter interjected some wisdom from her own perspective. After listening to each of our sides in this debate she piped in, “Dad, imagine a country where everyone thinks like Mom does. Now imagine a country where everyone thinks like you do. Which country do you suppose will have a higher infection rate?”
Of course, my daughter was right. Japan is a country where most everyone assumes mask-wearing, safety and distancing, are reasonable and 「当たり前」 (which roughly translated means “obvious” or “of course you should do that!”) Americans like myself, on the other hand, can tend to focus more on our personal freedoms. My starting point in thinking about what was reasonable was, “Why should I be required to do something that I don’t feel is really necessary?” I think that is partly my cultural lens. But during the pandemic, Japan has had a total of about 1,000 deaths, while America had about 1,000 deaths yesterday! For a third-culture kid like my daughter, who understands both ways to view the world, it was obvious that these shocking statistical differences are due, at least in part, to the fact that “people in this country think like Mom.”
This started me thinking about how different our thinking can really be sometimes. That is why multicultural marriage is not always easy. When Satomi and I decided to marry in 1987, we knew that it would take a serious commitment to talk things out even when our disagreements were uncomfortable. We made a commitment to work things out for the sake of our marriage and by God’s grace we are still together. We’ve made it this far but even now after all these years, we need to regularly pause and talk things out.
Doing church together in a multicultural congregation may be even harder in some ways, because unlike marriage, the commitment required is not always obvious up front. Unless we do make a serious commitment that our local church is a spiritual body of which we are vital members it may just seem like a lot of work for nothing. It is very easy to get offended by people who look and think just like you, but it’s even easier when they have a totally different way of looking at the world. However that is exactly the kind of church that Jesus started when he commissioned the first believers and sent them by his Holy Spirit to go and make disciples.
The members of the early church in the Book of Acts “were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32) and they were extremely committed in their relationships with one another. Acts 4:32 also says they “had everything in common.” Yet this was a multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic, multigenerational congregation. But somehow they operated more like a family than anything else, even in finances. They knew from the start that it would take a serious commitment to talk things out even when it was uncomfortable. And just like any family, especially a mixed family, those disagreements did happen.
In the verses starting with Acts 6:1, a serious disagreement did come out and we get a peek into it when we read the following, “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” This would have been the perfect time for the Apostles to say, “I think it is best if we have two different congregations.” Or it might have been tempting for the Hellenistic Greek believers to decide to leave the Hebrew leaders and start their own ministry. But that is not how they dealt with it. The bond of love in Christ that held them together was greater. They worked it out. That talked about it. And they stayed together and grew through the situation.
I’m thankful for my mixed family, especially when I see that my kids have learned wisdom from being exposed to more than one culture. And I am also thankful that God has called me to pastor a church in Japan where more people think like my wife than like me. Having a multicultural church is not easy. People do get offended and sometimes they leave. But the believers in the Book of Acts did not all look like each other either, and in some ways they did not all think about things the same way either. How could God use them together in such a powerful way that they became known as, “These men who have turned the world upside down…” (Acts 17:6)? By keeping their focus on honoring God. By listening to the Word of God and the voice of the Holy Spirit. And by valuing their relationships. That is how the church was designed to operate. That is the kind of church that I believe God wants to build here in our city. That’s why we talk about every tribe and every tongue worshiping Christ together here often (Revelation 7:9). And that’s one reason our church is named Every Nation.
All those heavy thoughts came to me through a disagreement with my wife about a barbeque during the pandemic. But it made me very thankful for my relationships. Oh, and about the barbeque – in the end, we talked it through until we each understood the other’s point of view. And it was safe and awesome!