How to be a Missionary Without Being a “Missionary”
A Hindu temple just outside of Raleigh, NC.
I don’t know anything about fill-in-the-blank culture! Can I even do this without some level of cultural expertise?
This is perhaps the most frequent question when I share about reaching international peoples in America. Without stepping on a soapbox, this attitude is the unfortunate byproduct of the professionalization of ministry. We have falsely decided that gospel proclamation requires someone with a degree in ministry or, at minimum, training in some missions equipping program. In this unhelpful paradigm, the clergy (or in this case the missionaries) are the ones who know how to reach people, and the layperson does not have what it takes. Such training is beneficial, but it is not necessary for the work of the ministry. That attitude kills the spread of the gospel. It also misses what it means to be a missionary or one who is sent out by their church for the work of gospel proclamation. Instead, we must learn to be a missionary, without being a “missionary.”
When thinking about being a missionary to the international people groups in your city, there are two main points that should help craft a healthy paradigm for engagement.
Limited cultural experience is a good thing
When it comes to working with internationals in our North American urban centers, limited cultural experience can actually be a good thing. Instead of relying on people who speak a foreign language, have lived overseas, or have been professionally trained and paid to serve as missionaries, this work in the United States must rest in the hands of local churches and lay members. Success relies more on being a good learner than being a cultural expert.
This work is really for everyone in the local church. Our hope is not to train someone in any one culture, but that people will learn how to engage different cultures by, get this, engaging cultures. In fact, a good missionary training program does not teach the missionary a list of cultural facts about a people group. It crafts an understanding for cultures in the missionary. In other words, it teaches a missionary how to think about culture, not the details of any one specific culture.
When a missionary first goes to their field, they do not know the language, culture, or world view of the people. It is an initial process of discovery that teaches them these things and how to communicate with the people they are trying to reach. If done well, this means the missionary goes into this culture with humility and the attitude of the learner. This is the same thing you need to do to reach the international peoples around you. If you’re a “cultural idiot,” then you are dependent upon them to teach you about their culture. In the United States many of these international peoples have never had an in-depth conversation with an American. Perhaps they have never met an American who is genuinely interested in them and their culture.
If you approach international peoples as a learner, then a beautiful thing happens, they will most likely teach you how to interact with them and you will have yourself a friend.
You have home court advantage
Most church folk have heard some story about a guy going to Africa on a mission trip and offending the entire village when they reached out to greet the chief with their left hand. While most of those stories are overblown, there is a need to be culturally sensitive. That is what concerns most churches when doing this work. It is a good concern, but remember that you have the home-court advantage. You do not need to worry about cultural norms and cues to the same extent you would if you were in that person’s country. Remember, they are living in your culture, which means they will be more used to the way you do things and probably even expect it. However, it is your job to learn their cultural cues over time, as it is how you will share the gospel in a way that is meaningful.
Be mindful of the differences in culture, but do not let them scare you. Instead, use your lack of knowledge about them and their culture as a way to open dialogue. Before long, you will become the cultural expert with that people and will have crafted valuable relationships in their community for the sake of the gospel.
The above is an excerpt from the Peoples Next Door training materials. For more information on the Peoples Next Door project, you can contact me at email@example.com or search this blog for “Peoples Next Door.” Copyright © 2014 by C. Keelan Cook