Reaching out across cultural barriers to engage internationals in the States is a daunting prospect for many local church members. They are unsure of culture and know little about the customs of their new neighbors. Furthermore, they (rightly) do not want to offend and they want to be able to communicate clearly so that their hospitality and message make sense. These are all admirable feelings. However, local churches (and local church members) cannot let such inhibitions keep us from our Great Commission responsibility to reach out to the people groups that are settling all around us.
Instead, I want to suggest one quick help in beginning ministry to people groups around your local church. In short, we need to look for gatekeepers.
What is a gatekeeper?
People groups communities in your city work just like other social circles in many ways. It is not uncommon for networks of people to develop in a city. In fact, you belong to several. You have a church community that is a network of people. In addition, you belong to other groups, like work or the community that surrounds the school where your children attend. Cities are full of networks like this that all exist on top of each other and run in different circles.
These social circles also form around cultural norms. In other words, groups of people that share a culture will likely clump together around that shared identity. They think the same, they communicate the same, they understand each other, they believe the same things, and they like the same kinds of food and fun. Of course they will develop social circles.
Every social circle has at least one gatekeeper. These gatekeepers hold a certain amount of sway in this community of people. They often understand the group dynamics, know who is “in” and who is “out” of the community, and serve as a connecting piece that holds the group together.
As an example, there is a large community of West Africans in the city where I live. This community is close-knit in many ways, and there is a group of men that serve to organize it. They meet regularly, plan events, and provide necessary cohesion for the group’s existence.
Often when working with people groups in the US, the gatekeepers may be the ones in the community that speak English well. They will serve a key function for the rest of the group to help them navigate a world where everything is in a foreign language.
Gatekeepers are a pathway for ministry. They can connect you or your local church to the rest of the community. And, being introduced to the community through a gatekeeper will most likely mean people will be more open to you. Furthermore, many will speak English and can help you bridge language barriers early on in the process.
Gatekeepers are a pathway for ministry. They can connect you or your local church to the rest of the community. And, being introduced to the community through a gatekeeper will most likely mean people will be more open to you.
How to spot a gatekeeper
If you or your local church want to engage people groups in your area, be on the lookout for gatekeepers. They are a great place to start when engaging people groups. So, how does one find a gatekeeper?
As mentioned above, gatekeepers carry sway in a people community. This will allow you to spot them as you begin to interact with the group. While this list is not exhaustive (and all may not apply in every setting), look for people who:
Speaks English Well
You do not have to prove the gospel, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Your job is just to share it. But they also speak their group’s heart language well. Certainly, many second generation and all third generation members of a people group community will speak English. After all, they were born here. However, simply speaking English does not make someone a gatekeeper. They also need to speak the language of their group fluently. In the end, you will want someone who can communicate well with you and with people at the very center of the community that may not speak English at all. For ministry to occur, you will need people that can communicate to all of the group.
Are Prominent at Cultural Events
If the community has public events, festivals, or services, then look for people that are planners and organizers. These people will be well-connected to the heartbeat of the community. As an added bonus, they may be the first people excited about your interest if it comes through their event. These are great resources when asking questions for cultural acquisition. They often help pass on the narrative of the community through the events they schedule. They will likely be people “in the know.”
Are Religious Leaders
This almost goes without saying in Islamic people groups, as well as many others. Imams at the mosque and priests at a temple are usually gatekeepers to a community. And, before you let your inhibitions keep you from sharing your faith with these people because of their religious position, they are often the first to be interested in religious dialogue. Now, I don’t mean a religious argument. Keep it civil. You do not have to prove the gospel, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Your job is just to share it.
As you start trying to engage people groups, look for these kinds of people and you may find a gatekeeper into a whole community. Before you know it, you’ll be getting invited to the group social events, or asked to give your opinion on religious matters.
Keep your eyes peeled and be quick to share the gospel!
Editor’s Note: Keelan Cook is a senior church consultant with the Union Baptist Association in Houston, Texas, and is working on a Ph.D. in missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He spent time as a church planter in West Africa with the International Mission Board (IMB) and doing ethnographic research in Washington, D.C., with the North American Mission Board (NAMB). His focus is urban and diaspora missions. This originally appeared on blog.keelancook.com.
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