More on the Multiethnic Symposium: (Arranged?) Marriage, Family, and Children

Mason Okubo at MES
Mason Okubo speaks at the Multiethnic Symposium, January 26, 2016.

Editor’s note: Andy Bartelt provides the second of two reflections (here’s part one) on the Multiethnic Symposium held at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, January 26-27, 2016. Videos of Symposium presentations can be viewed at or downloaded at iTunes U.

The metaphor of an “arranged marriage” struck the audience as apt, and stuck with me for further thinking. The context was the Multiethnic Symposium, held January 26-27, and the speaker was Rev. Dr. Mason Okubo, the first graduate of the Cross-Cultural Ministry Center (originally the Ethnic Pastor Certification Program) of Concordia Seminary at Concordia University-Irvine. He currently serves as senior pastor at Immanuel First Lutheran, West Covina, CA and is deeply engaged with both the theory and the practice of multiethnic ministry, which is a blessed way of life in southern California.

His first observation was a clearer identification of the issues and problems: first, that we not too simply equate a person with a culture. Cultural stereotypes are, well, stereotypes, which are observable generalizations. But cross-cultural ministry must go beyond generalization to the real person, with his/her own identity. And that takes time, patience, humility, listening, and understanding. We are all persons, individuals, who are part of our cultures, but at heart, we are all simply human creatures in need of a relationship with our Creator.

His second point moved in the other direction: culture does matter. The claim that one “does not see color” is simply false and foolish. We can’t ignore this reality as we recognize cultural differences and seek to understand people as persons who are different from us, as we are to them. Yes, as we are different, too. We Anglos tend to see “cross-cultural mission” from the perspective of the dominant culture.  All of us are inculturated, and the challenges cut both ways, but most often the burden is on the minority culture to fit in and adapt to the majority, who often assume that “this is our church, and this is our culture, too.” We do have a culture, but it is God’s church, and it is for all nations.

So how do we “just get along”? As an arranged marriage, we are placed together by a third party who has done so by design. Dating is fun, and we get to know each other. Often we find good reasons not to proceed beyond this stage, because we learn where we are not compatible; we discover things we don’t like about the other. But marriage is so much more. We are committed to one another into a shared life, even a shared one-flesh union, despite our differences. My wants and needs become secondary to the other, to a greater shared identity. And if this is arranged by none other than God himself, our Creator and Redeemer, the commitment is not only to each other but also to our God and Lord who put us together to serve his purposes of the body of Christ: unity even in diversity, sharing in his union of his own body and blood, and even promulgating and propagating a future into the next generation.

In pondering this analogy, I wondered how our own cultural understanding of marriage, more and more a decision based on personal choice and individual fulfillment, makes the comparison to an arranged marriage just too strange. But in fact, the question really goes to the social role of marriage and the family. Our general western culture has come a long way from a commitment to family, starting with a stable marriage (yes, between a man and a woman), held together by the shared forgiveness of sins in Christ. One could wax eloquent here, but the point that came to my mind in listening to this presentation was the God-ordained function of marriage for the greater good of his creation, not just for me.

Sometimes our attitudes toward “others” even in our church life may well reflect a twinge of self-centeredness as one “spouse” or the other: we want things our way. When we are placed into an “arranged marriage” that is determined to serve a greater good, my personal tastes and desires become secondary to that greater goal, in this case a church that reflects the common cause of all creatures, no matter what cultural identity and personality, in receiving salvation and truth as a gift from the Creator himself.

Recently our synodical president has noted that the single most significant reason for a decline in our church body is the birth rate among Anglos.  This is nothing new, and similar statistics underlay the Ablaze goals years ago. But the current emphasis on God’s ordering of life around the family and children is important and timely. If not arranged marriages, God has clearly arranged for marriage and family.

But the scope is surely larger than simply revitalizing the number of Anglos for our synod, important though that be. God has arranged his marriage between Christ and his bride, the church, and in this church we are united with those not necessarily like us. But this marriage does not depend on any unity other than the body of Christ and the confession of faith, both quae and qua. One of the profound truths of kneeling with others at the altar is that such communion is not based on our human likes and dislikes, on our choices or our determination of compatibility.  We need to live into this marriage, retaining our own identities but also living with, and learning to love, the different identities of all those who are in this together, by God’s design and grace.

And maybe there will be a vital next generation of Christ’s church and even of our synod, not only of and for Anglos but for those of every nation and tribe, people and tongue.





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