Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Category: Contextualization Page 1 of 3

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Should we go to the most receptive?

As a young missionary candidate about 40 years ago, I considered various countries as possible destinations for my future ministry. One of the main criteria I used was receptivity. I wanted to go to a place where the church was growing rapidly. I was attracted to the harvest. In a harvest field, I reasoned, there would be a greater need for training of national workers, which was the area of missions I was most interested in. So, I chose the Philippines and the lowland work among Roman Catholics in particular.

Experiencing the harvest

Given that I was still in my early 20’s when I arrived in the Philippines, I realized that I first needed some experience and credibility before I could begin training others. My wife and I enjoyed ten years of wonderfully fruitful years in church planting and training in the Philippines. We were part of the harvest. The Filipino people are amazingly hospitable and very receptive to the Gospel. The evangelical churches were growing so quickly that within a few years, I realized that the percentage of evangelicals in this country was going to surpass the percentage of evangelicals in my home country of Canada. I also came to understand that the Filipino church in the lowlands soon might not need expatriate trainers like myself.

In this journey, I came to understand the urgency and importance of going to those that are least reached. But it also became apparent to me that those who were least-reached were also most often the people groups that were not as receptive to the Gospel, at least not initially. It would not be as rewarding or fulfilling to serve in the places where the harvest had not yet begun. Working in places where there is limited receptivity can be very wearying and discouraging. Although our next ten years of serving in Far East Russia were also fulfilling in many ways, I experienced discouragement and a loss of heart there that was quite different from what I experienced in the Philippines.

incarnational model

Are missionaries called to be incarnational?

The incarnational model is how we often describe our decision to live among the people to whom we are sent. We learn to speak their language. We immerse ourselves in their culture, eating their foods and building deep friendships within that people group. The term “incarnational ministry” may also refer to adopting a living standard (e.g., the type and size of our house, the transportation we use, the clothes we wear) that does not create social barriers to the common people.

But is “incarnational” the best word to describe our strategy of immersing ourselves in the culture of the people? Is the incarnation of Christ the model we should follow as we engage the unreached people of this world?

Stott on The Christian Life: a book review

John Stott’s messages at the Urbana Mission Conferences greatly influenced a number of missionaries of my generation. So, when Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds by Tim Chester came out this past summer, I decided to review the book. It is #16 in the Crossway’s series, Theologians on the Christian Life. See my post a few years ago on this series, and why it is a valuable resource. Why should missionaries read this particular book? I will focus on some key themes that make this book (and John Stott’s writings) an important read for missionaries.

Shaped evangelicalism

Throughout the book, Chester emphasizes how Stott’s life and ministry has shaped evangelicalism. The author writes in the Introduction:

. . . the more I have explored his theology in its historical context, the more I have realized that it has been Stott, perhaps more than anyone else, who has influenced the evangelical world I inhabit. So it is not just that Stott reflects evangelicalism; evangelicalism reflects Stott. A contemporary evangelical understanding of the Christian life was not simply something Stott regurgitated; it was also something he significantly shaped. 1Tim Chester, Stott on the Christian Life, Crossway Books, 2020, p 12.

Shaped the Lausanne Covenant

keep culture in perspective

Follow-up: Keep Culture in Perspective

Culture is high on the list of mission topics. For example, many colleges and seminaries have renamed their “Mission” departments as “Inter-cultural” departments or something similar. Certainly, cultural studies are essential for anyone proclaiming the gospel to people from other people groups. But we must keep culture in perspective. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides a perspective that both confronts and adapts to culture. Culture does not form the content of the gospel yet it is the context in which the gospel is proclaimed, understood, and lived.

Culture is not the source of saving knowledge of God

First of all, Paul announces that the wisdom of the world, which is part of culture, does not bring us a saving knowledge of God (1 Cor. 1:18-21). Knowing God depends on God’s revelation (1 Cor. 2:10-13), not on human wisdom. However, the wisdom of this world clearly impressed the Corinthian believers. So Paul makes it clear that the message of the cross eliminates any human boasting in God’s presence (1 Cor. 26-31). God’s wisdom, the message of the cross, has been revealed by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10). Ciampa and Rosner comment on the source of God’s wisdom:

In 2:8-12 Paul discusses the revelation of the wisdom that came to the apostles and prophets through the Holy Spirit. Negatively, it was not known (perceived or grasped) by the rulers of this age (2:8-9). Positively, it was revealed by God through the Spirit to the apostles and prophets who received the Spirit of God (2:10-12). 1Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 127.

In the New Testament, we have what the Holy Spirit revealed to the apostles. Culture does not provide the content of the gospel. Scripture does.

training indigenous workers

Wouldn’t it be cheaper to train indigenous workers?

Why do we raise thousands of dollars of monthly support and move ourselves and our families to foreign cities? Why do we learn their languages and cultures, and seek to establish churches or disciple-making movements within those cultures? Because Christ tells us to go and make disciples of all nations. See Matthew 28:19-20.

But here is the response we often get from those who have thought about the cost of human and financial resources in this effort: Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more effective to train and support indigenous believers to reach their own people?

Why are expatriates needed?

How should you and I respond to this pushback?

Effective Discipling in Muslim Communities – a review

In the last number of years, many books have been published about how to engage and do evangelism among Muslim peoples. But few books address the specifics of how to help new believers from Muslim contexts grow in their faith while remaining in their Muslim communities and families. Given that some claim that up to 90% of converts from Muslim backgrounds reconvert back to Islam, discipleship and support of these converts is clearly a critical need in mission work among Muslim peoples.

A few months ago, in this blog, I posted a review of Evelyn and Richard Hibberts’ “Walking Together on the Jesus Road: Intercultural Discipling.” Now, I would like to highlight another book in this same vein, speaking even more specifically to the challenges of disciple-making among Muslim peoples – Effective Discipling in Muslim Communities: Scripture, History and Seasoned Practices by Don Little. This book is one of those recommended on our SEND U pre-field reading list for those preparing to serve in Islamic contexts.

Why did Jesus prohibit his disciples from going to the least reached?

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. – Matthew 10:5–6

Why did Jesus not send his disciples to Gentiles and Samaritans? The Gentiles were the people who knew the least about the true God. From a missiological standpoint, they were the least reached. The Samaritans knew something of the Law but were not accepted as genuine worshippers of the God of Israel. They were also unreached and proved to be among the most responsive to Jesus’ message. Among them, Jesus saw one of his greatest harvests (John 4:35-42).1 See also my blog post about why Jesus did not focus his ministry on the responsive Samaritans.

The Jews, on the other hand, had already received many opportunities to hear about God’s grace over the centuries past through the prophets and the Law of Moses. Many of them were very resistant to any message that would suggest that they were not the sole recipients of God’s grace. When Jesus talked about Gentiles as the special recipients of God’s grace during the time of Elijah and Elisha, his own childhood neighbors tried to kill him (Luke 4:24-29).

We understand from Scripture that the Good News of the kingdom of God needed to be offered to the Jews first. God offered the blessing of salvation first to the physical descendants of Abraham (Acts 3:25-26)

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. – Romans 1:16

Why not go to both?

But why did Jesus expressly forbid his disciples to go to the Gentiles and even to the Samaritans to preach the good news of the kingdom of God?  Could they not have done both – to the Jews and also to the Samaritans and Gentiles? After all, Jesus himself went into Samaritan and Gentile towns at times. The story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 is a wonderful story of an entire town of Samaritans coming to faith in Jesus as the Saviour of the world. There is solid evidence to argue that the feeding of the 4000 and the healings in Mark 7:24-37 were all done among Gentile populations. Obviously, these ministry times were very positive experiences for Jesus. Why did he forbid his disciples to do the same things that they had already observed their Master doing?

I believe it was because the disciples were not yet ready for the challenges of cross-cultural ministry. This is demonstrated by the negative and vengeful response of James and John to rejection in a Samaritan village.

And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. – Luke 9:52–55

How quickly they reverted to their prejudices from childhood against the Samaritans!

Sent out for training

In his commentary on John, D.A. Carson says that the sending out of the 12 disciples in Matthew 10 was a training mission. If Jesus had not expressly forbidden his disciples to go to Samaritan villages, they might have been tempted to try to duplicate what happened in Sychar (the harvest of John 4). They might have assumed that all Samaritans would welcome them and their message with open arms as did the villagers of Sychar. But preaching the Gospel across the deeply-ingrained cultural barrier between Jews and Samaritans was not going to be nearly so simple and straightforward. It would have been a mistake to stereotype all Samaritans or to expect that the identical approach Jesus used in Sychar was going to work in every other Samaritan village.

What the disciples needed in their first evangelistic ventures was a mission that was relatively simple and straightforward. They needed opportunities where they could repeat the same message over and over again without needing to do a lot of cultural analysis and ethnographic study. That is what the Matthew 10 commission entailed. The message was simple – “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.'” The equipment needed was minimal. The pattern was repeatable. When you get driven out of one village, go to the next and do the same thing all over again.

Not ready for cross-cultural challenges

It is obvious that in those early days of following Jesus, the disciples were not yet ready for something as complicated and challenging as preaching the Gospel cross-culturally. As Carson says:

the Twelve were still far too immature to attempt cross-cultural evangelism of a people they would accept only when the welcome mat was out: cf. Luke 9:52–56, where at least some disciples are eager to call down fire from heaven on another Samaritan town that shut its doors against Jesus and his followers.

D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary p. 239–240.

Jesus had an evangelistic strategy for His disciples. That strategy included going to the ends of the world to all peoples with the Gospel (Matt 28:19-20).  But Jesus also had a training strategy. That strategy required that his messengers needed to learn first by engaging those of the same culture and language. In so doing, they would build their confidence and competence, and so become prepared for cross-cultural evangelism in the future.

So, in order to accomplish his long-term strategy of reaching the least reached, Jesus refused to send out his disciples initially to the least unreached or to the most receptive.  Those to whom they were to go were lost and needed to hear this message. But they were not the least unreached, nor were they the most receptive. In time, after they had gained experience in preaching to their own countrymen, to those of their own culture and religious background, Jesus would send them to the nations. But not yet.

Preparing cross-cultural workers today

How can we follow the same pattern in preparing cross-cultural missionaries today? Here are some conclusions I am making, albeit somewhat tentatively.

  1. Make sure that those who are going into cross-cultural ministries have had ample opportunities to first disciple others in their home culture.
  2. Find opportunities for short-term ministries among those who are possibly less strategic in terms of missiological priority but more likely to be good training opportunities. We need to find ways to build the confidence and competence of our new cross-cultural workers before sending them out to tackle the most challenging cross-cultural barriers.
  3. Recognize that the maturity and wisdom needed for assessing the needs of those in other cultures and adopting a variety of contextualized approaches are only developed over time. The ability to do ethnographic research is a valuable tool for any cross-cultural missionary. But research skills can never be a substitute for a lifelong walk of discipleship with Jesus.

Would you agree with these conclusions? I welcome your comments.

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