Missions is cross-cultural, cross-geographic ministry. Such a statement implies distance, a space individuals and families must traverse. Understanding this explains why we no longer refer to children of cross-cultural workers simply as “missionary kids.” Instead, the missionary community has largely adopted the terminology of “third-culture kid,” or TCK.

This new vocabulary has a good goal. It’s meant to be descriptive, even instructive, of the reality such children experience living in three cultures simultaneously. They’re expatriates living abroad in a host culture. Yet the culture they inhabit is neither fully American (or whatever their nationality) nor fully that of their host country. Instead, their world of experience is some mixture of the two cultures, creating a distinctly third realm of experience.

Third-Culture Christians 

Interestingly, this mirrors the experience of every Christian. We’re born citizens of this world, citizens of a particular country, be it America or Greece or China or Australia. Upon our new birth, however, we acquire a second passport issued by the kingdom of heaven. Yet we do not fully inhabit this heavenly nation. With feet in both cultures, we live out our earthly days in a kind of third culture. We are, in a true sense, American Christians or Chinese Christians. We can see this reality expressed even in the language and liturgy of our worship, which is largely shaped by our birth culture.

Historically, when missionaries crossed cultures they often imported their home culture’s expression of worship into their new context, complete with organs and pews, suits and ties. We now attribute this to the superiority mindset of Western colonialism, perhaps even ethnocentrism. Such approaches have been maligned as arrogant, ignorant, and imperialistic. Like the outdated language of “MK,” those methods have largely been discarded.

Enter the C-scale. More and more missionaries today are migrating to expressions of worship and liturgical forms that are completely indigenous. The aim is to ensure that a given people group’s worship entirely reflects its own culture, with as tiny a Western footprint as possible.

But is it possible the pendulum has swung too far?

Of course, this phenomenon isn’t only present across the seas. It seems America has been employing target-culture-focused ministry for some time now. We’ve managed to take subcultures and make them the defining narrative for whole communities of faith. It wouldn’t take much imagination to envision a NASCAR church or Paleo Diet Bible study. As much as colonialism affected previous generations, one has to wonder how much consumerism drives our own. The former represents cultural imposition, the latter cultural capitulation.

But there’s nothing new under the sun. Churches defined by home or host culture have existed for centuries in America. Sadly, race and politics have often exercised more influence in Christian communities than the gospel—and that to our shame. The local church is meant to be a culture all its own—a multinational assembly, an outpost of the kingdom, an embassy of heaven, a family of new creations in a decaying world. As such, it should never have roots too deeply within any single culture.

Creating a Third Culture

How does this affect our mission? Gospel ministry—cross-geographical or otherwise—shouldn’t simply be about encountering and adapting to a target culture, but creating a third culture.

Over the years, we missionaries have shown ourselves adept at creating single-culture churches. We first made them in the image of the worker’s birth culture. Increasingly, we’re making them like the host culture or, in the case of some modern movements, incorporating them wholly into existing cultural and religious forms.

But Peter and Paul addressed the early church as sojourners and strangers. Early Jewish Christians were ostracized by synagogue leaders and Roman governors alike. Whether in home or host culture, they were outcasts. With the confession of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, a new community identity was formed—both separate from the synagogue and separate from the pagan temple.

Like TCKs, the world Paul inhabited was part Roman, part Jewish, and wholly Christian. A third culture.

Five Simple Suggestions

So what would it look like to foster genuine third-culture churches? What would it look like to disciple third-culture Christians?

Here are a few simple suggestions.

1. Root them in historic Christianity and seek to live in present community.

We can and should teach church history in church. This has a way of grounding the present and the future in the past. We, as a church, should be able to identify with the communion of the saints throughout space and time and simultaneously focus on the needs of our own local body.

2. Speak the language of the people and of the Bible.

All good ministry is contextualized; it makes clear its message and uses intelligible methods. As such, we must speak the language of the people to whom we minister. But we also must teach them the language of the Bible—a vocabulary and grammar that will be foreign in any setting.

3. Sing hymns ancient and contemporary, Western and indigenous.

Successful contextualization in the missionary context isn’t necessarily the development of purely indigenous worship. That would assume nothing is to be gained by historic hymnody or the psalms. When we sing ancient songs we’re joining saints of old, learning from them in the worship of our common Savior. But the church must also press into new forms and new styles with new words to enliven our ancient faith.

4. Express appropriate loyalty to the home or host nation while living for all nations.

It’s perfectly good and right for Christians to love and support their country of residence, whether birth or host nation. But such loyalties should never infringe on our ultimate allegiance to God’s kingdom which, by its very nature, compels us to love and serve all nations and peoples of the earth.

5. Find commonality in the cross, not in racial, social, economic, or political singularity.

While some may fashion ministry models according to the homogeneous unit principle—gathering people naturally attracted to each other through shared characteristics—we must gather those who are naturally dis-attracted to each other but have found common forgiveness and life in Christ.

Culture Worth Crossing

Ministers of the gospel, to one degree or another, are all cross-cultural workers. That means we’re sent to inhabit and nurture a unique third culture—an alternative society with its own history and language and traditions and homeland and community.

And that’s a culture worth crossing into.