Article of the week: Bringing Heaven to Earth
12 February 2022
Major Jonny Smith reflects on the way his understanding of intercultural living has grown over the years
MY journey towards an intercultural desire and understanding started in 2001. I had moved to William Booth College in Camberwell, south London, to train to become a Salvation Army officer. However, I had baggage! For the previous 29 years of life, I had simply hung out with people who looked like me. The only understanding I had of life in a place such as Camberwell was through the newspapers, which I now see were incredibly misleading.
After two years of training – which also included getting married – my wife, Catherine, and I were appointed to Southwark Corps, where we were handed a diverse church community and a leadership team that was reflective of this. With my background it took much time – and patience from others – for my understanding of what was required to be part of a multicultural church to develop.
One of the key reflections I have is that there is a real requirement as disciples of Jesus to be willing to enter other people’s cultures, as much as we perhaps expect them to enter our own. I always say that this is not just an essential good idea for ministry in any setting, but a God idea lived out by Jesus. We see an example of Jesus living out an intercultural way in John 4, where he talks with a Samaritan woman.
As I began to pray, live out and preach about an intercultural way, I found it of crucial importance to find safe places to say how I was feeling and to ask many questions around cultural differences. Equally, I needed to encourage people to find safe spaces where questions and feelings that they had could be talked through.
Catherine and I were at Southwark for 10 years. There were incredible times and tough and challenging times, yet the whole journey has played a huge part in my passion and desire for intercultural mission.
Two pieces of Scripture have become important to me on this journey.
Genesis 1 talks about humankind being made ‘in the image of God’ (v27). As I have met people from all around the world, so my image of God has been expanded and gone from the white, long-haired and blue-eyed Jesus to a completely diverse one. What a gift God has given to us that his image is before us in any of the people we meet.
The other is Revelation 7, which gives a beautiful image of Heaven, where people from all different cultures come together and worship God – ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb’ (v9). Jesus made it clear to us that we are to pray for the Kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done ‘on Earth as it is in Heaven’ (Matthew 6:10). Therefore, we passionately need to be making Revelation 7 a tangible reality in our neighbourhoods. When people can see that the Church – the foretaste of what will be – is diverse, then I firmly believe that this gives our communities an incredible hope.
How they are in need of that kind of hope! I would challenge anybody reading this to observe the community in which your corps or church gathers. Ask yourself two questions. First, do those who gather to worship represent the wider community where they meet? And second, does the leadership team reflect those who are gathered? If the answer to these questions is no, I would simply encourage you to desire this intercultural journey and, in so doing, help Revelation 7 to become a tangible reality in your neighbourhood.
I am completely convinced that if we are to model the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth, then we need to be passionate about intercultural living. It is not enough to just tolerate one another, we need to be willing to enter each other’s spaces and we need to be willing to be mutually inconvenienced. When we do this, we start to create together a beautiful and larger story than the one we started with.
- This article first appeared in Racial Justice: What’s It Got To Do With Me?, which is free to download from ctbi.org.uk/racial-justice-sunday-13-february-202
MAJOR SMITH IS INTERCULTURAL MISSION ENABLER, THQ