I am finding more and more that people like me (middle-class Americans) are considered ill-suited candidates for church-planting missions to foreign fields. I try not to take it personally (I just close my eyes and pretend it’s just sixth grade all over again and my friends are choosing me last for a baseball team – seriously, no emotional pain whatsoever!). But I do worry that this is a case of a good emphasis becoming a blind for those who’d rather not order their lives by the Great Commission. Let me explain what I mean…
Have you ever heard someone say about national believers on some mission field, “Well, they know how to do it a lot better than we do.” In this sentence, ‘it‘ is the work of the ministry. The speaker means that national believers know better how to reach their own people than a foreign missionary. They know better how to build national churches. Why? Well, we are told, they understand the culture and language in a way the missionary never will. Ostensibly, there is wisdom in this estimation. Anyone with a bit of experience in missions has seen the challenges that the gap between cultures can present to missionaries. So it does seem like national believers would have a leg up on foreign missionaries.
Let’s go back to the team-picking scene from my sixth-grade recess. I get picked last. Why? Small. Slow. Clumsy. Not exactly qualities valued on the sandlot. Now let’s say that we’re picking who to send as a church-planter to a city in China (or the Philippines, or wherever). What are we looking for? Those with the perspective mentioned above would first narrow it down to cultural-insiders, then pick the most suitable one from the leftovers. I think that doing so puts a lot of qualified men on the bench!
Do these factors (culture and language) really deserve to be weighed so heavily? Are foreign languages so hard to learn, and foreign cultures so hard to adapt to, that an outsider is going to be seriously handicapped for the duration of their ministry? My answer is no. I have seen too many outsiders become effective insider-ministers to think so. Anyone who is willing to work hard for a year or two can become proficient in a new language. And cultures are hardly the unbreakable codes that people make them out to be (people are people, at the end of the day).
Frankly, I find this perspective myopic. When it comes to the obstacles that must be overcome to qualify one as a church-planter, about the least foreboding one in the bunch is culture! How about finding men who are theologically grounded? How about men who preach with power? How about men who have the wisdom to guide an infant church to maturity? How about men who have the loving spirit necessary to make disciples? How about men of integrity who will thrive in a position of relative independence? These are the qualities that are to be most desired; they are also those in shortest supply the world round!
My last post talked about measuring the wrong thing in missions; I’m afraid this is one of the best instances I’m aware of. When it comes time to pick a church-planter, whether or not he happens to speak the same language as the people in that place is a minor issue compared to these others! Of course, he’ll have to learn. But some things are more easily learned than others.
So take heart, my missions-minded American brothers and sisters! There is still a place for you on fields all over the world! Yes, you will need to qualify yourself by language school. Yes, you will have some discomfort as you acclimate to a new culture. But on the other side of those anthills lies a vast harvest field ready for your scythe! Don’t let your third-world brethren rejoice alone in their labors! Your skin color, your mother tongue, and your citizenship don’t preclude or exclude you from Great Commission efforts. There is still a great need for cross-cultural missionaries!
Still to come: why does it matter? Some ways this perspective causes harm…