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Churches embrace the opportunity to minister in a ‘third culture’ world

Groups moving in and out of different cultures is a dilemma for leaders.

By Sam S. Rainer

They are the young family from South Africa that just got transferred to Florida to head up a new division of a Global 1000 company. They are the American military family who has lived in Germany for more than a decade. They are the young family who was transferred to India, adopted two children while living there, one from India and the other from China. They now have five children from three different countries, and each family member has lived in at least two countries.

These families represent a large segment of people: “third culture” worlders. Third culture is a sociological term used to describe a person who has spent significant time in another culture, thus incorporating their birth culture with a second culture and creating a third culture.

The term third culture was coined in the 1950s when sociologists studied the expatriate community in India. But a growing number of people in the North American context are now part of the third culture. They have mixed the dominant first culture with another second culture to form a unique third culture. This third culture world is not another homogeneous bunch, but rather a diverse, heterogeneous combination of people.

It has always existed

Where is home? To some degree, the third culture world has always existed. People migrated and incorporated differing cultures into their family units. During the past few decades this phenomenon has become quite visible in North America. The following are some of the ways this culture views their world.

Neither/nor: In some ways, the third culture exists in a neither/nor world. It is not completely the world of their parents’ culture. Nor is it the world of the culture in which they were raised. As a result, people from the third culture develop different life patterns than those raised in one context.

Either/or: This culture of people does not see the world in terms of either/or. Divergent views can coexist in this culture. They do not feel as compelled to choose either one side or the other. Cultural contradictions do not rub abrasively with them. For example, in most cases third culture worlders are physically different than others around them. They have a different ethnicity, yet they assimilate much easier in the dominant first culture than true outsiders.

Both/and: Dave Gibbons, founding pastor of Newsong Church and author of The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church (Zondervan 2009), best explains how this culture is both/and. He explains, “We’re seeing the emergence of people and leaders who can live in the intersections between divergent ideas; people who understand the fringes and the margins yet can weave in and out of multiple cultures, honoring each context yet without alienating those on the fringes.” This culture is not white or black, rich or poor, East or West.

Where are churches? It’s a great question and somewhat of a dilemma. Culturally speaking, churches cannot become “both/and.” We are called to be among the people and in the culture, but we cannot become the culture from which we are set apart. Conversely, it’s not wise for the church to be “either/or.” A person’s culture is not itself a bad thing. It just happens to be where they are, and we are called to meet them there. And the mission of churches is obviously not “neither/nor.”

It’s best for a church to see the emerging third culture world is an opportunity. Clearly, people in this culture are more inclined to live with conflicting values and beliefs; they tolerate inconsistencies. But they also have fewer walls, which mean they might be more inclined to hear the Gospel. And it might just be the consistency of God’s truth that grabs their hearts and changes their entire view of the world.

Sam S. Rainer III is an author and president of Rainer Research. [www.rainerresearch.com]

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