Dr. Bill Selvidge
Professor of Intercultural Studies
Director of Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies Program
I love being with people who are just learning about Christ for the first time, especially when they come with little or no pre-understanding of the gospel or the church. This can be true in the U. S., but is especially so with people from various parts of the world. Recently I was in a small group composed mostly of people new to the faith, and to the U. S. The topic was prayer. One of the first questions following the study was, “Sometimes I am in bed when I remember that I should pray. Is it OK to pray in bed, in my pajamas? Is that respectful?”
My first thought was, “Oh, sure. You can pray anywhere, in any position, at any time.” After all, it doesn’t matter because God looks at the heart …” But as I thought about my answer, it would probably be acceptable in a setting where informality and equality are valued, even in settings where there is clearly a leader and those being led. But that answer would reflect assumptions and values of the people I grew up around. For the people among whom the questioner grew up, showing respect is always important, especially if that person is a very significant person.
I love being around people who have new, fresh questions about what it means to follow Jesus. Not long after that small group meeting, the one who asked the question received Christian baptism. In recounting her journey toward faith she asked one of the most fundamental questions anyone can ask, “Is there a God?” I might have answered THAT question with indications for God’s existence and perhaps something of the history of God’s self-revelation (both proper responses in the appropriate setting). What helped my friend answer this question though was a Christian fellowship she attended where she was “touched by the joy in a lady’s face and the peace in her singing. That scene of freedom from worry and of happiness moved my heart and made me curious about what power and faith she had.”
I am challenged when I’m around people who ask these most basic questions. They help me reflect on my faith in fresh ways. They remind me of how significant even the smallest encounter with people of faith can be. They remind me also of how the gospel finds its way into the farthest (and nearest) corners of where people live.
Andrew Walls, distinguished historian of world Christianity, notes that unless Christianity keeps crossing cultural boundaries with the gospel, and translating itself there, it loses its essence as Christian (The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 29 infra), He identifies a certain vulnerability that the Church faces as it crosses barriers and translates the gospel yet again. On the one hand there is the opportunity to see the gospel blossom in fresh ways, but there is also the possibility of misunderstanding and even rejection.
Being with people who are just learning about Jesus, who have questions I’ve never thought of, makes Walls’ vulnerability very personal. Can I give a good answer? Am I adequate for the encounter? In the very questions themselves there is also an indication that God has already been at work in ways of which I have no idea. And I am humbled to think that even as I respond to others, God is refreshing me.