abstract illustation

Mission-in-Movement: From Culturally In Between to Bridge Persons

In a Korean-American family, a man and his teenage son watched a soccer game on TV. The father asked his son, “Which team do you support, the American team or the Korean team?” After thinking for a while, his son replied, “I am not sure. I will just support the winning team.” As the man supported the Korean team passionately, he felt a sense of inexplicable betrayal at his son’s reaction. Until now he had believed, vaguely, that his son might share the same thoughts and feelings as him regarding Korean ethnicity. Instead, his son’s answer made him think that he was acting like a bat, a dishonest and selfish animal according to the children’s stories Koreans are raised reading. In these stories, the bat acts as a mouse in a group of mice during the nighttime while acting like a bird in a group of birds during the daytime. Although it takes advantage of both groups, the bat does not reveal its half-identity to them. This man was born and raised in the Korean culture, in which he was taught to categorize people around him as “us” and the others as “them.” Thus, he felt betrayed because his son did not back the same team and would support only the winning team, regardless of nationality or culture. He even thought that his son was just pursuing his own interests.

Due to cultural issues in a deep and broad sense, this problem of difference in thoughts between the man and his son cannot be solved simply by judging who is right or wrong. This essay indicates that assimilation theories, which have been developed by those who are more familiar with a certain culture, cannot accurately analyze multicultural people’s experiences. It also provides more detailed explanations for the scenario mentioned above based on the “in-between” nature of life and clarifies how multiple cultural identities, less applicable in the past, are more pervasive in our global, urbanized society. More fundamentally, I suggest, Christians and churches are a particular type of “in-betweeners,” with a missional and bridging role granted by God, inviting them to participate in his work of saving the world.

Lessons from Assimilation Theories and Intercultural Studies

Multiple-culture people are generally raised in environments characterized by the coexistence of two or more cultures. In such environments, people from these varied cultural backgrounds interact with and exert influence on one another’s culture. Some people adopt both languages and cultural aspects. Assimilation refers to the phenomenon in which a cultural group interacts with and is influenced by other, especially more dominant, groups. It occurs in most areas in which different ethnic races or groups meet one another frequently. Immigrants in developed countries are representative cases of assimilation. Due to their convenient accessibility, numerous assimilation studies have focused on ethnic minority immigrants in developed countries.

Assimilation studies in the United States began at the Chicago School before and after WWII. The US had accepted a significant number of immigrants from Europe by that time. These immigrants maintained their own culture at first, but they gradually assimilated into American society and culture. Based on this phenomenon, urban scholars initially considered assimilation as a process of people becoming part of the host culture.1 A melting pot theory emerged, which stated that immigrants’ European aspects would be absorbed into American society over time. However, these assimilation theories reflecting a one-sided process encountered exceptions as immigrants became more diverse in the US. For example, unlike European immigrants who assimilated quickly because of their common features like race, language, and culture, Hispanic and Asia-Pacific immigrants who came to America after WWII appeared to be slow in adopting the host culture. Some immigrants tend even to revive their ethnic identity as their numbers grow rather than simply getting absorbed in the host culture.2

This does not mean that immigrants unilaterally assimilate into a host culture or keep their original culture. It can be said that some immigrants hover in between those who are entirely assimilated into the host culture and those who continue to maintain their original culture. Labeling them as culturally “half and half” is inappropriate, as the expression implies that someone lacks both ways. In fact, those who adopt more two or more cultures live more or less integrated, and some of them experience advantages compared with those who persist primarily with their original culture. Many of these in-betweeners manage their lives in a unified manner without confusion and do not find their conditions particularly problematic.

Furthermore, in-betweeners do not see the need to prioritize certain cultures or groups but instead recognize they can benefit from deploying their different cultural resources wisely and strategically.3 From this view, the teenage son mentioned in the above example of a Korean-American family might recognize that his country would be both Korea and the US, either of them, or neither of them. Nevertheless, he would not consider himself as contradicted or confused. These cultural in-betweeners often work toward accomplishing personal goals rather than staying “stuck” somewhere in the middle. Consequently, immigrants create their own culture, affect host culture, or change their original culture.4

Today We Are All In Between

As countries in the world have been more exposed to urbanization, globalization, and an increasing number of immigrants, multiculturality has become extensive. Even those born and raised in monoculture environments are affected by these trends. In this regard, the son in our scenario above, who is able to communicate with his parents by speaking to them in Korean, finds this intergenerational exchange more challenging than interacting with those in his same age group on the opposite side of the earth, something he and his contemporaries are accustomed to.

Our society has become highly connected through urbanization, advanced media, and the fourth industrial revolution. As independent social groups have connected and synergized, the world has become more diversified and plural.5 Generally, social groups have their own unique culture, purpose, value system, and style. Notably, professional groups have developed their significantly exclusive discursive codes. Yet even these groups remain connected with the social flow, and have to be in order to thrive. Bridge persons play important roles in this process. Such in-betweeners link those from different cultural backgrounds, encourage communication, and provide social cohesiveness. With multiple cultural perspectives, they are better equipped to facilitate the interweaving of different cultural backgrounds and conditions.

In this sense, in-betweenness is reflected in not only those born and raised in other countries or in the lives of immigrants, but also in bridge persons living in plural societies. A significant number of groups can work together despite different interests and fields to which they belong because in-betweeners connect these groups.

In-Betweeners as Vital to the Mission of God

The Bible shows various examples of in-betweeners. For instance, Paul and Timothy had multiple cultural identities because they were Jews raised in the diaspora: outside Palestine in other parts of the Roman Empire. When the disciples were gathered in one place on the day of Pentecost, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues. The Jewish visitors to Jerusalem from the diaspora who were watching them also lived in multiple cultural zones. In the Old Testament, many figures, including Joseph, Daniel, Mordecai, Nehemiah, and Esther, were exposed to multiple cultures as ethnic minorities amid ancient empires. They were neither marginalized as a third people nor culturally assimilated, but drew from their backgrounds to enable the flourishing of God’s community. Some saved Israelites from being annihilated, mediated divine messages to imperial rulers, acted as peacemakers for conflicted ethnic groups, and enabled fertilization across cultures and nations. In other words, these biblical persons served as in-betweeners linking God and his people and connecting different groups.

The competence of in-betweeners, however, can be abused in self-serving and destructive ways. Sometimes in-betweeners use their several identities like bats to double their profits and deceive others. Some may live selfishly and lead double lives rather than serving as bridge persons.

Despite the possible misuse of multiple cultural capabilities, God has sent his people to serve as in-betweeners throughout society. Christians can help conflicting groups reconcile and share with others as needed. God has distributed bridge persons everywhere to enable the sharing of what is good, true, and beautiful across cultures. These “sent ones”—the language the Bible uses, but which modern people have called “missionaries”—have connected cultures, countries, and language groups around the world. Others in receiving environments (we call them neighbors) have welcomed and supported immigrants who have moved to new places. In-betweeners help people with broken relations to reconcile; encourage those who misunderstand, distrust, and hate each other due to generational, class, or other differences; and accompany as equals ethnic minorities whom we meet every day in schools or workplaces.

Unfortunately, those who have been trained to be full-time pastors and missionaries have been mainly selected as church leaders. Therefore, churches have separated themselves from the wider society and become isolated groups with their own religious culture. We fail to recognize bridge persons sent by God throughout our society because of such a limited ecclesiology. Even those sent by God are not aware of the reasons they have been dispatched to the broader community. It appears we do not realize our role as in-betweeners and that churches do not know how to support these in-betweeners either. Therefore, churches should see God’s vision to the in-betweeners and encourage their missional vocation.

There are new opportunities for cross-cultural relations today. God is constantly working to save the world and provide justice and reconciliation. For this purpose, he has also sent unexpected bridge persons: in-betweeners. If before in-betweeners were not accepted because they were seen as ducks in the world of ordinary people, perhaps henceforth they might be appreciated as swans in the kingdom of God.

Written By

Enoch Jinsik Kim serves as associate professor of communication and mission studies at Fuller. A native Korean, Dr. Kim initiated the School of Intercultural Studies’ Korean Doctor of Missiology program. He has nearly two decades of missionary experience in China, and has served as a missionary with organizations that include Hope Mission and Frontiers. His writings focus on Muslims in northwestern China, with articles published in Korean Missions Quarterly, International Journal of Frontier Missions, and Missiology. He is the author of Mission Strategy in the City: Cultivation of Inter-ethnic Common Grounds. He is founder of the Cross Cultural Training Center (CCTC), where he served as executive director (2003–2011) and taught courses on Muslim evangelism, mission theology, communication and strategy, acculturation, and anthropology, among others, to missionaries and representatives from a Chinese house church seminary.

In a Korean-American family, a man and his teenage son watched a soccer game on TV. The father asked his son, “Which team do you support, the American team or the Korean team?” After thinking for a while, his son replied, “I am not sure. I will just support the winning team.” As the man supported the Korean team passionately, he felt a sense of inexplicable betrayal at his son’s reaction. Until now he had believed, vaguely, that his son might share the same thoughts and feelings as him regarding Korean ethnicity. Instead, his son’s answer made him think that he was acting like a bat, a dishonest and selfish animal according to the children’s stories Koreans are raised reading. In these stories, the bat acts as a mouse in a group of mice during the nighttime while acting like a bird in a group of birds during the daytime. Although it takes advantage of both groups, the bat does not reveal its half-identity to them. This man was born and raised in the Korean culture, in which he was taught to categorize people around him as “us” and the others as “them.” Thus, he felt betrayed because his son did not back the same team and would support only the winning team, regardless of nationality or culture. He even thought that his son was just pursuing his own interests.

Due to cultural issues in a deep and broad sense, this problem of difference in thoughts between the man and his son cannot be solved simply by judging who is right or wrong. This essay indicates that assimilation theories, which have been developed by those who are more familiar with a certain culture, cannot accurately analyze multicultural people’s experiences. It also provides more detailed explanations for the scenario mentioned above based on the “in-between” nature of life and clarifies how multiple cultural identities, less applicable in the past, are more pervasive in our global, urbanized society. More fundamentally, I suggest, Christians and churches are a particular type of “in-betweeners,” with a missional and bridging role granted by God, inviting them to participate in his work of saving the world.

Lessons from Assimilation Theories and Intercultural Studies

Multiple-culture people are generally raised in environments characterized by the coexistence of two or more cultures. In such environments, people from these varied cultural backgrounds interact with and exert influence on one another’s culture. Some people adopt both languages and cultural aspects. Assimilation refers to the phenomenon in which a cultural group interacts with and is influenced by other, especially more dominant, groups. It occurs in most areas in which different ethnic races or groups meet one another frequently. Immigrants in developed countries are representative cases of assimilation. Due to their convenient accessibility, numerous assimilation studies have focused on ethnic minority immigrants in developed countries.

Assimilation studies in the United States began at the Chicago School before and after WWII. The US had accepted a significant number of immigrants from Europe by that time. These immigrants maintained their own culture at first, but they gradually assimilated into American society and culture. Based on this phenomenon, urban scholars initially considered assimilation as a process of people becoming part of the host culture.1 A melting pot theory emerged, which stated that immigrants’ European aspects would be absorbed into American society over time. However, these assimilation theories reflecting a one-sided process encountered exceptions as immigrants became more diverse in the US. For example, unlike European immigrants who assimilated quickly because of their common features like race, language, and culture, Hispanic and Asia-Pacific immigrants who came to America after WWII appeared to be slow in adopting the host culture. Some immigrants tend even to revive their ethnic identity as their numbers grow rather than simply getting absorbed in the host culture.2

This does not mean that immigrants unilaterally assimilate into a host culture or keep their original culture. It can be said that some immigrants hover in between those who are entirely assimilated into the host culture and those who continue to maintain their original culture. Labeling them as culturally “half and half” is inappropriate, as the expression implies that someone lacks both ways. In fact, those who adopt more two or more cultures live more or less integrated, and some of them experience advantages compared with those who persist primarily with their original culture. Many of these in-betweeners manage their lives in a unified manner without confusion and do not find their conditions particularly problematic.

Furthermore, in-betweeners do not see the need to prioritize certain cultures or groups but instead recognize they can benefit from deploying their different cultural resources wisely and strategically.3 From this view, the teenage son mentioned in the above example of a Korean-American family might recognize that his country would be both Korea and the US, either of them, or neither of them. Nevertheless, he would not consider himself as contradicted or confused. These cultural in-betweeners often work toward accomplishing personal goals rather than staying “stuck” somewhere in the middle. Consequently, immigrants create their own culture, affect host culture, or change their original culture.4

Today We Are All In Between

As countries in the world have been more exposed to urbanization, globalization, and an increasing number of immigrants, multiculturality has become extensive. Even those born and raised in monoculture environments are affected by these trends. In this regard, the son in our scenario above, who is able to communicate with his parents by speaking to them in Korean, finds this intergenerational exchange more challenging than interacting with those in his same age group on the opposite side of the earth, something he and his contemporaries are accustomed to.

Our society has become highly connected through urbanization, advanced media, and the fourth industrial revolution. As independent social groups have connected and synergized, the world has become more diversified and plural.5 Generally, social groups have their own unique culture, purpose, value system, and style. Notably, professional groups have developed their significantly exclusive discursive codes. Yet even these groups remain connected with the social flow, and have to be in order to thrive. Bridge persons play important roles in this process. Such in-betweeners link those from different cultural backgrounds, encourage communication, and provide social cohesiveness. With multiple cultural perspectives, they are better equipped to facilitate the interweaving of different cultural backgrounds and conditions.

In this sense, in-betweenness is reflected in not only those born and raised in other countries or in the lives of immigrants, but also in bridge persons living in plural societies. A significant number of groups can work together despite different interests and fields to which they belong because in-betweeners connect these groups.

In-Betweeners as Vital to the Mission of God

The Bible shows various examples of in-betweeners. For instance, Paul and Timothy had multiple cultural identities because they were Jews raised in the diaspora: outside Palestine in other parts of the Roman Empire. When the disciples were gathered in one place on the day of Pentecost, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues. The Jewish visitors to Jerusalem from the diaspora who were watching them also lived in multiple cultural zones. In the Old Testament, many figures, including Joseph, Daniel, Mordecai, Nehemiah, and Esther, were exposed to multiple cultures as ethnic minorities amid ancient empires. They were neither marginalized as a third people nor culturally assimilated, but drew from their backgrounds to enable the flourishing of God’s community. Some saved Israelites from being annihilated, mediated divine messages to imperial rulers, acted as peacemakers for conflicted ethnic groups, and enabled fertilization across cultures and nations. In other words, these biblical persons served as in-betweeners linking God and his people and connecting different groups.

The competence of in-betweeners, however, can be abused in self-serving and destructive ways. Sometimes in-betweeners use their several identities like bats to double their profits and deceive others. Some may live selfishly and lead double lives rather than serving as bridge persons.

Despite the possible misuse of multiple cultural capabilities, God has sent his people to serve as in-betweeners throughout society. Christians can help conflicting groups reconcile and share with others as needed. God has distributed bridge persons everywhere to enable the sharing of what is good, true, and beautiful across cultures. These “sent ones”—the language the Bible uses, but which modern people have called “missionaries”—have connected cultures, countries, and language groups around the world. Others in receiving environments (we call them neighbors) have welcomed and supported immigrants who have moved to new places. In-betweeners help people with broken relations to reconcile; encourage those who misunderstand, distrust, and hate each other due to generational, class, or other differences; and accompany as equals ethnic minorities whom we meet every day in schools or workplaces.

Unfortunately, those who have been trained to be full-time pastors and missionaries have been mainly selected as church leaders. Therefore, churches have separated themselves from the wider society and become isolated groups with their own religious culture. We fail to recognize bridge persons sent by God throughout our society because of such a limited ecclesiology. Even those sent by God are not aware of the reasons they have been dispatched to the broader community. It appears we do not realize our role as in-betweeners and that churches do not know how to support these in-betweeners either. Therefore, churches should see God’s vision to the in-betweeners and encourage their missional vocation.

There are new opportunities for cross-cultural relations today. God is constantly working to save the world and provide justice and reconciliation. For this purpose, he has also sent unexpected bridge persons: in-betweeners. If before in-betweeners were not accepted because they were seen as ducks in the world of ordinary people, perhaps henceforth they might be appreciated as swans in the kingdom of God.

Enoch Kim (headshot)

Enoch Jinsik Kim serves as associate professor of communication and mission studies at Fuller. A native Korean, Dr. Kim initiated the School of Intercultural Studies’ Korean Doctor of Missiology program. He has nearly two decades of missionary experience in China, and has served as a missionary with organizations that include Hope Mission and Frontiers. His writings focus on Muslims in northwestern China, with articles published in Korean Missions Quarterly, International Journal of Frontier Missions, and Missiology. He is the author of Mission Strategy in the City: Cultivation of Inter-ethnic Common Grounds. He is founder of the Cross Cultural Training Center (CCTC), where he served as executive director (2003–2011) and taught courses on Muslim evangelism, mission theology, communication and strategy, acculturation, and anthropology, among others, to missionaries and representatives from a Chinese house church seminary.

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