The Emergence of a Third Culture World

Sam Rainer

January 27, 2009

Dave Gibbons at the Out of Ur blog raises the topic of “third culture” in a fascinating post. You can read the complete post here. 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 is typically attached to children who spend large portions of their developmental years outside of their parents’ home culture.

Historically, third culture children were from military or missionary families. As a result of globalization, however, more children of varied backgrounds are emerging. Gibbons points to our newly elected president as an example of a third culture child:

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, to a White mother from Kansas with has Irish and English roots, and a father, from Kenya. He studied in Indonesia, Hawaii, California, New York, and Boston. His experience has both urban and suburban, he’s engaged cities and villages, he’s been both rich and poor.

Gibbons challenges the church to respond to this third culture:

While the church is still talking about diversity or homogeneity, city or suburban initiatives, rich or poor, post-modern or modern, Gen Y or Gen X, attractional or missional, the world has changed the conversation. The focus is no longer either/or but both/and. 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.

It’s a third culture world. How are your third culture skills? President Obama is just the beginning of a whole new wave of leaders who will have significant impact in a world where the rules have changed and are changing. Is your church, your staff, your team ready?

It’s a great question and somewhat of a dilemma. Culturally speaking, the church 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, I don’t think it’s 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.

Perhaps 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 means they might be more inclined to hear the gospel. And it might just be the consistency of God’s Truth that grabs their hearts.

17 comments on “The Emergence of a Third Culture World”

  1. millerisms says:

    Great post. I think there is a third culture growing in the church world.

  2. Chad Vce says:

    Interesting post, Sam. In one sense, this trend runs counter to some of the teaching that I have received from such authors as Aubrey Malphurs and Ron Sylvia. Many of the new church models, including the Purpose Driven paradigm, hold that pastors/planters should focus on homogeneous target audiences, as you alluded.

    It seems to me that the increasing presence of blended families in our churches means that we can expect to see more people from a third culture. This begs the question of how the church should respond — and whether the singular focus of newer church models will continue to be appropriate and effective. It will depend on how pervasive the trend becomes, but to communicate the gospel effectively may require broadening the church’s focus (in terms of its forms, not functions).

  3. Ray says:

    Trying being a Native American or Aboriginal Canadian! sometimes it’s a third culture, sometimes it’s mutually exclusive experiences. Most of us who end up going to church have to act white to be accepted and we can’t talk about being Indian at all! And if we tell our friends or family that we go to church, sometimes we have a hard time being accepted by our own family. The church has missionized natives for 500 years and has really never dealt with this issue. How funny that immigration by non-Americans is driving the discussion about the First Americans!

  4. Micah Fries says:


    I’m more than simply intrigued by this 3rd Culture concept. We had Dave in our church last October and the more he and I talked, the more interested I have become. Obviously the 3rd culture concept that Gibbons addresses is not all that new, but it certainly seems to be new to the US church, at least on a wholesale level.

    Historically speaking, however, guys like Hudson Taylor had plenty to say about 3rd culture living. Maybe it’s time for the American church to reconsider the implementation of effective missiology at home, rather than simply applauding it overseas?

  5. Sam Rainer says:

    Chad – I believe the trend will become pervasive enough to warrant significant attention from the church. It’s present in my own congregation. My wife and I ran today with a South African who wants to take us to a cricket game and eat meat pies – at the cricket club down the road from our church!

  6. Sam Rainer says:

    Ray – it is my prayer that acceptance in the church is not based upon socioeconomic, ethnic, or family backgrounds, but rather based solely on the fact that the church is the body of Christ. It’s this unity in diversity that makes the church so great!

  7. Chad Vice says:

    Ahh, I believe I may know that South African (Johann or Mark?). I can’t say I have tried a meat pie yet, though my worship pastor from up north was from England and kept trying to convince me to try one. Or how about blood pie? 🙂

    Florida is such a cosmopolitan melting pot… to effectively engage the culture is a challenge, to say the least.


  8. Sam Rainer says:

    Micah – I could not agree more. We are all missionaries, living as sent people and joining God on His mission.

  9. DerRen says:

    Well-written piece. Relevantly, as many nationally influential voices have repeatedly noted, Obama is part of Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X. Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a lot of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) are specifically referring to Obama, born in 1961, as part of Generation Jones.

    Great op-ed on exactly this topic in yesterday’s USA TODAY:

  10. kdb1411 says:

    Great post. You have one of the most articulate blogs I read, and I read many.

  11. Mark Leatt says:

    Please excuse the simplicity of this statement, but surely the Church is by definition a third cultural “person”. We’ve all spent years living in the world and then Christ meets us where we are and we say yes to Him and we move into His Kingdom culture.

    When we move in, we meet up with all sorts of people that we otherwise would not have had anything in common with and are able to work through our pre-conceived notions so that we can learn to live life as He intended.

    Anyway, this is the theory. In practice, people often put Church into another little box and build walls around it and only allow things inside that feel familiar. They miss out on the opportunity to get to know the many facets of God that their protected lives have never been exposed to.

    So don’t worry about looking too hard to find people like me as an example of a third cultural person, all you need to do is look at the person two seats away from you and ask God to show you the walls between you and them and then ask for His wisdom to learn more about God because of the differences that you see and to grow closer to Him and to your neighbor.

    Believe me, that person may have grown up in the same city, with the same socioeconomic background, culture, etc, etc and you will still find that they are not the same as you. There are differences there that you can learn from.

    Most importantly, the meat pies are delicious. Stay away from the “Black Pudding” — that’s not a South African thing and frankly it sounds disgusting (see how narrow minded I can be!)

  12. Sam Rainer says:

    Mark – very wise words, my friend. Thanks so much for dropping by and sharing your thoughts. And I’m looking forward to some meat pies!

  13. Mark Leatt says:

    Just thought of an illustration… As a foreigner, I could have chosen to insulate myself and my family from this new culture that we found ourselves living in. I could have made friends with only people from the same country as me, home schooled my kids and made a big deal of celebrating the old holidays just like we used to, etc, etc. But that is difficult.

    In stead, we choose to live within society. Took time to find out how this new culture stuck together and found ways to work within it, keeping what we liked from both and finding ways to deal with the parts that we didn’t like from either.

    Same applies in Church. You can decide to be a part of the body and mix your DNA with the DNA of the Church. Or you can decide to insulate yourself from those around you. Problem is that many times, just like in your own body, the new “cell” that does not mix in ends up being treated like a virus and gets hammered with antibodies trying to kill it or make it conform. This makes the new cell feel like it doesn’t belong and it moves on to find another host or just stops trying. (I’m no bioligist, so don’t take this analogy too seriously.)

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