An Intercultural Church Perspective on Mission in Europe

From the Global South to the Global North: A Missionary Story
One of the most daunting challenges I have ever faced in my whole life was relocating from the spiritually vibrant Global South to the spiritually tepid Global North, specifically when I moved from my native Zimbabwe to my adopted country of the United Kingdom, a different spiritual landscape but a very fascinating mission field. I was an enthusiastic young missionary from Africa tasked with establishing a multi-racial and multi-cultural church in postmodern society. My family had to navigate unfamiliar terrain in terms of the legal and social framework, cultural and spiritual context, coupled with the whole issue of racial injustice and prejudice at different levels of life and ministry.

During seasons of seeking God, I understood that God was actually at work in me in the areas of prayer and faith as well as my capacity to develop genuine friendships interculturally. My outlook was being enlarged, and a global vision for reaching people from all nations was taking root in my heart. I realised that the face of mission has changed—It’s European! Twenty first century Europe has become one of the fastest growing mission fields for cross-cultural ministry.

My story is typical of African missionaries in Europe. I was marked by initial culture shock, unpreparedness and inadequacy. A significant reflection point for me was that, although I had done some ministry training in Africa, I found significant gaps in my understanding of the practice of ministry in a context that is dominated by nominalism, where Christian culture is intertwined with the ‘gods of Europe’—money, wealth and consumerism.[i]

 I had to discover that, in the European mission field, the issues of nationalism[ii], migration, diaspora, the relationship of the Church and racial injustice all affected missio Dei (mission of God) on a daily basisand had a direct bearing on missio ecclesiae (mission of the church).

Developing a philosophy of ministry for an Intercultural church in Britain
I am reminded of the extremely complex ethnic world of the first century evidenced by the multiplicity of nations gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost in Acts 2. The missionary agenda in Acts comes from a missionary God (Acts 1:8).  The outline of missional discipleship was spelt out in Matthew 28:16-20. Facing many challenges, we have been on a journey to develop a relevant ministry philosophy and to plant an intercultural church.

An intercultural church is a community of believers centred on Jesus which intentionally celebrates God’s creativity by empathetically listening to one another.  Kirk Sims views the oneness in fellowship of Intercultural churches as a sign of the outworking of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and their love as a clear witness to the world around them[iii].  He says people in such churches recognize that their cultural blindness limits their perspectives of the Gospel and therefore, desire to have people different from them speak into their lives and vice-versa.

Characteristics of an Intercultural church

Firstly, an intercultural church must radiate an international flavour.
My wife and I are privileged to be part of a church in the UK that has managed to bring together people from various races, ethnicities and cultures.  One of the strategies that we used was to create a ‘safe space’ for conversation and celebration of multiethnic diversity. One way we have done this is by hosting an international event called “Taste of the World’, where we celebrate one themed topic or activity that is common to a majority of cultures represented in the city, but expressed in a distinct way. Some of the themes we have addressed include hospitality, marriage practices, and celebration of significant events. We then use a biblical lens as the common denominator to frame the gospel message. This annual international event always ends with a ‘feast’ famous for its international cuisine. The various delicious dishes are prepared and presented by the people in our community from various cultures. Such events bring the community together and create ‘a safe space’ for multiethnic conversations to take place in an informal setting while at the same time enabling the church to present the gospel message in a contextually relevant manner. We have seen the community warm up to the ‘church’ and explore Christianity!

Most cities in Europe are seeing significant demographic changes, and it is often the intercultural churches that have their finger on the pulse of the social currents blowing in our communities, as well as a grasp of the diversity of God’s world due to their reflection of the communities to which they minister. Thus, an intercultural congregation best exhibits the Trinitarian expression of diversity-in-unity and unity-in-diversity. Although Intercultural churches are not a perfect mirror of heaven, they have made headway in breaking through the many barriers that inhibit the coming together of people from different races, cultures and backgrounds.

Secondly, a leadership team with a flexible mindset to expression of ministry
The leadership team in intercultural churches must be open-minded in their approach to ministry practice. Intercultural churches tend to be constantly adapting because of the intermingling of diverse peoples and cultures, different worship styles, various languages and forms borrowed, in some cases, from other Christian traditions.[iv]  My experience from being  part of a leadership team in an intercultural church is that, their models of mission must reflect the worldwide scope of the gospel and God’s universal salvation through Jesus Christ regardless of its size or initial composition.  

Our liturgy (prayer, singing and preaching) needs to be flexible enough to reflect diversity whilst at the same time remaining constant in respect to the one being worshipped, the centrality of the gospel message, and the core beliefs of our evangelical faith. It is the responsibility of the leadership team to keep the missio Dei at the fore front of the church and its appeal can be evident, especially if the church “walks its talk” and “talks its walk.” 

As part of articulating flexibility in mindset, the leadership team in an intercultural church has to engage in matters of identity and racial justice in as far as it touches on the Body of Christ. In order to process together the current world events around the issues of racial justice, the church has to think about how we can provide leadership during times like this. We have to frame our response to racial injustice in such a way that everyone can see the love of God lived out both in our messaging and our actions. The central command that Jesus gives is to love God and love your neighbour. An intercultural church is at a vantage point to live out this message and be a mirror for society to emulate. Our church has needed to have conversations on the issue of how race, injustice and the gospel intersect.

Thirdly, an Intercultural church initiates Social Engagement
Missionally-focused intercultural churches seek to overcome social and cultural barriers that stem from their stereotypical paradigms by introducing social action as a mission initiative. Our church started a project of providing a two-course meal prepared in our church premises for the less privileged in the city. The project leaders put together a core team of volunteers to run the project, and also created an opportunity for those privileged in the community to volunteer in this ‘community initiative’ funded and managed by the church. The project attracted a diverse range of people from all backgrounds, as well as professionals who were keen to make a difference in their community.

Through this initiative, people were not only given a meal, but opportunities were created for ‘befriending’ people in the community.  We could pray for those who were open to it, and offer practical support to those that needed it.  For a 21st century church that seeks to be relevant in Europe, the issue is not how well we know people but how well we treat people from all ethnicities and backgrounds. If our attitude is right (love and care), if our actions are right (serving with agape love), and if our availability is right (open to God to use us whenever He wants) then conversations may flow early on in a relationship which can then lead to discipleship.

Social engagement is therefore a channel for holistic mission and an effective strategy for building a bridge of social capital to evangelize communities. The Christian mission of a local intercultural church must also be redemptive in taking action on social and spiritual concerns in European societies such as drug addiction, alcoholism, pregnancy crises, spiritual oppression, and juvenile delinquency. In so doing, the church at large is proclaiming a holistic redemptive gospel that has social compassion and agape love transcending ethnic and racial barriers.

Finally, disciple making is a missional strategy for mobilisation.
Whist all the above are important reflections of an intercultural church in Europe, the issue of missional discipleship cannot be overlooked.  The church is called to be a missionary movement, dedicated to making disciples that reproduce themselves. The ethos and dna of a discipleship process is to make disciples that make disciples of all nations through building relationships. Relationships are indispensable in intercultural churches where discipleship takes place in diverse contexts where people are at different levels of understanding and are faced with barriers such as language, resources and so on.

In terms of mobilisation, an intercultural church is not only training one people group but is privileged to equip emerging leaders from across the globe to reach frontiers beyond the Western hemisphere. This is where the idea of partnership comes in: like-minded churches collaborating to create a ‘global learning space’ for the sake of God’s mission. The local intercultural church is integral to God’s mission and purpose. Because of migration, we are privileged in Europe that we don’t necessarily need to go away for foreign missions as was the case in the not-so-distant past, but nations are now on our doorstep! As mission partners from the Global South enter the Global North to proclaim Christ, the concept of mission being from everywhere to everywhere’ is now a global reality. We therefore have the potential of reaching nations more quickly than we can imagine.

Based on the intercultural model of the Acts 11 Antioch church, my reflection is that intercultural churches are not only biblical but also critical to the advancement of the gospel in Europe in the twenty-first century. There are several characteristics that can be gleaned from churches working in several parts of Europe, but I hope the few that have been discussed will stir you.  This is an era of missional opportunity for the local church to participate in any way possible to make Christ known among the people you call your “neighbour”.

End Notes

[i] Olof Edsinger, ‘How can we overcome the gods of Europe.’ Vista (35), 3 March 2020. Accessed on 6 August 2020.

[ii] Jim Memory, ‘Reconciliation in the Conflicted Continent.’ Lausanne Movement Europe Impact Group Conversations. June 2019. Accessed 8 September 2020.

[iii] Kirk Sims, “3 Things You Shouldn’t Expect in an Intercultural Church.” Seedbed. Accessed on October 26, 2015.

[iv] Lisa Lloyd, ‘The Mission of the International Church.’ Vista (26), January 2017. Accessed 6 September 2020.