I remember graduating from Bible school and talking to the pastor of my home church about the possibility of being sent out by my local church, without the support of a missions agency. He looked at me in an indirect, condescending way and said, “well, I don’t know if the church would support that decision, but I personally would not support that decision.” In other words, forget that idea, because I know what most people in this church had for breakfast this morning.
He was right. I was young, green, idealistic and stupid. I needed some sort of support group on the field to help me grow up, help me navigate culture and language, and generally provide community, albeit imperfect and intermittent. I remember going home after our conversation thinking that if I were to be involved in the future in planting churches, it was incumbent upon me to submit to my own local church leadership.
I recognize the need for people without cross-cultural experience to have a context in which to learn, grow, grow-up and hopefully begin to adapt to and enjoy another culture. Increasingly, short-term experiences aid in providing some of this initial adaptation, but there is nothing like actually living in a place. Paying monthly bills. Searching for a doctor when one is ill. Living the strangeness. Experiencing confusion and even rejection. Mission agencies assist in providing this context.
If I were a mission agency president, how would I make sure people had at least the bare minimum of support and assistance on the field? That’s a good question. Way too many variables exist in the whole missionary process to give a specific answers to that question. Even broad generalities often break down in the wonderful and challenging dynamic of cross-cultural life.
But to start with, I would constantly encourage people to immerse themselves fully in their host culture. In my own personal experience, as a single I lived with a Mexican family of 6, a Costa Rican family of 3, then I rented a room from a Mexican widow and married my (beautiful) Mexican bride. In all of that time, I never lived alone (although I could have). I remember Joe and Betty Querfield missed me when I arrived for the first time at the San José airport because they said it looked like I knew where I was going. So…I guess the typical look is one of lostness and panic? I had three intense immersion experiences as a single, and courted my wife in Spanish. We were married in Mexico, in Spanish.
The all-too-common approach for missionaries is to live in an English-speaking missionary community, or even a self-contained, walled-in compound which are apparently still fairly common in Africa. Remember, what you gain in security, you sacrifice in accessibility. Every cross-cultural worker needs to prayerfully consider this trade-off. The tendency is to err on the side of security, although I know of several friends who have sacrificed security, something that I find refreshing. Another trade-off…what you gain in comfort, you lose in learning and, ultimately, effectiveness. It is not easy to not understand, to be placed in areas of incredible challenge, or deep humiliation. But that just comes with the territory. We must die to ourselves. It just so happens that cross-cultural workers have more opportunity to do just that, on a daily basis. Oh, to speak at least as well as Balaam’s donkey, knowing that very possibly people are viewing you as they would that particular animal!
I hope I would model this ridiculousness of ministry to others. That I wouldn’t be afraid, as president of my imaginary mission, to sit and laugh and cry at this painful, glorious process of the gospel of God fleshing itself out in the complex languages and cultures of the world, and in the headstrong and prideful culture of my own heart. Being bi-cultural and bi-lingual is tough. We all need to sit beside the Master, have him offer us bread, and see the scars in his wrists.
“Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” Good thing this doesn’t matter, because God still can and will change the course of human history through us. The foolishness of preaching combined with the ridiculousness of cross-cultural living creates fertile soil for the proclamation of the very potent and powerful good news of Jesus. We truly hold this treasure in earthen vessels.