Thinking of Home Like a Foreign Mission Field

In North America, we are fond of sending missionaries overseas. Nothing gets a church fired up like sending people on short or long-term mission trips. But anyone who has participated in cross-cultural missions knows that it is not easy. There is a lot of preparation that makes missionary work successful. Learning a new language, studying the culture, knowing what the social norms are, and understanding the context is all important stuff. And even then, I’m assuming that one already has a rooted relationship with Christ and an ability to articulate the gospel clearly!

One of the influential texts on cross cultural mission work is 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, which says

[19] For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. [20] To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. [21] To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. [22] To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.

The principle here is that Paul immersed himself in a different cultural context in order to win that people group to Christ. So, when he was among Jews, he adhered to Jewish customs. When he was with Gentiles, he did not adhere to Jewish customs, but went along with Gentile customs. And so on it goes. He was, in one sense, like a chameleon, adapting himself to fit his environment. This was not compromise on his part. It was strategy. Paul was trying to remove as many cultural barriers as he could so that the people he was trying to reach could grapple with the gospel. If Paul had not done this, people would have been arguing with him over secondary stuff, like language and clothing and traditions, rather than with the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

Cross cultural mission work uses the same idea. We learn a culture so that when we enter into it, we can adapt to it and become one of the people. This, ideally, means our message is more readily accepted because it is not coming from someone who seems nearly as “outside”. It feels more like the message is coming from someone within our context who understands the situation at hand.

Jesus is the ultimate cross cultural missionary. Jesus left his throne in heaven and came to the culture of earth. He took on human flesh, spoke the common language, dressed the common dress, and lived among the people as one of their own. The incarnation is the greatest act of cross cultural missions work ever acted out. In that sense, Jesus is the ultimate missionary and the example we should follow.

Now, all of this has led me to grapple with a question. If we are so supportive of this mindset in cross cultural missions, shouldn’t we adopt the same mindset in local missions work? Or, to put it another way, what would a foreign missionary do if they were entering into the North American context?

I wonder these questions because of how much the North American church gets slammed by Christians. Negative talk of celebrity pastors, book deals, flashy programming, fancy lights, multi-million dollar buildings, and stuff of that nature abounds frequently. There is definitely a sense in which I can resonate with those feelings. Christianity has become too commercialized in my opinion. Yet, at the same time, is it possible for the church in North America to adapt into the North American culture without compromising it’s values? Can Christianity morph into the secular culture and still be a pillar of truth? We seem to think that we can do that in other cultures. Why not here?

I am not sure there are easy answers to these questions. I think it is a useful exercise to ponder what a missionary from (for instance) Africa or Europe might do if he planned on coming to North America to start a church and spread the gospel. Would his church end up looking a whole lot like the ones that already exist?

It could be argued that the modernization of many churches is exactly that: the adapting to culture in oder to save as many people as possible. More traditional churches would call it compromise. There is, no doubt, a sense in which some churches have compromised. But my thinking tends to believe that adapting the methods while retaining the message is a biblical concept. So I am in no way saying that churches should adapt their message to culture, but merely their methods.

I think it would be worthwhile for those of us serving in the North American context to consider what we would do if we had just arrived here on a boat or plane. What speaks to people in North America? What do they value? How is community formed? What systems drive how the culture operates? How are leaders chosen and recognized? These kinds of questions, and more, might help us to create churches that continue to be effective in our quest, like Paul, to become all things to all people, that by all means we might save some.

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