Nostalgia

Imagine that you move to a far-off place to live among a tribe of people of a culture very different from the one you grew up in. Here, you’re truly a fish out of water. They do everything differently here, and you don’t like it one bit.”Things are much better back home,” you complain. “Why can’t they just do it like that here?”

You publicly challenge the chief’s authority, explaining that he has too much power. You recommend that he limit his authority to only a few, vital tribal concerns, and that they institute free-market capitalism. You’re offended by the tribe’s customary dress, as loincloths and grass skirts are immodest. You recommend more appropriate attire. You scoff at their concern over the use of the land, you disapprove of their art, and you refuse to allow your children to play with theirs.

In this imaginary scenario, you’re a pretty bad missionary.

In matters of justice, the missionary must speak out. He should not be shy about calling sin what it is. In all things, he should demonstrate how his relationship with God through Jesus influences his every opinion and affects every aspect of his life. But to social ills, the missionary offers Christ alone as the solution. He recognizes that a society’s problems are merely symptoms of the underlying issue- that people are separated from their Creator, and utterly lost without Him. They will neither honor Him as God nor give thanks to Him. As the scriptures say, they have became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts have been darkened. Lost people will do the things lost people do. They are powerless to do anything else. Even if they were to muster the wherewithal to act like Christians, it wouldn’t get them any closer to God.

The missionary who puts effort into making his host culture more like his home culture is like the soldier who has become entangled in civilian pursuits. On the mission field, this makes you a bad missionary.

In the United States, though, it makes you a conservative.

Conservatives publicly challenge the authority of officials they disagree with. They’re champions of free-market capitalism. They constantly complain about immorality (which is rampant) in America. They scoff at society’s environmental concerns, disapprove of its art, and work to isolate themselves from the very people they’ve been placed among.

Across the country, evangelicals have come to identify with social and political movements that aim to preserve a culture that no longer exists. Nostalgia for the good ol’ days is no less counter-mission than the international missionary who longs to turn primitive peoples into Midwestern American suburbanites. Yes, we should participate in society and work for the good of our cities. We should vote our conscience, live out our values, and support those who seek to do good. It’s important to be well-informed. It makes sense that we would have an affinity for those who share our perspectives. We must be on our guard against the evil all around us.

But we can never forget that we are pilgrims and strangers. Our citizenship is not of this world. We are missionaries here, and our role is to show and tell people that Jesus alone is the answer to their God problem. In the midst of political debates, changing societal norms, and frustrating ignorance, it’s important that we not get sidetracked by trying to change the culture through anything other than the redemption of those to whom we’ve been called.

Everything we do is to that end. What neighborhoods we live in, what schools we send our children to, the cars we drive, the bond measures we vote for. You’re a missionary, just passing through. There are no points for surviving.

About E. Goodman

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