Exciting stories of indigenous people repenting, believing in Jesus, being baptized, gathering together as a church and going out and planting other indigenous churches…that is what all missionaries want to write home about from day one upon reaching the field. Is that realistic? Well, with God all things are possible but in the event that He decides not to work that way let me share something that I hope will get you thinking as it has me.
We have been here in South Texas at the Center for Pioneer Church Planting going on 4 months now and one thing that has struck me in a huge way is the ENORMITY of the task of taking the gospel to unreached people. Yes, we can all think of some of the physical difficulties and absence of creature comforts ahead for us which are mind blowing in themselves. But think about this – missionaries to unreached people groups often have to be at least tri-lingual (English, trade language, tribal heart-language). Many times the tribal heart-language may not even be written.
Beyond language, what about the culture? Most of culture is made up of practices, knowledge, approaches to issues, understood taboos, understood responses and actions, etc that we do not even think about – we just do them. For example, in our culture if I am in a line at the grocery store behind a husband and wife and they turn around and we make eye contact I will probably nod my head and smile to acknowledge them. No big deal right? Well, there are many cultures that my doing that could very well be perceived as an advance at that man’s wife. If I am not aware of that I could have a major problem on my hands especially if I have a red-faced man yelling at me in a language I do not understand.
These cultural “problems” are only magnified exponentially when dealing with a more primitive culture whose customs, norms, and religion do not even fit into a Western paradigm.
I said this would be a “quick word” so I will end with these final thoughts: If our (Betsy and me) goal is to thrive on the mission field long-term we must be extremely cautious about entering a culture with all the “right” answers and the “right” way of doing things. Do not get me wrong, we do have the ultimate right answer – Jesus Christ and his gospel.
But in our desire to bring the gospel to these people who may not of ever heard of Jesus and may be seeing a white person for the first time we must approach them and their culture first as learners. Learning who they are, what they do, what they believe about life, etc will not only help us to live wisely and respectfully in their culture but it will also show a genuine love for them and help us to communicate the glories of the gospel in a way that they can understand. So, yes missionaries should be many things (i.e. church planters, disciplers, teachers of the Bible…) but one of the most important roles a missionary has is that of a learner. So, pray that the missionaries you and/or your church support are learning all they need to be effective in a foreign culture.