Dear Missionaries: I like to tell people I’m a missionary convert. I wear this genesis of my faith journey like a badge of honor. I heard the story of Jesus from your lips, sang the songs of worship in your language, and prayed for the concerns in your heart. You taught me how to be Christian.
I learned that you don’t practice your faith in a vacuum. Rather,it is couched in the context of your unique American culture and history. I saw you live out that faith in your home country with lavish generosity, boundless love and affection — always going for bigger and better. Inevitably, you transferred some of your culture when you communicated your faith to me. I understand this now, but sometimes I don’t think you do.
Sometimes, I feel you take for granted the immense power and influence your country and culture has on the rest of the world. Your military presence holds a solid threat in international conflict, your economic policies reverberate throughout the world, your pop culture is consumed in our theaters, on our computers, and in our ear buds. When you speak, we listen. Your voice is strong. Your resources are abundant. Your presence is loud. Perhaps this is why you sometimes miss the softer cries of our hearts.
And this is our cry: to tell the story of Jesus from our own lips, to worship God in our own language, and to pray the concerns of our own heart.
Sometimes, the way you tell the story of Jesus is decidedly American. You tell us we must own individual faith and live this faith as autonomous nuclear family units when most of us struggle to grasp the concept of such radical individualism. You say we must express our love to each other in your language, yet you miss the many other ways we express love to our own people. Sometimes, the things you say God cares the most about result from your own culture wars: climate change, freedom of speech, abortion.
I know cross-cultural work is terribly arduous. I live that tension in my own marriage and life. I know it is much easier to retreat into the worldview that makes the most sense to us. But the stakes are high when you are proclaiming a gospel that transcends culture, yet can only be delivered via culture.
You humble me so much with your sacrificial love. You leave behind your family, your support system, your familiar ways of life to enter into our lives. You care for our poor, sick, and needy like few others are willing to do. I am thankful and inspired. But the highest cost you pay is not giving up the creaturely comforts of a higher standard of lifestyle. 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 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.
Here let me suggest three ways I believe you can partner in what God is already doing in our culture:
1. Learn our worldview.
Take the time to learn our worldview. Anthropologists define worldview as the set of assumptions, values, and commitments underlying the way we perceive reality. Our surface behavior, the way we eat, sleep, do weddings, give birth, etc. are windows into our core assumptions of reality. Delve deeply into the why of how we do life. Babies begin learning culture from the moment they are birthed. The challenge for you will be to see through a child’s eye in order to re-learn our way of life using our set of cultural lenses.
2. Recognize the power dynamics.
Recognize the privilege of belonging to a dominant power. In order to hear the real heart issues of our society, be intentional about listening. Partner with local leaders to solve our problems instead of deciding what problems we have and inviting us along after you’ve launched your project. Ensure the ministries you run are sustainable locally and not dependent on the funds you raise from your home country. Relinquishing power into our hands means letting go of your own resources, so we can rally our own.
3. Let go of perfect.
Embrace good enough. Whether you are helping plant a church or start a project, don’t give in to the tendency to do it “the way you did back home” — bigger and better. Our differences will frustrate you, maybe because our standards aren’t quite up to par. But, the goal of your outreach isn’t perfection; it’s faithfulness. Be steadfast and walk with us through our bumbling mistakes. We only need one Savior, not lots of mini saviors from the west.
In return, we hope we can bless you with our own stories. Let us show you how to be Christian in ways you have never imagined before. Let us show you how God’s grace is big enough to cover the multitude of our mistakes. Let us grow together as equal brothers and sisters in Christ, spurring each other on toward greater love and good deeds.
Perhaps you are right — bigger is better. But, let’s grow the family of Christ not by expanding the presence of one expression of Christianity, but by adding on a diversity of stories in which we speak of God.
A Grateful Missionary Convert
Image courtesy of Nazarene Missions International.