First Person Plural

Most of us change pretty dramatically after just a short time on the field. As we begin to identify with nationals, we are exposed to different perspectives (many of us for the first time) that we never really got from previous experiences or short-term trips. Right away, we start to see ourselves through other people’s eyes, and we can’t help but rethink some of what we’ve always believed about politics, social issues, and our faith. We are compelled to begin the process of determining what is truth and what is culture.

Even though we all go through this transition from our home culture to our host culture, it’s a lonely time for us, because we must go through it alone. Sure we try to relate our experiences to our friends and families back home, but how can we express the disillusionment, frustration, and doubt we struggle with? After all, we’re paid to be professionals. We ought to know our role, and we certainly should be beyond the basics. If we are open about these things, people get nervous; the Board of Trustees thinks we’ve gone liberal and makes a new policy to help straighten us out. If we seek the counsel of our stateside pastors, they inadvertently give us a distinctly American perspective. If we ask our Southern Baptist constituency, the people in the pews, we risk losing their confidence in us and therefore their support.

So the norm these days is to keep quiet. Don’t tell the people back home that we’ve changed our minds about alcohol and the death penalty and spiritual gifts. Don’t let them know we’re against the war in Iraq and embarrassed by the overweight, ignorant volunteers that come and perpetuate the American stereotype. But as far as I can tell, saying nothing hurts accountability and unity. So I blog. And fortunately, I’m not alone. Coworkers from around the world are writing posts about some of the same things. I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to me to read fellow IMB M’s blogging about the issues they face, and knowing that the people who send us can read about our experiences first-hand.

But the comments that followed my last post reveal the difficulty of communication between the field and home. Here are some reasons for the breakdown:

Learning living languages brings a new perspective to our understanding of biblical languages. If it takes me years to learn the subtle nuances of the twelve different ways to say the same thing in my host language (a language I’m immersed in), maybe I’m going to be a little skeptical of the preacher back home who claims to know the one true meaning of the original Greek of a biblical text.

We are consistently exposed to the spiritual enemy in ways we normally wouldn’t experience back home. On a daily basis, we come face to face with principalities and powers that have ruled these countries for generations. Even those strongholds that are familiar to us: bitterness, materialism, and idolatry, seem to have extra-sharp teeth out here. All we can do is hold tightly to the Holy Spirit. But if we talk about what we’ve seen, we’re labeled charismatic.

We are seeing strong and healthy churches born all the time. We learn more about the body of Christ from this adventure of being the church than we ever did by going to church in the States. We don’t miss one bit the politics, fund-raising, or programmed activities of the congregational churches we come from. These groups were started by the Holy Spirit and accountable to Him as they seek to obediently work out what it means to be believers in their own culture. But because these churches don’t fit the SBC mold, seminary presidents and big-name pastors back home are questioning our ecclesiology.

I’ve often heard that missionaries should just preach the gospel, and not worry so much about the culture. My time on the field, however, has taught me that the gospel is impossible to share or even comprehend outside the context of a culture. So I will keep seeking cultural translation of life in Christ. And as long as I have something to say, I’ll keep blogging about it.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.