Archives For Missionaries

Missionaries Are People Too

Mark Beuving —  February 2, 2015 — 3 Comments

In class this morning, we discussed some of the challenges facing missionaries as they seek to plant churches in cross-cultural settings. There are many factors that make this difficult, but I want to share one factor that seems most relevant to those of us “at home,” whether because we are not overseas missionaries or because we haven’t left for the mission field yet. This factor is simple: unrealistic expectations.

I have no idea what comes to your mind when you think of missionaries, but I’d venture to say that most Christians have unrealistic expectations regarding missionaries. Paul Hiebert, a missiologist and long-time missionary to India, speaks to potential missionaries about these expectations:

“The public’s image of a missionary is a hardy pioneer who suffers great deprivations; a saint who never sins; an outstanding preacher, doctor, or personal worker who overcomes all obstacles—in short, a person who is creative, brave, sensitive, and always triumphant. When we are young, we almost believe that we can become such persons when we cross the ocean.” (Paul G. Hiebert. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985. Pg. 73)

Is that an accurate description of how you view the missionaries your church supports? Do you tend to see them as slightly super-human? These are the truly spiritual ones. They’ve figured life out, they’re willing to give up their dreams for the sake of Christ, they’re tough and brave and untouchable.

Ecuador

I’m guilty of often thinking of missionaries in these terms. To be clear, I do think that missionaries are extraordinary people. But that’s the thing—they’re still people. They’re obedient people, they are models of faith that we ought to follow, but they’re still human beings. So when we expect our missionaries to be idealized cowboys, we’re forgetting that they encounter the same struggles in life that the rest of us face. Not only that, but they face struggles most of us cannot begin to imagine as they seek to live and minister in a foreign culture.

So when we place these expectations upon them, or when they place the expectations upon themselves, it can have a big impact:

“It is not surprising, then, that we face depression, often severe, when we discover that we are still very human. Going abroad has neither changed our weak and sinful natures nor given us new talents.”

One of my students pointed out that it’s almost like we expect some magical transformation to happen on the airplane. But of course, missionaries arrive at their new mission field as human as ever, but with new fears, stress-inducers, and frustrations.

For those of us living “at home,” this is a good reminder that our missionaries are human. They need our prayers. They need support. They need us to be realistic about the real trials they face. They need us to be compassionate when they make mistakes or need extra help or fail to meet goals and deadlines. These missionaries are still part of the body of Christ, and we need to graciously share in their hard labor as much as we can.

And for those of us who hope to one day serve in a cross-cultural setting, it’s important that we get our expectations in order. Jesus is the only Savior, the only perfect human being, the only perfect missionary. He calls us to play an important role in his mission to redeem and restore, but accepting that calling does not necessitate perfection or superhuman capabilities. Be sure to remember that as you follow him to the ends of the earth.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of books on missions for a class I’m teaching. One insight just struck me as incredibly relevant to our Western society.

When a missionary plants a church oversees, he is often starting from scratch. As he shares the gospel, he begins to see lives transformed by the gospel. These new Christians have one spiritual advisor, counselor, and teacher in their midst: the missionary. Put yourself in his shoes. You spend years as the only one who teaches. You are a spiritual giant amongst baby Christians.

It makes sense that missionaries get accustomed to being the teacher, the one who feeds everyone else. It also makes sense that they have a hard time learning to relate to these new Christians as brothers and sisters, rather than as children. They get used to people needing them, but the concept of needing other people is foreign.

Here’s the tie in. I see this in a lot of American church leaders. Whether you’re on staff at a church, a Bible study leader, an evangelist, or you disciple people within your church, this tendency can be hard to avoid.

You fall into a teaching/leading role, and before long you’re used to being the one with the answers. You’re constantly preparing lessons, giving advice, and praying for people. You’re thankful that God is using you in people’s lives, and you’re honored that other people need you.

This is all fantastic. But be careful that you don’t get so accustomed to people needing you that you forget your need for them. Biblically, no Christian is isolated. No Christian is above the rest. No Christian is so spiritual that she has no need for other Christians. God certainly gives each of us unique gifts, and some of us will emerge as leaders. But every seasoned leader needs the body of Christ just as much as the baby Christian needs the body of Christ.

Don’t stop teaching and leading, but don’t imagine that your role as a teacher or leader exempts you from relying on the people around you. Be quick to learn from those who appear more immature. Relate to them in their weaknesses and don’t be afraid to share your own. Run your thoughts and concerns by those you disciple. Pray for them, and ask them to pray for you. Have them hold you accountable. Ask them what they’ve been learning and allow their insights to challenge and instruct you.

We should be terrified of seeming to be wise in our own eyes. As soon as we think we’ve got it all together, we can be sure that we don’t. So use every gift and every insight that God gives you to his glory. And remember that you are a part of the body of Christ, and that no part of the body—no matter how glamorous we think that particular body part is—can function apart from the rest of the body.

 

From the very beginning, Christians have had a difficult time deciding how to live out Jesus’ statement that we are to be in the world but not of it. What does that mean exactly? Certainly the fact that we are not of the world means that we cannot buy into everything the world is selling. There ought to be something that sets us apart from the world around us.

But what does it mean to be in the world? This is the difficult part, and Christians have answered the question in more ways than you can imagine. I certainly won’t resolve this tension in a short blog post, but I recently read some material that helped my own thinking on the issue, and I think it’s worth sharing.

In his excellent book, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, Paul Hiebert proposes three ways that the gospel relates to culture: The gospel versus culture, the gospel in culture, and the gospel to culture. These aren’t three separate approaches; they are three realities that must be held in tension with one another.

The Gospel Versus Culture

This emphasizes the fact that the gospel and culture are not the same thing. It sounds simple, but it’s an important distinction. We cannot afford to confuse our culturally specific ways of “doing church” with the gospel. If you were going to take the gospel to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, for example, how would you proceed? Would you pack up your church building, pews, pulpit, suits and ties, small groups, etc. and simply re-assemble these elements of the North American approach to church in the midst of the jungle? I hope not. Instead, I hope that you would pack your Bible, talk about the truth of the gospel with the jungle people, and then work with them on how the truth of the gospel should play itself out in the midst of the jungle. All that to say, we cannot confuse our cultural forms with the truth of the gospel.

The Gospel in Culture

This emphasizes the fact that the gospel must always be presented in a specific culture. There is no such thing as a-cultural communication—you cannot communicate truth without using language (which is a cultural phenomena), symbols (which are culture-specific), and a host of other culture-specific media. Even if you decide that you’re going to demonstrate the gospel through your lifestyle rather than your words, you still need to live out the gospel in a way that communicates what you want it to in that specific culture. The way you show love to your neighbor in one culture may be a huge insult in another. Jesus himself incarnated the gospel in the midst of Jewish culture using Jewish cultural forms. When the gospel spread to the Gentiles, the early Christians had to wrestle with the cultural implications (see Acts 15). All that to say, we must always make use of cultural forms when we communicate the gospel.

The Gospel to Culture

This emphasizes the fact that the gospel plays a prophetic role with regard to culture. It is not that the gospel and our culture stand on equal footing and work out some sort of compromise. Rather, the gospel stands in judgment over every human culture. Some aspect of every culture on earth will need to be changed in light of the truths of the gospel. If we look at American culture, for example, we can find many things that reflect important gospel truths, such as our emphasis on human equality. But the gospel stands in judgment over our self-sufficiency and the idol of comfort-at-all-costs. All that to say, the gospel calls every culture to be transformed and realigned with God’s truth.

So what does this mean for being in the world but not of it? It means that we can and should be in the world. We can live in the midst of our culture, listen to the same music they listen to, wear the same clothes they wear, and watch the same movies they watch—at least to an extent. There is much to be affirmed in the cultural expressions that we find around us. Though every person suppresses God’s truth, Paul is emphatic that every human being knows God’s truth (see Romans 1:18-25). Therefore, we should not be surprised to see elements of that truth springing up in secular culture (whether it’s the exaltation of companionship in Toy Story, a vision of the world set to rights in a Mumford & Sons album, or a warning against consumeristic propaganda in Brave New World).

These elements of truth in secular culture can serve as excellent bridges or points of contact for the gospel. Just as Paul connected with the Athenians through their altar to an unknown God, so we can connect with our neighbors through a host of gospel themes that occasionally run through secular art and media. Basically, these points of connection can be great conversation starters where we identify an important gospel truth and then engage in a discussion that pursues that truth further and deeper.

But the gospel has much to say to our cultural expressions. When Lady Gaga sings about being “born this way,” when Rage Against the Machine calls us to “take the power back,” and when Miley Cyrus invites us to let go of our concerns and simply “party in the U.S.A.,” the gospel stands ready to address these wrong ways of thinking and call us back to worshipping the one true God.

Of course, this type of cultural engagement is difficult. It’s messy. We will sometimes find ourselves in uncomfortable situations where we don’t know exactly what to say or do. But that’s why the Bible calls us to use discernment. The alternative is legalism, which is much easier. The easy way out is to simply ban all forms of culture, art, and media that don’t come from a Christian label or director. But if we choose legalism over discernment, then we will never have the privilege of watching the gospel transform our culture and—more importantly—transform the people who create our culture. So let’s not take the easy way out. Let’s be discerning to the glory of God.

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Mark Beuving

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