Back in November of 2010, this blog appeared in slightly different format. It must have touched a nerve because it was followed by 50 comments, one of the largest numbers of comments ever on the Network. I'm repeating it now because we are looking at creating a webinar on this theme. So, read (or reread) and then vote on having this be a webinar in the coming church year. - Steve
One of the privileges I have is being part of mission emphasis celebrations at churches all over the denomination. Usually, I am the preacher of the day. Very often the pastor or a missions committee member says something like, "We are all missionaries and our mission field is right out that door." I must confess some mixed feelings about that statement.
On the one hand, it is absolutely true that the mission field is all around us today. Actually, that has always been the case. There never was a golden age when every single person in our communities was a committed Christian believer. However, in past generations we didn't see that so clearly. And reaching out to someone nearby whose life or culture is very different from our own is more difficult and personally challenging than delegating someone else to do that outreach on our behalf far away. Inviting that neighbor or co-worker to church or into our homes in order to show them Christ's love may require changes in our personal lives or church culture that may be uncomfortable.
Also, today, it is clear that many in North America need a cross-cultural approach if they are to hear the Gospel. That is not only true for recent immigrants from the Middle East, Asia or other parts of the world. It is true even for lifelong Americans who were raised in a culture that emphasizes the acquisition of material things and remarkable experiences rather than a life of loving faithfulness to the God who provides salvation through Jesus' blood. This includes our own children, and ourselves. Leslie Newbigin, the great British missionary to India, returned to his homeland in retirement and wrote powerfully about the need for a missionary approach to those in the West.
On the other hand, and I tread carefully because I am about to gore a sacred cow, these expressions can undermine the value of training and of calling in mission. We must all be witnesses for Jesus, wherever we are placed by God and with whatever knowledge and resources we have available. But there are a multitude of possible errors and much-unrealized potential in missions, especially when crossing cultures. By definition, when you are in a situation of cross-cultural communication, the cultural rules you are familiar with may not apply and, since culture is often invisible as water is invisible to a fish, you may not even recognize the issues. Doing this well requires some study and/or training in issues of cross-cultural communication and the particulars of the culture you are connecting with.
When I hear the word "missionary" several pictures come to mind. One is of our team in West Africa painstakingly working with a Muslim people group in one of the most resistant situations in the world. Most of them have spent 20 years or more investing deeply in the language and culture of the people they are trying to reach with the Gospel. They share their difficult way of life, to a very large extent, and love them deeply, desiring that they receive life through Jesus so much that they make great sacrifices. A North American church planter faces different issues, but he or she also needs training and the call of God to understand the particular culture to be reached and effective methods for reaching it. Of course, those church planters and missionaries need a host of people alongside them, physically or in prayer, in order to be effective. We all know how to cook, but some are called and gifted to be chefs of the Gospel message.
I really hope that some of you will write a comment on this blog. I'm sure many of its readers will want to take issue with it, or at least nuance it in some way. Have at it!