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One Water, Many Bowls: Tony Thomas Discusses Cross-Cultural Ministry with Church Planters

“We are offering Christianity in a Western cup and India rejects it. But when we offer the water of life in an Eastern bowl, then our people will recognize it and take it gladly,” wrote Cyril J. Davey in The Story of Sadhu Sundar Singh. Adding some nuance to this quote, church planter Tony Thomas explains that contextualization is not ultimate, but it is an important and biblical means that God uses to communicate the gospel.

At the October 2023 gathering of the Tennessee Valley Presbytery Church Planting Network, Tony discussed the role cultural understanding plays in spreading the gospel and growing healthy churches. He said, “Too often, we’re giving the life-giving water of Christ to people in cultural cups that are hard to understand and embrace instead of doing the hard work of understanding others’ cultural bowls.”

Since God is not a physical, finite being, He is not limited to expressing himself in finite ways. Tony explained, “He is supra-cultural. He is only ‘water.’ He is not confined by any narrow cultural bowl.”

Humans, however, are both spiritual and physical and therefore both supra-cultural and culture-bound. Tony calls this “water in a bowl.”

Of his own cultural experiences, Tony calls himself a mutt. His parents immigrated to America from India in the 1970s. His Chicago neighborhood was made up of many ethnicities. In college, where he had many Indian friends, he developed a heart for Hindus and Muslims. He also joined InterVarsity, a majority White campus ministry.

Tony’s ministry experience (in America and internationally) spans Korean, Filipino, Taiwanese, Japanese, Indonesian, Latino, Vietnamese, and Black & African ethnicities and cultures. He’s been an ordained pastor in the PCA since 2016, so he’s also familiar with White, Southern, PCA culture.

Sent by Perimeter PCA, Tony and his wife, Marilyn, are planting Joy of All Nations Church north of Atlanta. While on staff at Perimeter, Tony led a city-wide South Asian prayer movement, and the family developed diverse relationships inside and outside the church.

His vision is for more minority-led multi-ethnic churches, but he also doesn’t want Joy of All Nations or other multi-ethnic-focused plants to become monoethnic. “We do want to look like heaven, but Joy of All Nations’ particular expression allows Indians and East Asians especially to lead. Our hope for that is not just to create a home for these minorities (anyone can show up at our doors we’ll love just the same) but to be on mission and reach more ethnic minorities who are not already in churches.”

In the Tennessee Valley Presbytery, some of our church planters are entering Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, and others are entering small, rural towns that have their own distinct culture. For all, Tony said, “The better we can be aware of cultural trappings and blindspots we have, the better exegetes of Scripture we can actually become.”

When presenting at the network gathering, Tony provided helpful definitions and distinctions for ethnicity, race, and culture. According to Tony, ethnicity is “a generally shared ancestral line that often has shared physical characteristics along with culture and language. Biblically, we seek to honor and celebrate ethnicity while recognizing our essential unity of a single line of human ancestry in Adam and Eve.”

Race “in more recent historical usage was more of a social construct to divide people by physical characteristics (i.e. White, Black). Biblically, we’d prefer to consider ourselves ‘one human race,’ especially to combat the history of ‘race’ used as a social construct to discriminate against people on the basis of race.”

Culture is “a way of life (thinking, feeling, acting, customs, traditions, norms, etc.) for a group of people.”

Tony outlined three ways we can respond to culture: Reject what is sinful and irredeemable, modify what can become spiritually redeemable, and accept what is spiritually redeemable. He also encouraged both minority and majority cultures to recognize that we are all shaped by cultures that are both beautiful and broken.

He pointed to Romans 14 where Paul dealt with Jews and Gentiles within the Church who faced conflict due to their cultures. Romans 14:5 reads, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”

Romans 14:13 continues, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”

Romans 14:19 urges, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” These statements from Paul certainly apply to us today in our churches, our presbytery, and our nation.

When it comes to churches that seek to build a multi-ethnic congregation, Tony noted that ethnocentrism can become a sin. “I think the language of safety has understandably been used a lot by minorities, but I don’t think the church is only supposed to be safe. The gospel leads us into the uncomfortable and calls us across ethnic lines.”

While not every church, pastor, or follower of Christ is called specifically to multi-ethnic churches, Romans 14 makes it clear that we are all called to pursue peace in the body of Christ, and the body of Christ is not made up of people who look exactly like us.

Churches will naturally reflect the community in which they’re planted. Tony said, “I think it’s wrong to criticize people for ministering where God has put them. If we’re in a diverse place and we’re not at least making attempts to reach the neighbors around us, we’re not doing a great job of advancing the Kingdom.” However, a church in a community that is almost all one ethnicity will look like that ethnicity.

Tony encouraged churches to celebrate what other churches are doing. “One local church is not going to do everything in the Kingdom of God. We need each other. People have certain gifts, churches have certain gifts. Church plants, for example, are going to advance the gospel in ways that existing churches don’t, which is something to celebrate.”

Tony concluded, “Where does the power to embrace cultural bowls that look different than mine come from? It comes as we look to Jesus who was the greatest cross-cultural missionary of all. He left the perfection and comforts of heaven to incarnate our human fleshly culture and ultimately die to Himself (and His preferences) so that we could have the fullest, most abundant of life.”

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