Every time we return from a visit to our son and his family in the San Francisco area, I am struck by the multiracial, multi-ethnic, multicultural nature of the population there.

I realize, of course, that the same thing is happening on an accelerating scale across the country. When I go to a program at my grandchildren’s elementary school in Tennessee, the principal struggles to pronounce names that are Asian, Hispanic and Indian.

Churches in my little part of the world are only beginning to address this cultural diversity. Most of the time, the strategy is to create churches that are targeted to a specific racial, ethnic or language group and translate the North American understanding of the gospel for that group.

This ignores the fact that some things do not translate well! Often this strategy does not take into account the vast differences within a particular language group. The strategy also does not consider that we could learn something from dialogue with these groups that might help us to communicate the gospel more effectively to them.

For example, if we consider the experience of certain Hispanics, we might discover that some biblical themes would resonate with their experience. Those who have grown up in virtual slavery would appreciate the liberation themes of Exodus. The oppressed often identify with the struggles that the young church in New Testament times experienced with the Roman Empire.

In working with Asians, we would do well to understand both the cultural impact of their professed faith and the rich tradition of meditation and contemplation we find there. How does the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible address some of the issues with which Buddhism and other oriental religions are concerned? Are there commonalities?

A friend has developed a model that uses teachings in the Koran about Jesus as a beginning point for evangelistic dialogue with Muslims. In so doing, he is using a valuable tool that is readily available to his audience.

We have much work to do if we are to learn how to exegete the biblical message in order to present it in a way that can be understood and embraced by those whose experiences are so different from ours. Of course, we can ignore this opportunity, but such a choice leads to irrelevance and the church cannot afford to be irrelevant in the 21st century.

Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.

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