We want to see people come to know Jesus. To see people transformed –
A people movement to Christ is the best hope for that to happen. As long as we can get out of the way and not hinder the Holy Spirit’s work.
We hear constantly how believers and missionaries need to be bold, full of the Holy Spirit, need to express their faith, need to impart their faith through faithful discipleship and that is all true. And we should hear that. Repeatedly. And practice it more than we do.
What we don’t hear much of is what we shouldn’t say. What we should subtract. What should be left at home or left unspoken at the back of our minds. Our innate superiority. Our way of dismissing others’ ideas, words, attempts to follow Jesus when we don’t agree. Our Americanism. Our relentless view of the future and progress, and valuing everything based on results and success.
Just like those early missionaries and settlers to America never thought about the germs they unintentionally brought to the new continent killing 90-95% of the inhabitants they intended to reach, how often have we considered what we are unintentionally taking with us when going to the uttermost regions of the world? What germs might we be taking on the plane that their immune systems are not prepared to withstand? And what cultural baggage are we taking that could irreparably harm the movement of these people to Christ? That we hardly realize because our assumptions, beliefs, worldview, ideas of progress and science and faith, work so well, that they must be true?
And it’s not only us.
While we want to be “first” in reaching many of these unreached peoples, as Americans, we must realize that many times our country or foreign policy has gotten there before us. In the form of popular media, corporations and corporate dollars, unfair trade policies, military might supporting a corrupt regime, other religious groups, tourists and tax havens.
What is a well-meaning missionary to do?
First, realize that you are the sum total of all your education, experiences, faith journeys, assumptions, cultural assumptions, and pithy proverbs…to date. You are no blank slate. The sooner you realize that the sooner you can humbly accept different ideas, different ways of working, enhanced ability to hear local concerns and advice. The culture won’t make a bit of sense and you’ll even resent the people sometimes, or think how they do things is ridiculous.
Second, realize that you are bringing lots of unintended consequences and conclusions that may result in things that are equally ugly as what you originally went to redeem. Sometimes the way we tell the story of Jesus is decidedly American and encourages radical individualism.
Thirdly, choose to leave the bigger things behind. Why choose to sacrifice a blender or espresso machine yet take so many cultural assumptions with you? The fallacy is that nationals should applaud that you have “sacrificed all” to bring them good news about Jesus. Especially when you are unwilling to give up that which is most precious – Your values, opinions, assumptions, ways of doing things, preferences, and more. Sometimes we hold those things most dear. Hear our Chinese sister, Cindy Brandt, as she says:
“You humble me so much with your sacrificial love. You leave behind your family, your support systems, your familiar ways of life, in order to enter into our lives…I am thankful and inspired. But the highest cost you pay is not giving up the creature comforts of a higher standard of living. The highest cost you pay will be holding the value system that carries your faith loosely. This is hard, because your faith is why you came. Yet the best hope for this transfer of faith to take root in our own culture is if you’re willing to let us do the slow labor of cultivating our own faith. This means you will need to allow us to make mistakes without judgment. Please remember the history of your own faith is not without blemish. Let us make our own mistakes and learn without the anxieties you bring from your context.”
Do you hear her? She is asking for us to give away our faith, rather than make converts to our faith. To reduce the message down to the essentials of Jesus and His story, without adding our own story, gloss, interpretations, assumptions (there’s that word again!), and judgement. And that is especially difficult because IT IS ALSO OUR STORY. But it needs to be given away with as few strings as possible. As few caveats. As few expectations. With the hope that someday we might factor little into the same story told by local believers since it will have become so much their own and will have grown so large.
Lastly, really believe that diversity and different expression in the body of Christ is good. Believe and have confidence in the Holy Spirit’s work in local believers. It might not look like what you think it should. It might not “work.” It might take you keeping your mouth shut when you already know the answer, the result, or how the plan will fail. Stop bashing others and their ineffectual methods, their short-term plans and wasted dollars, their ignorance and weird ways, and try to be a friend. Try to be humble for a change.
Is it even possible? Can we separate the message from our message? Bruce Olson in “Bruchko” tells us that when the Motilone Indians began speaking the “gospel” to one another, that they told it in such a way that he could hardly stop himself from correcting them, from telling them to stop. By God’s grace, he never did. And the Motilone are now a shining example of a people transformed and helping see others reached as they once were. Bruce was a good example of what to take and what to leave behind. What to say and what to leave unspoken. May God give us the grace to do likewise. To heed the words of Cindy Brandt. To heed the example of Bruce Olsen. To be obedient to the Holy Spirit and be able to hear His still, small voice.