Believers often look to the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul as the model for missions. He did, after all, travel around telling people about Jesus and leave a trail of networked churches in his wake. But Paul isn’t the best picture of a missionary.
Paul didn’t seem to0 concerned with contextualization- mostly because he stayed within his own context. Sure, he moved in and out of different societies: Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans. But these were the subcultures he lived among well before his call to mission. We don’t see Paul having to learn different languages, for example, his Hebrew served him well among the Jewish community, and his Greek allowed him to communicate everywhere else. He traveled within the Roman Empire, where, as a Roman citizen, his was the dominant culture. For the most part, Paul was already a member of the tribes he ministered to. That’s not to say that he wasn’t a missionary; let’s just consider him more of a “home” missionary than a “foreign” missionary.
The best example of a missionary? Jesus.
The Incarnation was the greatest mission trip ever. When the eternal Word became a human being, He left His home to live in a very different place in order to communicate God’s love for mankind. He didn’t hang on to his divine cultural identity, instead he traded it for the humiliation of being a helpless human child. We consider it “extreme” when an American missionary adopts indigenous dress; I wonder how long it took for God to get used to the confines of the human form. Some missionaries spend years learning the local language- Jesus probably took what, two, two-and-a-half years? He didn’t even have a foreign accent!
Jesus’ whole life was about context. When He was tempted by the Enemy, he could have smited (smote?) him with lightening bolts from His fingers, but He didn’t because that’s not how we did things in human culture back then. When He was nailed to a cross, He could have given the signal for a million angels to swoop in and take Him down, but He didn’t, because He thought it was important to suffer on our terms. Without the credibility of being recognized as God, Jesus entered the human conversations around religion, social norms, philosophy, and politics. He did this so that we would believe in Him.
Of course, Jesus also gave humanity glimpses of his culture of origin. He healed and forgave people, and He bucked even the most deeply ingrained customs if they contradicted His message. Jesus stood up against social inequality, dead religion, oppressive leadership, and political ideologies. He followed our rules for things like time and space and the need to breathe air so that we would be able to relate to Him and begin to understand what He was saying. He played the part, but only until the time was right.
At just the right moment, Jesus broke the cultural rules. Big ones, too- like death and gravity and walking through walls. He did this because it was time to show that was was, indeed, not from around here. He had come for a reason, motivated by love and a clear mission. That makes Him the best missionary of all.
Merry Christmas, dear reader.