As God’s people, we are called to love God and to love our fellow human beings: It is our Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37–40). Our Great Commission given by the resurrected Jesus is to go to “all nations” to make disciples (Matt. 28:18–20).
Keeping both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission necessitates building relationships with people across lines of race, nationality, class, and economic status. My experience as a pastor has engendered my deep conviction that Christians cannot bear effective witness to the truth of the gospel if we do not clearly demonstrate a conspicuous display of Christian unity across diverse cultures and classes. The attitudes and actions within Christian community must stand in sharp contrast to either polite indifference or our ability to convince the world that Jesus is who He said He was (cf. John 17: 23).
What Jesus Desires
Crossing cultural barriers is never comfortable. It always requires a compelling motivation strong enough to overcome both the internal and external resistance we encounter. Loving obedience to Jesus is the compelling motivation for all believers. What Jesus wanted more than anything else for His followers—both then and now, according to His prayer—was unity (John 17: 20–23a). Barriers must be overcome.
Proclaiming God’s infinite love for all people will look like a joke if our proclamation is accompanied by hate, divisions, and discrimination. This is because the death of open hostility toward those from different cultural or economic backgrounds. In this age of identity politics, discrimination, class distinction, and political tribalism, it is particularly important for Christian people to demonstrate a better way.
This is a time of unique opportunity for all of us who follow Christ. Building relationships across lines of culture and economics is not merely a “nice thing” to attempt now, but also a necessary focus of our engagement in the contemporary fight against what the Bible describes as “principalities and powers” of this world that war with the ways of Christ (see Ephesians 6:12). This witness is both vital to our identity as true disciples of Jesus (John 13:35) and, as Jesus indicates in His high priestly prayer to His Father, it is critical to Jesus was not only about reconciling human beings to God, but also about reconciling human beings to one another (Eph. 2:14–18). Genuine Christ-followers who embrace the death of Christ as the source of their identity must necessarily embrace in the atonement the reconciling of people with fundamental differences to one another. Being a Christ- like disciple means being joined with Christ as a reconciler of people to God and to one another (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:14–21).
What These Relationships Look Like
Healthy relationships across cultural and economic lines must evidence mutual fellowship, mutual respect, mutual empathy, mutual truth-telling, mutual understanding, and intentional hospitality. The clear mission of Christian community in the contemporary context is to demonstrate that our love for one another is practical and gives evidence of reconciliation. We should demonstrate that what we share in common—the transforming experience of the love of God in Christ—takes precedence over those elements of culture and economics that would otherwise keep us apart.
The centripetal “pull” in Christ must be greater than the centrifugal “push” of cultural and economic difference. Intentional action, uncomfortable as it may be, demonstrates that reconciliation is the goal and that this goal can be achieved through Christ.
One way we can do this is through Intentional fellowship. This simply implies that we must provide intentional opportunities for cross cultural gatherings. Scripture tells us that gathering together uniquely welcomes the presence of Jesus and should be encouraged (Matt. 18:20, Hebrews 10:24–25).
We can also encourage mutual respect, which means that we must be willing to listen to one another. That is the only way we can learn about our varied perspectives. As writer Stephen Covey has explained in habit five of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.®”
We all want to be understood in order to feel respected and significant. The pathway to being understood is intentional listening. People different from us, made in the image of God like us, and redeemed by the blood of Jesus just like us have a story to tell, and we indicate that they are important when we take time to listen to them.
We can also practice mutual empathy, which means to intentionally “walk in the other person’s shoes.” This means that we openly listen to their life experiences. This is a reflection of the incarnational ministry of Jesus. It goes beyond intentional listening to intentionally seeking (as best we can) to feel what the other person is feeling. It is trying to experience the world as they are experiencing it. This degree of empathy signals a validation of their experiences and opens the door for authentic sharing and mutual trust.
Mutual truth-telling and mutual understanding involve recognition that we are all interdependent, regardless of our backgrounds or economic status. We are then open to receiving from one another, fully cognizant that we all have needs, as well as valuable things to offer to each other.
An idea of hegemonic dominance, in which one’s self-understanding is that of intrinsic superiority, militates against truth-telling. Truth-telling flourishes when we honestly confront our own assumptions and prejudices. This vulnerable—even confessional—posture, in which one is able to receive as well as to give, is an indispensable expression of humility and is vital for fostering the hearing and speaking of truth.
Finally, one of the hallmarks of the people of God in Scripture is the recognition of their responsibility as representatives of the God to welcome the disadvantaged and the “stranger.”
This is intentional hospitality from a biblical perspective. The marginalized and the awkward “outsider” are consistently seen as the objects of God’s kindness. The New Testament even reveals some of these “outsiders” as potential representatives of God’s actions (the Good Samaritan), or even the bearers of the divine presence (Matthew 25:31–46).
Intentional hospitality as encouraged by Scripture not only has the potential to break down barriers and turn strangers into lifelong friends, but it may also unknowingly open up an act of heavenly fellowship (Hebrews 13:2).
Healthy cross-cultural relationships are ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:3). He is the one who ignites this motivation for reconciliation within us. The Spirit of God clarifies our vision of Christ, so we are not satisfied with comfortable excuses and shallow tokenism but are moved to authentic practical demonstrations of the Christian mission in the world. The Holy Spirit empowers us to bear witness to Jesus by energizing us to love people who are different from us—reflecting God’s love for all of His children (Romans 5:8).