The "Saviors"

This post was going to be about the “Saviors.” I was going to write about the well-intentioned missionaries who come to the field thinking that their arrival somehow brings salvation to whatever unreached people group they have selected. The ones who feel needed, in my opinion, are missionaries that do not belong on the mission field.

I know. I know. Some of you were hoping for a post called “The Bloggers.”

In what has proven to be too long a story arc, I have outlined two “types” of missionaries that I think should not be on the mission field. These were taken from my personal experience. Some readers have anticipated the big reveal I hinted at in the first post: the Professional, the Lifer, and even the “Savior-complex” missionary that shouldn’t be on the field is me.

On a regular basis, I am tempted to try to make this ministry to which God has called me into a career. The Board hired me as a “Career Missionary,” and with that comes some pressure to professionalize what amounts to obedience. Sometimes it’s out of pride: “Hey, I’m special. Not just anyone can do this job.” But usually it’s out of the awkward embarrassment I feel when someone asks, “So, what do you do?” So much of my identity is wrapped up in my answer that question that I feel this constant need to justify the fact that I receive money to tell people about Jesus. But my time on the field has taught me that church planting is not a job, but a calling. It’s an intentionality that the churches back home graciously underwrite. But then I go to a meeting or write a new personnel request, and I slip right back into the professionalism that only serves to separate me from nationals and other believers.

I am very much a product of the Southern Baptist Convention. Mission Friends. Royal Ambassadors. Centrifuge. God called me to cultural translation of the gospel when I was in high school. By the time I graduated I had decided my career path: I was going to be a missionary. So here I am, a Lifer with the IMB. Because of my exclusively Southern Baptist education, I am not qualified for any “real” job. I am extremely grateful for the support of the organization that sends and maintains me, but I have become fully dependent upon the Board for everything that I have. Housing. Stipend. Insurance. I couldn’t begin to answer the question of what I would do or where I would do it if I weren’t doing this. Unfortunately, such dependence sometimes breeds complacency. I know what’s expected of me, and there are times I’m tempted to do only that.

My motivation for being here changes pretty regularly. There are times when
I pity the people around me here, but not in a good way. On a really bad day, I have caught myself feeling very superior. As if the reason for the lostness here is that the people are too stupid to find Jesus, and it’s such a good thing that I’ve finally arrived to set the straight. My savior complex should disqualify me from service.

This “series” began as a journal entry. I was venting my frustrations with some coworkers, and dreaming of building the “perfect” church planting team. I was writing about the Professionals, the Lifers, the Saviors, and the Whiners (don’t ask) when I was convicted of being and doing those same things that I resented so much about my fellow missionaries. I’ve come to believe that many of the characteristics that mark “someone who shouldn’t be here” aren’t brought to the mission field, they’re picked up here. Sometimes we’re tempted by laziness, other times by pride; all of them, I think, are defense mechanisms for dealing with our strange lives.

I really am convinced that not all believers belong on the mission field. Not everyone is cut out for it. I’m intrigued with that idea, because in never really occurred to me. And though I have known coworkers that have exhibited some of these same characteristics and, I suspect, struggled with these same attitudes and tendencies, I realize that judging them is the Pot calling the Kettle black.

Lifers

I was home from college for summer break, and our pastor began a sermon series on the book of Romans. When I returned home for Christmas, he was on chapter 2. I’m convinced that’s why our church wasn’t Calvinist. I never thought I’d post a “series” of posts. I guess I’ve never had a single coherent thought that would call for it. (Not that I do now, mind you.) But here I am, posting what will be part three of my “Some of Us Shouldn’t Be Here” “Series.” How many parts does “Left Behind” have?

If the Professionals are the most visible missionaries that shouldn’t be on the field, the Lifers are the most common. Imagine a person who grows up in the American Christian subculture: youth group, visitation, mission trips, Sunday School. He responds to the invitation to consider “Full-time Christian Service.” Twice. When it’s time to go to college, he chooses a fine Southern Baptist institution, and majors in missions. Then he’s off to seminary for the MDiv. He takes his first pastorate at the age of nineteen, marries at twenty, and has three kids by the time he reached the IMB’s minimum age requirement of 24. He makes contact with a Candidate Consultant, answers all the questions right, and is appointed for missionary service. He prayerfully selects the field to which God is calling him from the Board’s list, and the next thing he knows, he’s on the ground as a career missionary. In many ways, he’s prepared for this his whole life: he has the degree, the “experience,” and the endorsement of his home church. He’s a Lifer.

I call them “Lifers” because while these folks actually worked very hard to get to the mission field, they only do just enough to stay on the mission field. Their label comes from the fact that if they can just stay beneath the radar, not draw too much attention, they can be supported by churches back home for life. Never mind that they don’t have the gifting, people skills, or work ethic to be church planters. Ignore their inability to detect differences between their host culture and the American culture they miss so much. Overlook the fact that they don’t have any friends back home, either. We, the Convention, called them to full-time service through our altar calls and missionary slideshow guilt trips. There is great need, and they answered the call.

Sure there are drawbacks. Separation from family. Monthly Ministry Reports. No Dr. Pepper. The whole “living in a foreign country” thing. But for lifers, it’s worth it. You get paid to do… well, no one is sure what it is you do, exactly. Great insurance. A month’s vacation. And a hero’s welcome every time you’re home on furlough.

Besides, you can stock up on brownie mix and your favorite jeans on your next stateside assignment.

Lifers shouldn’t be on the field because they may or may not have heard God calling and then they quit listening. They have the Board to maintain them in a strategic place where they live in permanent survival mode. They’re content. Fat and happy. Apathetic, even. But this is what they are. If they weren’t missionaries, what would they be? What would they do?

Lifers love to suffer for Jesus. If nationals don’t like them, they count it as persecution. Their loneliness is due to the “soil being hard,” not their abrasive, annoying personalities. They blame not knowing anyone in their city on “Things are slow here,” instead of the fact that they tell the same stories over and over. Hey, it wasn’t that funny the first time. They sign their prayer newsletters with subtle lines like “Blessedly Tired,”or “Joyfully Busy,” just to let you know how much missionary stuff they’re doing. Their reports reveal how much they dislike and distrust the people they’ve been sent to work with.

Lifers shouldn’t be on the field, but they are. And they will be long after I’m gone. They’re in this thing for the long haul. For them, being missionary isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle.

The Professionals

Perhaps the most visible type of missionary that shouldn’t be here are the Professionals. They are the missionaries that built the IMB into the huge corporation that it is today. These are the folks that fill their days with professional missionary things like going to conferences and making appearances at meetings. Usually, the Pros are big on networking. They like to name-drop, brag, and make guys like me meet people that they think are like me so that we can know each other and so later, when they drop our names, they can say things like, “You know, I introduced them!” The Professionals are the ones who have a hard time not having a “real job,” so they put lots of effort into making church planting look like one.

The reason professionals shouldn’t be on the field is that they are not really planting churches. They are not really sharing life, culturally translating the gospel, or facilitating a house church movement. No, these guys don’t have time to do real ministry, they’re too busy being missionaries.

Professionals are usually the ones that get promoted up the responsibility food-chain and put in strategy leadership positions. At first glance, they look like they’re really doing something. They’re well spoken. They have a great web site. They bring in lots of volunteers. They’re sharp dressers. They prioritize primary action items and draft mission statements and publish team goals and objectives in sleek .pdf prayer newsletters.

The reason that Professional Missionaries shouldn’t be on the field is that they have effectively redefined the concept of missions for the churches that support us. They have changed the stereotype from the four-pocket short-sleeve dress shirt wearing homely couple with seven children to a jet-set Blackberry addict with places to go and people to see. They are the reason we have conferences about how to “reach” people and strategy documents and ASR reports instead of, well, churches.

Don’t worry, I’m not saying we need to fire all of the Professional Missionaries. We don’t need to. They are the ones that get burnt out and go home as soon as they realize that no matter how hard they try, they cannot make church planting into a corporate position. They realize that no one is competing with them for the next leadership position, and that there is no prize for starting a new church planting partners network. They go home to work for Xerox or Saddleback.

Some Of Us Shouldn’t Be Here

While the timing of this post does not intentionally coincide with the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, I’ll admit that it seems like a relatively safe time to write such a mean post. Hopefully, everyone that might read this, especially the people I’m actually referring to, are either at the Convention or busy reading about it over at SBC Outpost.

Yes, we’re all supposed to be “missionaries” in the “Go ye therefore” sense of the word. Yes, the Lord of the Harvest calls workers to the field. But anyone who has spent any amount of time with IMB personnel and is willing to be honest will tell you that we’ve got some people on the field that shouldn’t be.

Call it a result of the days when there was plenty of money and “Any Warm Body” was the candidacy policy. (Wow, we’ve gone to the opposite extreme, haven’t we?) The IMB was all about momentum in those days- being able to report sending more missionaries and reaching more people groups really got people excited about missions. Volunteering was up, giving was up, and people were signing up for career service. The ranks of the IMB swelled with willing , if not capable, missionaries.

If you were to try to deduce the hiring policy of the IMB by conducting interviews of our career people on the field, what would you come up with?

I think this explains the recent actions of the IMB’s Board of Trustees; “We’ve got people on the field that don’t belong there, and we need to do something about it.” It wasn’t so bad when there was enough money to go around, but nowadays the Board can’t afford to send just anyone. We’ve got people on the field that don’t speak the national language, aren’t actively involved in ministry to nationals, and don’t have a clue of where to begin.

But we can’t fire them, can we? On what grounds? “God hasn’t used you to start a church planting movement?” No, the only way we can fire someone is if they steal money or sleep with a Journeyman. So instead of sending people home, we shuffle their incompetence around the globe. As if moving to a warmer climate would heal laziness. We could have all of our personnel on the field sign a new, even more exclusive document that includes a statement of belief, proof of effectiveness, and pledge of allegiance. You know- to get people to quit. The problem with that is the ones who get worked up about that sort of thing are usually the good ones. They were last time, anyway. So we’re sort of stuck with the people we’ve already got on the field. For now.

Everyone is talking about the new, narrower, theological requirements for appointment, but those aren’t the only changes being made to help weed out the dead weight (pardon the pun) and save some money.

There has always been a health requirement for IMB personnel. Obesity, serious medical conditions, and emotional/psychological issues have always been red flags in the consideration of potential candidates. But recently, the Board has adopted even stricter policy concerning overweight personnel. As a self-insured mega-organization, we can save a lot of money by not employing the fat people that are sure to use up a lot of money through medical claims. Recent changes have lowered the acceptable body-mass index (BMI) for all employees of the IMB. (Though I’m pretty sure trustees are exempt…)

The Board will continue to adopt very restrictive hiring and employment policies, but always leave a loophole for “exceptions.” That way they only get people that meet all of the requirements, and screen out those that don’t belong.

So who are these missionaries that shouldn’t be on the field? Sorry SEBTS folks, I’m not naming names. Besides, they probably aren’t who you might think.

Oh, and I’m probably one of them.

Stay tuned…

Losing My Accent

Learning a second language is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s frustrating and humiliating, and the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. Sometimes, you just want to give up. But we put forth the effort in order that we might be able to share our lives with the people of the places we’ve moved to. If only recognizing the importance of language learning was enough to, you know, speak it.

I used to like the television show “Alias.” The main character, Syndey Bristow, was the best secret-agent ever. She was sort of a cross between James Bond and Lara Croft. I watched faithfully through the first season. I was half-way through season two when someone asked me what the show was about. “Well, there’s this college-student-by-day, undercover-super-agent-by-night whose dad is a double agent but she doesn’t know it and whose mom was a double agent for the KGB but her dad didn’t know it, and her dad’s best friend is the villain posing as a good guy, until they introduce her long-lost sister.” I was overcome with how ridiculous it sounded as I spoke. After that, I never watched the show again.

The worst thing about the show wasn’t the spy family, triple-agent, gadget-for-everything, plot, it was the fact that no matter what obscure country Sydney found herself in, she spoke the local language perfectly. Chinese. Tagalog. Welsh. She spoke them so well that not even the local bad guys could tell she was a foreigner. Stealth-ninja swordplay skills I’ll buy, but fluency in fifty languages is just too unrealistic for me.

Which brings me to I asked a friend who is a church planter in the UK about this a few weeks ago. Maybe he’ll post his response in a comment, but really can’t get past this. We’ve got people on the field who speak the national language very well. They’ve been around a while, they can do everything they need to do and say anything they might need to say in the language. But they have accents. Strong ones. They butcher the language with the typical American “R’s” and lazy vowels. In the phone, no one mistakes them for nationals. In person, the listener still has to contort his face as he strains to understand. So my question is this: Do our personnel working in English-speaking contexts take on the local accent?

For me, the accent is the key to true cultural relevance. Think of it this way, if I were to speak with a guy in London, he’d surely notice my American accent. But after a couple years of living in Covent Garden, I’d surely be able to put on a pretty good English accent for my friend. Not that I’d be able to pass for a Brit, but I bet he wouldn’t say, “Hey, you’re putting on an English accent.” No. I’m pretty sure he’d say something like, “Hey, you’re losing your American accent.”

I’m sure there are probably all sorts of ministry applications to the idea of losing our accents. To me, it just reminds me that there is more than just a language barrier between me and the people to whom I minister. It makes me want to live in such a way that the people around me start to say: “Hey, the longer you’re here, the less your faith seems foreign to me.”

Personality

One of the things God has been teaching our team lately is that personality matters. No, I’m not talking about the mega-churches in the United States that seem to be built entirely upon the charismatic and inspirational personality of its pastor. Strangely enough, it is just occurring to us that God may have given us our personalities on purpose.

See, I grew up in a very ministry-minded church environment. Everyone was encouraged to think of others first. To us, being a minister meant ignoring your “self” and intentionally becoming a servant; something that was not natural to any of us. We loved the idea of getting out of our comfort zones and being stretched and challenged in new ways. I’m very thankful for that church family.

I’m pretty sure Jesus had a personality. He was harsh about certain things, had compassion toward needy people, and ran away from his parents at least once (ok, so maybe what He did was nothing like the time I packed up my G.I. Joe backpack and “ran away” to the back yard when I was six, but you know what I mean). But can we say that there is a “Christian” personality?

With our practice of that good theology (“Be like Jesus”) also came a subtle, implied message: “It doesn’t matter who you are.” If you were an impulsive, gregarious person, you needed to cut it out so as to maintain self-control. Shyness was the opposite of boldness, which is something all believer must have, so the timid folks needed to get over their inhibitions. The stoic or melancholy needed to have joy, the dreamers needed to keep their feet on the ground. What we ended up with was a bunch of people who knew a lot about the fruit of the Spirit, but knew nothing about themselves. Ultimately, we couldn’t relate to lost people at all. We had worked so hard to be more like who we thought Jesus was, that we had lost our personalities. We became boring people, with no interests, hobbies, or passions. We didn’t even enjoy being around ourselves!

So now God is teaching us about personality. That it’s ok for some of us to be risk-takers and others to be cautious. We need to class-clowns to keep things interesting and the sensitive ones to feel for us. The optimists, the pessimists, the intense, the cool; they are parts of a healthy and interesting community. The outspoken are as needed as the introspective. I think our personalities are tied to our Spiritual gifts. They are all needed for diversity and balance within the body of Christ.

Maybe God made us the way we are so that we’ll have something in common with people who are like us.

I’m really interested to see how this plays out in church planting. We’re working to plant churches within existing social structures. People are drawn to others like them, and that’s where they are comfortable and have a sense of identity. But I think that’s a good thing. Churches should have distinct personalities. The intellectuals meet on Thursdays at lunchtime and pour over theology. The sensitive ones spend a lot more time in worship and prayer than the rest, and are very sensitive to the needs around them. The outgoing and outspoken do a bit more preaching and evangelism, while the social butterflies have lots and lots of fellowships. Who knows? Maybe this would be a healthy alternative to denominationalism.

What if the balance we’re so worried about maintaining is kept at the city-wide level as opposed to the local group level? While we cannot tolerate sin, heresy, or disunity, what about diversity in the ways we express our life in Christ?

Be True To Your School

In my last post, I wrote about the resolution to “Develop an exit strategy from public schools” that is being proposed to the Southern Baptist Convention. Since we’re trying to put together an effective entrance strategy here in Western Europe (doing the opposite of what the resolution calls for), I’ve decided to put myself in the shoes of someone back in the states and give some suggestions for engaging our communities through the public school system:

They aren’t well-paid. They work long hours, and they are “on call” 24 hours a day. Their impact is great, but they receive little recognition. They share their testimonies and beliefs every chance they get, thought they often deal with strict regulations against openly sharing their faith. I’m not talking about missionaries to far-off places, here; this is the life of your average Christian public school teacher. Which brings me to my first point:

1. Local churches need to start treating public school teachers as missionaries. I mean it. A commissioning service, full prayer support, maybe even some financial assistance. They are doing missions by sharing life with people in natural ways. Everything they teach, every opinion they give is heavily influenced by their relationship with Jesus. We see it so clearly in foreign lands- missionaries in China teaching English classes- but for some reason we put teachers in a different category. They go through culture shock. They have to learn a “foreign” language. They have to be creative, patient, and culturally relevant. It’s time we recognize that.

What if, instead of pulling out of the public school system, we pushed our way into it? What if the public school system was flooded with Christian students, teachers, and administrators?

2. We need to start sending teachers into the system. Whenever a young person asks me about becoming a missionary, I always encourage them to look for ways outside the professional missionary system. Having the title “Missionary” brings with it more barriers and obstacles than we often realize. What if we started recruiting, training, and sending young people into the public school system as missionaries to their communities? We send short-term semester and summer missionaries to rough, inner-city areas to minister, why not send qualified teachers into those schools that are desperate for teachers anyway?

3. We need to be intentional about training and sending our children to public schools. What if we trained them, even the young ones, to study the culture of their class at school? What if we prepared them to face the dangers of their particular mission field and helped them get spiritually ready to face each day in that context?

4. Parents must get involved. The public school system began it’s sex education program in the fourth grade when I was in public school. My mom went and previewed the films and curriculum, and then made me read a James Dobson book to supplement what was being taught. Ok, so I don’t recommend giving kids a James Dobson book, but I think she had the right idea. If parents know what’s being taught to their kids, they can counter those worldly things with truth. This way, kids know what the world says, and learn to contrast that with what the Bible says.

But parents aren’t only limited to reviewing curriculum. They can join the PTA, be a “Class Mom,” or a Teacher’s Aid. They can get on all those committees, boosters, clubs, and organizations that actually decide what the public school does. At our local school, there was a PTA committee that decided whether or not a church plant could meet on the campus on Sundays. Parents can even substitute teach. This would extend the parent’s influence to reach not only their own kids, but other kids in the community as well.

5. To affect change, service is the answer. We have “work days” at church, why don’t local churches organize and sponsor work days at the local public schools? The administrators are always looking for ways to save money. What if some Christians came in and raked leaves or repainted the lockers? Schools always need recess monitors and traffic controllers and crossing guards. A Bible Study group could supply refreshments for the School Board meetings. Doing these things, without expecting special favors in return and without any strings attached, would affect the local public schools for the better. What if the school administrators didn’t have to see Christians as their enemies? Wouldn’t it be something if, when faced with a need, the principal felt he could call the local church for help?

So I guess what I’m proposing here is that we develop an “entry and engagement strategy” for the public schools. Not so we can make them “Christian,” but so we can make to most of this great opportunity we have to interact with and serve our communities. Our involvement is what will help our children. It is being salt and light.

In Western Europe, missionaries develop and implement these sorts of strategies in order to engage their communities and plant churches. We would start here and go even further, looking for those existing entry points into the community and making the most of them. What if the churches that send us were doing the same back home?

Entrance Strategy

Every year, Southern Baptists from across the United States get together in an annual Convention. This is a time for them to discuss denominational direction, elect leaders, and share what God is doing. One key part of the meeting is the proposal of resolutions. These are actions that members would like the denomination as a whole to support. Because they are passed by majority vote, approved resolutions say a lot about the Southern Baptist Convention. An example would be the resolution to boycott Disney. It was passed in 1997, and called on all Southern Baptists to boycott all media, products, and properties of the Walt Disney Company.

As this year’s convention in Greensboro, North Carolina nears, several resolutions are being proposed. One that I find particularly troubling is a resolution calling for Southern Baptist churches to develop an exit strategy from public schools.” Now this is not a new one- Al Mohler proposed it a couple years ago. But the attitude behind it is frustrating.

As a missionary, my job is to enter into a community and translate the gospel into the culture of the people there. It isn’t easy. I spend a lot of my time the things that influence people and learning how they think and behave. The most challenging part about it all is finding ways to meet people and interact with them in meaningful ways. With rules against us taking jobs here and no funds to pay for joining clubs and other activities, we struggle to find common ground with the few people God brings to us. Despite the difficulty, (and the fact that we aren’t wanted here!) we continue to seek new ways to engage the population. Why? Because God brought us here to be salt and light, and He has given us everything we need in order to be who we need to be.

But while we are looking for an entrance strategy to get access to lost people, we hear about believers back home wanting to develop an exit strategy. These are brothers and sisters who share our same commission to make disciples, but don’t face a language/culture barrier, and have natural access to the lost people of their communities. Forgive my frustration, but it seems that these folks don’t appreciate the opportunity God has provided in the public school system.

I know what goes on in public schools. I understand that they aren’t teaching biblical truth. I know that things go on there that are not God-honoring. Sure, people are concerned about their children’s learning and development. It makes sense that parents would want to protect their kids from the sin that infests the system. I’m not interested in getting into a debate about home-schooling. Really. Please. I respect a parent’s right and responsibility to select the best form of education for their kids. I don’t think homeschooling is wrong. I know there are other ways for kids to be involved with their peers. As far as I’m concerned, it about the attitude.

I am frustrated that my denomination would consider supporting the development of an “exit strategy” from public schools because it is indicative of an attitude that is the opposite of missional. If the people who are in favor of this resolution were really thinking of themselves as missionaries; really looking for ways to engage the people around them, I wonder if they wouldn’t reconsider. On the field, our families are in constant spiritual danger. We are surrounded by materialism, sexual sin, drug use, the occult, and other enemy activity. Obedience to God’s call and direction requires exposure to sinful things. When God sent us, He knew what our kids would go through. He knew how it would break our hearts to see MK’s deal with things that children shouldn’t have to deal with. We know first-hand the importance of putting on spiritual armor. But we do it because we’re here to be incarnational to the people here.

We see it pretty clearly here. Have our brothers and sisters in the States lost sight of that?

I’m concerned about the message this attitude sends to our children. This sort of isolationism is what has made Christianity ineffective and irrelevant; not only to the world, but to our children and ourselves. It has led to the construction of a “Christian” subculture that takes us off the front lines of ministry and lulls us into complacency, trusting our “Christian” version of the world to be safe and, well, Christian.

How can we justify separating ourselves from the world because it isn’t pleasing to God? How can we prepare our children to engage the culture and to work redemptively within it if we take them out of it? Shouldn’t we as parents expect to supplement our children’s education with discipleship? Couldn’t we use their exposure to sinful things as an opportunity to teach them to find bridges to sharing the gospel, discern right from wrong and truth from lies, and to avoid fear of the world? What if we started thinking of ourselves as missionaries, and started training our children to be on mission as well?

Degrees of separation (from Jesus)

1. Kate Winslet was in Titanic with Leonardo DiCaprio
2. Leonardo DiCaprio was in Catch Me If You Can with Tom Hanks
3. Tom Hanks was in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon

You’re probably familiar with the game “Six Degrees of Separation (Kevin Bacon),” where one player picks an actor, and the other players list a string of co-stars and supporting actors that connect that actor to Kevin Bacon. Apparently, Kevin Bacon is the center of the film universe. If you’ve never tried it, you should. If you’re lazy, or if you don’t want to admit to watching rated-R movies, there’s a Bacon Calculator to do it for you at the “Oracle of Bacon.”

Lately I’ve been reminded of the Kevin Bacon game a lot. I spent the last week talking with missionaries from around Western Europe, and I was encouraged to hear their stories. I really had no idea what some of them were doing in their places of service (and in more than one case, I had never even heard of their place of service). Anyway, one thing that struck me about nearly every story I heard was how they related the great spiritual need they they found every day. It seemed like everyone I spoke with felt the need to tell me how lost their people group or city really was.

For example:
“We’re working with university students in Salamanca. There are one hundred and fifty thousand students there, and the city is less than point-five percent evangelized.”

“Our team is working with Cambodians in Dusseldorf, and they are the largest UPG in the world.”

It’s not just the numbers. As if work in a city of five million was somehow more important than work in a village of thirty thousand. Ok, so maybe it is the numbers that bother me. But I’ve written enough about how I don’t think we should let numbers determine our strategy. My question now is about degrees of “lostness.” Are some people more lost than others? What is it that makes missionaries measure their importance by the perceived challenge of “reaching” a bigger, “loster” people group?

Is a historically “Christian” people group closer to Jesus than a Muslim one? Maybe we should measure lostness by distance from the land where Jesus Himself walked (as the crow flies). Should we consider the ones that sin more to be further from salvation? Maybe the less civilized? I guess that biblically, we could argue that the richer nations have a harder time entering the Kingdom…

So now we’re back to the Kevin Bacon game: Are there degrees of separation from God? Are some people more lost than others? I get that some people are more spiritually minded than others, and that some are nearer than others to that point of belief that comes with a relationship with the Creator. And of course, God uses encounters with believers to draw people to Himself. But if a person or people group is separated from God, aren’t they still only one step away from Him? I believe that people are only separated by one degree from God. After all, it isn’t us that bridge the gap between them and Him. Forget Kevin Bacon, Jesus is the relational center of the universe.

It’s My Job

I have devoted the last four years of my life to the study of a language and culture that are not my own. When I started, I thought of these people only in stereotypes and generalities. Every new observation or bit of insight was applied to the whole. “Everyone here,” I can remember thinking, “hates me because I’m an American.” To me, the rude guy at the gas station represented an entire nation of rude people just like him. The poor customer service at the post office meant that it didn’t exist anywhere in the country. Ok, so maybe some of my observations were universal.

Life in another language is like taking a cold shower. The best way to start is to just jump in all at once. Even then, you don’t enjoy it. We say that we get used to it, but really we just become so numb it doesn’t bother us anymore. It takes about a month to get over the feeling that everyone around is talking about you. Another month before you can tell the difference between angry shouting and just regular talking. Every week after that, your chances increase that you’ll get what you think you ordered in a restaurant. I love picture menus, even though the food never really looks as good in person.

So now I know stuff. I know that I’m not the only one that the waiter is rude to, and that the person I’m meeting will be late, but if I am, I’ll get a text message asking where I am. I can really notice how much I’ve learned when new people come. Volunteers can be pretty oblivious, but other missionaries are the best barometers of cultural acclimation. I love the feeling of knowing what’s going on while the new guy is totally lost. I replace “When I was your age…” with “when I first got here…,” but otherwise, I’m the wistful old man of our team. All I need now is a rocking chair (and a porch), and I could keep you up all afternoon telling stories of times when I put my foot in my mouth or accidentally called a police officer a woman to his face.

I continue to study because it’s my job and I’m fascinated by it. I love learning why people here do what they do. Especially when they don’t even know. In a way, all this study, all this intentional living amongst these people makes me a bit of an expert. I’m not trying to sound proud or anything, but I most likely know more about the people to whom I’m ministering than you do. (Easy for me to say since I haven’t exactly told you who the people are.) Odds are that you’ve never even met someone from my people group, much less turned down the alcoholic beverage he offered while sitting on his sofa watching home videos of his niece’s Confirmation.

So that’s what I bring to the table. I’m not a good public speaker, and I don’t know how to play any musical instruments. But I have cultural insight that is unique to the people I work with here in Western Europe. I can tell you how someone from this city might respond to a gospel presentation. I know how they are likely to view us as outsiders, and I’m familiar with their felt needs. I have seen glimpses of the Church in this culture, and it doesn’t look very much like it does in American culture. In a lot of ways, that has been the payoff for all the work and stress of living in another culture; to see the Church in a different light.

Thank you for supporting us to be students of these different cultures. Thank you for trusting us to represent Jesus among people that aren’t looking for Him. Thank you for allowing us to translate the gospel into these cultures and plant indigenous churches that worship God in their own languages. Thank you for providing a way for me to do what I’m called to do.