This post is part of MC USA’s #BeTransformed series. Republished with permission from Leader magazine, a publication of MennoMedia. MennoMedia is the publishing agency of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Leer en español aquí.
Ertell M. Whigham is an associate pastor of Nueva Vida Norristown (Pennsylvania) New Life Mennonite Church and an Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) administrator, trainer and consultant. He enjoys spending time with his family — wife Patricia, three adult children and six grandchildren — and playing the alto saxophone.
The Bible has several examples of God changing or updating the name or descriptor of God’s servants because of their life experiences and the context of their calling.
I will change your name
In the Bible, when God changed a person’s name, it was usually to establish a new identity. In Genesis 17, God changed Abram’s name, meaning “high father,” to Abraham, “the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” At the same time, God changed Sarai’s name, meaning “my princess,” to Sarah, “mother of nations.” When Jesus first met his disciple-to-be Simon, Jesus changed Simon’s name, meaning “God has heard,” to Cephas/Peter, meaning “rock” (John 1:42).
When God changed people’s names, it signaled that they were destined for a new mission in life. The new name was God’s way of revealing a new aspect of the divine plan, which would be fulfilled through them.
Called to be a diverse body of believers
While possibly a stretch, by comparison, God’s call to Nueva Vida Norristown New Life (NVNNL) is changing, as our congregation is being transformed into God’s likeness. Given where and when we came together, becoming a diverse congregation was part of our mission and witness.
The story of our congregation’s formation is well known. In 1990, three Mennonite congregations in Norristown, with Black, Hispanic and white congregants, answered God’s call to bring their cultural and ethnic identities together in a new place and create a new identity, ministry and congregational structure. Our first identity statement read:
The calling of Norristown New Life is to:
- Worship the Lord in unity, as a diverse body of believers.
- Experience the transforming and gifting power of the Holy Spirit.
- Proclaim the gospel of reconciliation through Jesus Christ.
“Our descriptor of diversity was more about who we were than how we functioned.”
The purpose of this statement was to clarify why and how we exist as a fellowship. But for many years, NVNNL’s descriptor of diversity was more about who we were than about how we functioned. In other words, we were simply different people from different nations, tribes, ethnicities and languages, called together to worship and represent Jesus Christ. The primary manifestation of our diversity was connected to our worship services.
While our initial calling and promise from God can best be described as a parable of rich and hidden mystery (Matthew 13:34–35) about learning to love one another (John 13:34–35) and becoming one in Christ (John 17), our purpose was less intentional and more simply about being obedient and different for Jesus as a gathered community of believers. We didn’t strive to be diverse, multicultural or intercultural. Our decision was quite simply to be together and to allow that decision to be the expression of God’s plan and witness for our community. In the beginning, we didn’t think much about the function of being intercultural. We certainly did not understand what being intercultural meant.
However, that is no longer the case. The mystery continues to unfold. Along the way, we realized that God had shifted our calling “to be a diverse body of believers” who do all three things together: worship in unity, experience the Spirit’s transformation and proclaim the gospel of reconciliation. Another addition to our call was to clarify that we proclaim the gospel of reconciliation “in word and deed,” which needs to be expressed in interculturally competent ways. We are now conscious of our calling to be an “intercultural body of believers.”
Describing an intercultural church
One of the best contemporary descriptors of the intercultural church has been identified by theologian Safwat Marzouk in “Intercultural Church: A Biblical Vision for an Age of Migration.” My interpretation of Marzouk’s work is that intercultural churches bring people from various cultures together with an openness to learn from one another, giving equal value and power to each culture, preserving cultural differences and celebrating the variety of cultural traditions. Intercultural churches are defined by justice, mutuality, respect, equity, understanding, acceptance, freedom, peacemaking and celebration. People must be willing to leave the comfort zones of their personal traditions so they can embrace different styles of worship and community engagement. As intercultural churches interact and build relationships, they move from tolerating an “us and them” existence to embracing a vibrant “we are us” oneness. They grow together and are continually transformed by Jesus Christ!
This definition is also one of the best descriptors of who we are as Nueva Vida Norristown New Life on our journey as the transformed people of God. While we are in serious need of an ongoing plan to develop intercultural competence, much of the above definition is what we are, who we are, what we do, and how we do it. As imperfect as we may be, we are an intercultural church, shaped by God’s promise of an ongoing process: “That the one who began a good work among you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
While the term intercultural is a secular concept, the principles of God’s intention to both inform and transform us into the intercultural people of God are based on examples found throughout the Bible, such as Isaiah 2:1-4; Acts 1:8; 6:1-4; 1 Corinthians 9:19-23; and Revelation 7:9-10.
As we continue to find our way forward, God continues to provide clarity for why NVNNL exists. This God-given clarity is not only for our witness and service to the world but also for our witness and ministry within our fellowship.
While leading a public reading of our calling statement during a recent worship service, it occurred to me that we still express our call as “a diverse body of believers.” I stumbled over the phrase “diverse body.” Then I felt the Spirit’s nudge: “Nueva Vida Norristown New Life is much more than that!”
“We are an intercultural fellowship being shaped by God’s continuum of Spirit-led progress.”
I do not suggest by any means that NVNNL is the perfect church or that we’ve arrived. I dare say we are dysfunctional in many ways, but indeed, we are an intercultural fellowship being shaped by God’s continuum of Spirit-led progress.
By the time you read this, I trust that NVNNL will have taken steps to change the descriptor of our call by reflecting on the context of our mission, our ministry, and the biblical mandate for intercultural oneness in Christ. My proposal to our congregation is to live into this identity and purpose:
The calling of Norristown New Life is to be an intercultural body of believers that:
- Worships the Lord in unity.
- Experiences the transforming and gifting power of the Holy Spirit.
- Proclaims the gospel of reconciliation through Jesus Christ in word and in deed.
By God’s mysterious plan and grace, we are Nueva Vida Norristown New Life!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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