I once was called to be a cross-cultural missionary. I served in Bolivia and came home, washed-out, after personal and family problems, within three years.
I thought I was done. But the tender care of Dr William Greathouse, my presiding general superintendent (he wrote me personal uplifting hand-written letters every week), my mission’s executive, Dr Jerry Johnson (he refused to accept my offer to turn in my credentials, telling me that “the church was not done with me yet”), and field directors Tom and Linda Spalding (Linda held my face in her hands, and sang “broken pieces, ruined lives are why You died on Calvary”), these and many others offered a unified denominational message that knit redemption back into my saddened spirit.
For that and more, I am forever indebted. That experience and those responses have cultured and contoured my Christian life and ministry ever since. I am forever grateful to Bolivia for being the context of my hurt and pain. Bolivians suffer often and resolutely. But those years, never discarded by God, have been translated into ever-expanding service that now sees me ministering in various urban centers of the world.
So what have I learned from cross-cultural missionary service that informs me now in this crazy, urban world. I have learned that . . .
1. . . Wherever we go, we take time out to listen to people. In Bolivia, I had to listen to learn the culture. And, in the city, I, too, have to listen, intently, intentionally, to nuance and sense underlying issues, without prescripting an agenda. Listening allows one to be somewhat “mysterious,” encouraging the talker to ultimately probe your mystery, and eventually your God.
2. . . To enter as a “student,” voraciously learning from everyone and everything, opens up doors of communication. To posture as an authority or “know-it-all,” clamps down communication and slams doors shut. In Brazil, neighbors wondered if I was a spy. When I finally conceded that I was (tongue in cheek) “a spy for Jesus, learning everything I could in order to appreciate the good,” the tension relaxed. Go as “Joshua spies” into the City.
3. . . “Context” is as important as “content.” Cross-cultural missionaries are diligently taught to study “worldviews” of target peoples. Sometimes, worldviews clash with Christianity; sometimes natural affinities emerge. In the City, worldviews are diverse, contradictory, but are key to understanding and relating the Gospel.
4. . . Missionaries dedicate themselves to “apologetics,” the rationale and explanation of the Gospel to people who don’t understand. The apostle Paul, master of apologetics, “duked it out” in Athens with the intelligentsia in a calm, reasoned manner. In the urban rush to secularism or alternative religions, we need to hone the skills of effective dialogue and debate without acrimony or insult.
5. . . We network and link with others. Missionaries who play “ministry solitaire,” fail because they either duplicate resources or ignore them. A unique characteristic of missionaries is their willingness to engage cross-denominationally out of both need and weakness. Our danger in the City is to remain elusive and exclusive, eeking out enough of a support system to confine ourselves to our own sub-cultural worlds. Resources surface unexpectedly in the community. It is for us to identify and develop them.
6. . . We invest the same diligence in learning about urban culture community as we would, preparing for cross-cultural ministry. Therefore we ought to read the local papers, study the local community, meet the local leaders, chat with the elderly, with those that have ministered before; in sum, enter into the woof and warp of the society. Training can be enhanced by formal education (specific degrees and courses), by non-formal experiences (workshops, seminars, and non-degree orientation), and by informal experiences (books, newspapers, mentors). In Jeremiah 29, the exiles were told to marry, have children and be productive in this, their unsolicited homeland, to seek the shalom of the city, for there, they would find their own shalom.
7. . . Evil is three-faceted. Personal evil, that is, individual decisions for hell and heaven, are ultimately important. But “systemic” evil, is a huge issue in all cultures, with their layers of bribery, injustice, exploitation, and favored tilts towards people of privilege. A third dimension of evil, “cosmological,” gnaws at the human soul, seen as demon possession, Satanic attacks and warfare, without regards to boundaries. The arsenal of defense against each of these, once thought to be the domain of the “mission” field, must now be exercised in our cities.
8. . . An attitude of love is critical as a precondition of ministry. Love for people and context is sensed “up front” and, all gestures, both negative and positive will be interpreted from that sensed intuition. Love may not come naturally, and is often suspect if is does. The love for nation, city or clan (especially when human love fails), is God-given and supersedes the trials, heartbreaks and discouragements that the ministry context can dump on a minister. The passion of love is resilient, patient, long-suffering and redemptive.
9. . . Before one enters an international or urban context, God is already there. It is for us to see the signs of the Kingdom, to celebrate them. We need to be wary of the line that says, “He has no hands but our hands!” in that it tempts us to posture as Messiah or to ignore where He has already been shaping the Kingdom. We expect to be blindsided by “grace.”
10. . . The Gospel is “wholistic,” in that it addresses all aspects of humanity, indeed, all of God’s entire creation. There is nothing that does not come under His sovereignty and interest. Therefore, I don’t discount some issues and persons as irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. In the same way that a butterfly’s flutter in the South Pacific can stimulate a cascade of events that can grow into the hurricane of the Caribbean, a tiny gesture of care can set in motion, grand movements of grace.
11. . . All people ache for community. In the Two-Thirds World, community is more highly regarded as precious and essential whereas, in Western autonomous cities, independent living violates the human cry for community. God’s primary redemptive and therapeutic institution is the Church. People can never be whole unless they are webbed into healthy community or extricated from pathological ones.
11. . . The universal language that grips people’s souls is the language of “suffering.” For most of us, there are no convenient short cuts that will grab our attention, hold our gaze, like grace in the midst of suffering. Christian ministers, be they cross-cultural or urban, may be required to trudge though the valley of the shadow of death–personal, economic, relational, or psychological–stepping in the footprints of a suffering Christ who died, an outcast.