“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”a
This verse is a favorite among those of us who are raising our children in the Christian faith. We care so much about the spiritual development of our children, in fact, that an Amazon.com search for “Christian parenting books” returns over 17,000 results. But among this myriad of books, there are few that specifically address how to train up our children to effectively live out Jesus’ Great Commission – to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) – in a post-Christian, religiously pluralistic, and multiracial society.
Although we’re conditioned to think of foreign countries when we read “all nations,” the Greek word for nations in this passage is ethnē, the plural form of ethnos, from which we derive the word ethnicity. In scripture, this word has been translated elsewhere as “race,” “Gentiles,” and “people,” but in general it indicates “people joined by practicing similar customs or common culture.”1
When I take note of the people groups that exist within a 5-mile radius of my home, the proximity of “all ethnē” hits me between the eyes. Nearby are a Unitarian spiritual center, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and a mosque; American citizens of all races, of socioeconomic circumstances ranging from impoverished to wealthy; and refugees and immigrants, both documented and undocumented, from around the world.
How do I prepare my kindergartener to embody the love and teachings of Jesus to all these different ethnē around us?
Cultural Adaptability: Becoming All Things to All People
The age of Christian dominance in the United States is passing, but we don’t have to greet this change with fear and loathing. We can learn and take comfort from the fact that believers of the first century lived and shared the gospel in a multi-cultural and non-Christian context. Paul describes in the following passage what making disciples in such a world looks like:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law… so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law… so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.b
Notice Paul does not require others to adapt to him or to enter his world; rather, he adapts to them and enters theirs. We see him do this with all kinds of people in the book of Acts: skeptical Jews,c people suffering from disability,d working class Gentiles,e and wealthy polytheistic Greeks.f What makes him so adaptable?
The Keys to Cultural Adaptability: Cultural Self-Awareness and Incarnation
Intercultural Studies expert Sherwood Lingenfelter explains that learning how to enter the mindset of people groups other than our own starts with taking a personal inventory of our own cultural “labels.”3 Paul does this very thing when he writes out all the dimensions of his identity: g,h
- circumcised on the eighth day (religious)
- of the people of Israel (nationalistic)
- of the tribe of Benjamin (tribal)
- a Hebrew of Hebrews (ethnic/racial)
- a Pharisee (sectarian/denominational)
- faultless in legalistic righteousness (behavioral)
- a zealot, former man of violence and persecutor of the church (temperamental)
- transformed by God’s revelation, love, and forgiveness (redemptive)
He recognizes God as the author and sanctifier of all these identity dimensions. As a result, he has neither pride in his earthly pedigree and achievements, nor shame in his profound moral and spiritual failures.
Why a cultural inventory, though?
Well, by nature, we tend to gravitate toward those who are like us and avoid those who are different. An inventory helps us become culturally self-aware, conscious of, and honest about where our natural affinities and loyalties lie. A more radical step is necessary, however, for us to achieve cultural adaptability and overcome exclusionary tendencies. That step is incarnation. Lingenfelter explains:
The practice of incarnation (i.e., a willingness to learn as if we were helpless infants) is the first essential step toward breaking this pattern of excluding others… To follow the example of Christ, that of incarnation, means undergoing drastic personal reorientation. [We] must be socialized all over again into a new cultural context. [We] must enter a culture as if [we] were children – ignorant of everything, from the customs of eating and talking to the patterns of work, play, and worship.3,i
When Paul proclaims Christ to Jews, he operates fully in his Jewish identity and uses his extensive knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the prophesied Messiah.j When he addresses Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at the Areopagus, however, he sets aside his Jewish identity. He doesn’t even quote the Hebrew scriptures. He quotes Epimenides and Aratus instead – two Greek philosophers with whom his audience is familiar – even though in their works, “God” and the being in whom “we live and move and have our being” refer to Zeus. Rather than accusing them of false religion, he uses these pagan writings as a springboard from which to reveal the true nature of God in Christ.2,k
Developing Cross-Cultural Competency in Ourselves and Our Kids
Research over the last decade has revealed that children as young as 6 months of age begin noticing and trying to understand the meaning of skin color and other physical characteristics, and that by 3 years of age, their preference for people of their own race is already fairly established.4 Therefore, helping our children develop the capacity to recognize their own racial biases so they can be empowered to love people of all ethnē is as much a matter of Christian parenting as teaching them not to lie, steal, cheat, and covet. Like most aspects of discipleship, it’s less a matter of technique and more a matter of cultivating in them a heart for lifelong incarnational living. And like all aspects of parenting, what our children need from us exposes where we fall short and need God’s grace for transformation. Just as I can’t teach my child patience if I’m always losing my temper, I can’t teach my child to love and be incarnational toward people of all ethnē if I’m not personally modeling it, whether it’s with Muslims, atheists, universalists, blacks, whites, Latinos, impoverished people on government assistance, or undocumented immigrants.
Paul read Epimenides and Aratus in order to learn about the beliefs and mindsets of polytheistic Greeks. Because he did so, he was prepared to give a contextualized response to the men of Athens when they asked him to give the reason for the beliefs he had.l Figure out what you need to read in order to humbly learn about your various neighbors. Which ethnē live in your community or city? Research their history. Read books written from their points of view. Think and pray about what relationships outside your comfort zone you need to develop and what culture-/class-/ethnocentrisms you need to shed in order to become incarnational like the Son of God, who shed his “Godness” and reduced himself to human flesh for our sakes.i As you work toward incarnational living yourself, you’ll develop an increasing storehouse of wisdom to help your children do the same.
Here’s to us all living the Great Commission lifestyle more faithfully!
 “éthnos.” HELPS Word-studies, ©2011. http://biblehub.com/greek/1484.htm
 “To the Unknown God.” Bible History, ©2013. http://www.biblehistory.net/newsletter/the_unknown_God.htm
 Lingenfelter, Sherwood. Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships. Baker Academic, 2003.
 Bronson, Po; Merryman, Ashley. NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. Twelve: 2011.
- Proverbs 22:6
- 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
- Acts 9:20-25
- Acts 14:8-10
- Acts 16:25-40
- Acts 17
- Philippians 3:4-6
- 1 Timothy 1:13,14
- Philippians 2:6-8
- Acts 13:14-41; 17:2-4; 18:28
- Acts 17:22-34
- Acts 17:19-21; 1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 4:2