Next week I fly out to the Philippines for a twelve day trip. I’ve been invited by Cubao Reformed Baptist Church to join them for their annual pastors’ conference. I’m looking forward to visiting what I’m told is one of the most beautiful countries of the world; I’m looking forward to meeting the members of that church. But I’m also apprehensive. Not just because I’ll be leaving behind Anne and the children. Not just because I dread airports and all the complications of getting from A to B. Not just because I have to preach six times to around 250 or so pastors and church leaders at the conference, and who knows how many times on other occasions. Yes, I do feel nervous about those things. But I also feel nervous at the prospect of being thrown into a completely unfamiliar culture for those few days.
What if I make a fool of myself in public by my ignorance of social norms? What if I upset or offend someone by treading over their cultural sensitivities? Every society has its unwritten rules: a visitor who’s unaware of them can get himself into a terrible tangle. This is what the Rough Guide to the Philippines has to say: “Some travellers arriving in the Philippines are pleasantly surprised to find English spoken everywhere… All the comfortable trappings of the West are there…” But it goes on to warn, “the apparent familiarity initially invokes a false sense of security, which over time – as differences begin to surface – gives way to bewilderment and confusion. There are complex rules of engagement that govern behaviour among Filipinos, and failure to be sensitive to them can cast you unwittingly in the role of the ugly foreigner, ranting and raving with frustration at everyone from the bellhop to the bank teller…”
The book goes on to list some key cultural concepts. For example, “Hiya is a factor in almost all social situations. It is a sense of hiya that prevents someone asking a question, for fear he may look foolish. It is hiya that sees many Filipinos refuse to disagree openly, for fear they may cause offence. To not have hiya is a grave social sin… Hiya goes hand in hand with the preservation of amor-proprio, ie to avoid losing face. Filipinos feel uneasy if they are instrumental in making waves and exposing another person’s amor-proprio to injury…”
And it talks about some of the ways those concepts work out in practice: “One of the root causes of frustration during social intercourse is the use of the word yes. In their desire to please, many Filipinos find it difficult to say no. So they say yes instead. Yes… can mean one of a multitude of things, from a plain and simple ‘yes’ to ‘I’m not sure’, ‘perhaps’, ‘if you say so’ or ‘sorry, I can’t understand you so I’ll just say yes and hope you’ll go away’. A causal yes is never taken as binding”.
Do you begin to see why I’m nervous about travelling to the Philippines? But it would be no different if it were Albania or Zaire. Every country has its own cultural codes, familiar to people who have grown up with them, baffling to outsiders. That’s why living and working with people from different national backgrounds can be so difficult.
So there is a real challenge for anyone like myself visiting another country for a few days. But we all have a much bigger challenge right here on our doorsteps within the UK. We are all aware that Britain is becoming a multi-ethnic society at an astonishing rate. Nobody knows for sure how many folk now living in the UK were born in other countries. The official figure is around five million (most researchers think it’s much higher). In other words, at least one in twelve of our population were born overseas. And of course the proportion is much larger in big cities like Manchester. We have the God-given privilege of communicating the gospel to people who have come here from many parts of the world. We have the goal of building a church where folk from very different cultural backgrounds worship and work as one body in Christ.
In the past we’ve had folk worshipping regularly with us who have come from China, Malaysia, Singapore, Zambia, Iran, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and many other countries. While they were with us, they enriched us and we enjoyed their fellowship. But not many of them became members of the church. Most were short stay – students or workers on short contracts in the UK – and are now back in the countries they came from.
I expect that to change in the years ahead. We meet more and more folk who have come from abroad and who hope to make their homes permanently in the UK. Since we’ve been married, Anne and I have got to know people from India, Pakistan, Iran, Poland, Uganda, Albania, Kosova… all of whom have settled in this country and think of it as their home. If we are to be a true gospel church, we will have members drawn from many nations.
And there’s the challenge. All of these folk will bring with them their own cultural sensitivities just as we do ours. And somehow we will have to live together, work together, grow together, kept as one by the Spirit of Christ. That will involve some very big practical dilemmas: how do we communicate when some of us only speak English while others know English only as a second language or not all? But it will also involve understanding cultural differences. We will have to learn why folk from different backgrounds react as they do to different things, why they struggle with different things, why they find some things baffling or offensive.
It was like that in New Testament times. The Roman Empire broke down national boundaries to an extraordinary extent. People moved (or were moved) around the empire with remarkable ease. After a war, whole populations might be enslaved and then scattered throughout the empire. The Roman legions which conquered Britain would have included men drawn from scores of different countries. When those soldiers retired, many of them settled in the places where they had served. Every major city in the empire would have seen people of different languages, backgrounds and cultures jostling one another in the streets. Some groups – above all, Jewish people – tried to keep their own national identities wherever they were scattered; others tried to assimilate themselves to the life of the places where they had moved. Most learned at least a smattering of the common language of the Empire – Greek; others had only their native language – they were labeled barbarians because all they could say was bar-bar-bar…
The apostles were determined to bring the gospel to them all. Paul declared: “I am under obligation both to Greeks (ie Greek-speakers) and to the barbarians… the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek…” (Romans 1:14-16). Jew, Gentile, Greek-speaker, bar-bar-barian – Paul knew he had to tell the good news to them all. And he understood that to do that, he would have to understand the different cultural backgrounds of each group and respect them. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law (ie those who shared the Jewish culture) I became like one under the law…To those not having the law, I became like one not having the law…I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some…” (1 Cor 9:19-22).
If we want to win our friends from overseas for Christ, that has to be our attitude too. I’m sure Anne and I have said or done things at times which have hurt or shocked some of our friends – simply because of ignorance of their cultural backgrounds. (Anne visited a Korean friend in hospital a couple of days after she had given birth, thereby usurping the role of the mother-in-law and breaking one of the strictest taboos of that society). There’s no point in inviting your Muslim neighbour to a hotpot supper! Walk straight into a Chinese home without taking off your shoes and you’re liable to give offence – or at least to give the impression that you’re thoughtless. To put straight yes/no questions to your Filipino friend may cause her real embarrassment. We need to understand people’s sensitivities. Is it OK to refuse an invitation to stay for a meal? Is it proper to visit someone when they are ill? How should you show respect to older members of the family?
We have to understand such issues if we’re to win unbelievers. But even when people are converted, their cultural backgrounds do not fall away. Nor should they. Yes, things in any culture – including traditional British culture – that are sinful, need to be repented of and put away. But most cultural differences do not come into that bracket. Paul and his fellow apostles insisted that believing Jews, believing Gentiles, believing people of all nations, with all their cultural differences, must learn to live together in the local church in love and unity. It was perhaps the hardest struggle of Paul’s life: to persuade believers not to give up that vision. When he wrote his letter to the Romans, the church in Rome was split into lots of little groups meeting separately, divided by national and cultural differences: some were vegetarian, some said they could eat anything, others kept the Jewish food laws. Some drank wine, some abstained. Some kept special sacred days (like our Christmas and Easter); others saw no need to. Paul’s whole letter was written as a grand demonstration to show that none of these things should be able to divide Christians who have all been justified through faith alone in Christ alone. He sums it all up: “Therefore let us stop passing judgement on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in your brother’s way…Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification… May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Jesus Christ, that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you..” Paul was determined that there should be a single church, where people from all those cultural backgrounds could worship together as one, praying and praising with one heart and mouth. Read Romans 14 to 16 to see how Paul urged those Christians to deal with the problem of cultural differences.
But it all has to start with understanding. I’m sure I’ll find it frustrating if the Filipino brethren I mix with find it hard to give me a straight yes or no to a question. But I have to understand how deeply engrained that cultural pattern is – and that at its root is a desire not to hurt people. Maybe friends from some countries think it cold and unwelcoming that we don’t encourage them to drop round without warning late in the evening. But they need to understand that the efficient running of a British household depends on our getting to bed at regular hours. At its root is the desire to make the best possible use of time for the benefit of all. Yes my Filipino friend may need to work at the Godlike quality of truthfulness and straight talking. And many of us Brits need to take more seriously than we do the Biblical ideals of hospitality, welcome to strangers, the open home. But in the meantime, Paul simply tells us “Accept one another then, as Christ accepted you..” Christ didn’t wait for all the kinks and twists of our characters to be straightened out before accepting us. He accepted us the moment we trusted ourselves to him.
If we’re praying that God will make us into a true New Testament multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, Jew and Gentile, Greek and bar-bar speaking church, we’re going to have to write that verse very large on our hearts and minds.