Hurricane Irene recently hit the East Coast. It isn’t often that a storm like this would travel so far north, so residents from Georgia to New England hunkered down. Fortunately, there was time to prepare. In fact, there was lots of time. It wasn’t until five days after the storm was identified that it made landfall in the Bahamas, and two days until it hit U.S. soil. New York city was a ghost town for three days. There was time to stock up on food and drinking water. Time to board up windows and evacuate. Plenty of time. Maybe too much time.
Too much time to prepare can kill our readiness. We overthink things. We get distracted. We learn to live with the stress and quickly adjust to the anticipation as though it will be our new reality. Sometimes, the waiting ruins us.
I have a friend who is called to Haiti. She’s known for some time, now. After the earthquake there in early 2010, God gave her a clear sense that He wanted her to go. She immediately responded.
Right away, my friend joined a short-term medical trip and went. Over the course of those 10 days, God made it clear that yes, this is where He wanted her to live full-time. When she got home, she received news that her job at the hospital had been cut due to money shortages. She took that as another sign.
My friend started looking for opportunities in Haiti. An orphanage. A hospital. No doors were opened. She sold all of her “stuff” and moved in with friends to save on rent. She took EMT certification training and enrolled in French classes. She had prepared for what God had told her. That was over a year ago.
Since then, my friend has taken a job. She’s devoted her free time to learning about the Haitian people, making connections there, and preparing spiritually and mentally for the move. The hardest part, she says, is not becoming discouraged. The waiting can kill our preparedness.
Some of my missionary colleagues can relate to the waiting. I know people who’ve found themselves in a holding pattern for years before they every get to the field. A house that won’t sell, a child with special needs. Lack of funding. A visa. Medical clearance. Schooling. All of these things can keep an otherwise-ready missionary from doing what he’s been called to do.
Usually, they over-think: “Maybe I’m not ready.” “Is there sin in my life?” “Did I misunderstand God?” “Should I just forget the whole thing?” They feel foolish before their friends. “I thought you were moving to Haiti- did you change your mind?” Like Noah building a boat in the desert, preparation can seem pretty foolish to those around you.
If this describes your experience, don’t be discouraged! There is hope!
In my next few posts, I’d like to explore what to do when you’re called but haven’t yet been sent. What do you do in the meantime? How can you keep your focus, motivation, and sanity as you wait for the next step in what God has shown you to do? Don’t give up (you can’t, anyway. Try to run from it and God might send a big fish to bring you back)! For some, there is a clear reason for the wait. For others, the reasons never come to light. Either way, there is a great deal you can do to prepare and stay prepared to do what God has told you to do.
I’ve long been a fan of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. Their book, The Shaping of Things to Come inspired me toward exploring a missional approach to missiology. I know these men personally, and they are some of the most thoughtful, articulate, and creative thinkers around.
John Piper recently wrote a post on the Desiring God blog blasting Frost and Hirsch for a section in their newest book, The Faith of Leap, that suggests that God took a risk in entrusting His mission to humanity. I encourage everyone to read both the book and Piper’s rebuke.
It would be more than Piper did.
Piper’s post was accompanied by a short video of him explaining his motivation for writing. In that video, he explains that “the guys at Desiring God” had asked him to to respond to the paragraph in question. He hasn’t read the book, or apparently, the paragraph in context. This is not helpful.
Clearly, this is a part of Desiring God’s media strategy- generate controversy by having John Piper “respond” to out-of-context excerpts in an effort to generate traffic on their site. I’m sure it worked, because here I am writing about the whole thing.
I’m frustrated with John Piper’s MacArthurian need to condemn and repudiate what others are saying. Hirsch and Frost are not part of a movement to deny God’s sovereignty, and we don’t need Piper to be our watchdog. Furthermore, as with his Tweet about Rob Bell, he continues to come off like a mean old man rather than a wise and loving shepherd. Heaven forbid the man should ask a question rather an assuming he understands which heresy box everyone else falls into.
Nevertheless, John Piper is right about The Faith of Leap. In the first chapter, Frost and Hirsch express a desire for what they refer to as a “theology of risk.” They explain that traditional evangelicalism doesn’t have much room for the idea that God takes something of a risk in his relationship with humanity. They are right- there isn’t room for that.
God took no real “risk” in determining to use human means to spread His gospel. There’s no risk because there’s no chance beyond His control that his mission might fail. God will accomplish His purposes, and He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. If His plans depended on us, they would certainly fail. If the eternal destiny of the nations depends on us, they have no hope. That is the good news, after all, that our hope is not in our own works nor in the faithfulness of others, but in the completed work of Jesus on the cross.
So when Frost and Hirsch say that God seems to have taken something of a risk on us, they’re wrong. Except that they are exploring the tension that the church inevitably finds on mission: despite God’s sovereignty, I am free to disobey. And I do disobey (usually not intentionally, mind you). If God has elected to save an individual and I have the opportunity to be the means by which He reveals Himself to that man, I can opt out.
Let’s be clear- opting out isn’t a wise or safe thing to do. As my friend, Michael Carpenter points out over at his blog, just ask Jonah. When we fail to follow God’s leadership, be it out of rebellion or ignorance, we miss out. We miss the blessing of doing exactly what we were saved to do.
Which is why Piper’s critique rings hollow; condemning the idea of risk without acknowledging the tension between God’s sovereignty and my depravity is disingenuous. Frost and Hirsch aren’t trying to write a new theology, they’re exploring the “foolishness” (by human standards) of a God who would choose to use imperfect messengers like us to call the world to Himself.
John Piper and Frost/Hirsch aren’t coming from the same perspective (theological or otherwise.) But Piper would do well to read Frost and Hirsch. It might help him reconsider his divisively abstract and distractingly ambiguous standard of “that which brings God the most glory.”
A better way to handle the situation would have been to sit down with the authors and ask them about the offending paragraph. Desiring God went to the trouble of filming a video, why not include a bit of a response from Alan and Mike?
PREVIOUSLY: Crowdsource the Translation
For my last post in this series on The Seed Company, I’d like to turn my attention to the organization’s communication efforts.
The Seed Company has a lofty goal to lead the way in Bible translation by promoting the utilization of technology and community-based translation cohorts to accelerate the work. They’ve also been extremely gracious in accepting and interacting with my entirely unsolicited advice. Needless to say, I’m a fan. So it’s in love and a spirit of humility that I offer some advice for their communications.
If I were in charge of The Seed Company’s communications, here are some things I’d want to implement:
What’s the difference?
In his comment on a recent post of mine, Eddie, who works with Wycliffe UK, wrote: “you do not seem to have understood the different roles of Wycliffe and the Seed Company.” I’m sure he’s right; throughout the course of this series I’ve confused the work of one for that of the other. But if those differences are lost on me, a missionary practitioner, missiologist, and communications consultant, will it be any clearer to the general public?
As it stands, The Seed Company does a poor job distinguishing itself from Wycliffe Bible Translators. I believe much of confusion is due to their reluctance in saying explicitly what their website implies: “Some thought Wycliffe was too slow, so they started The Seed Company to be faster and more innovative.” The problem isn’t helped by the fact that The Seed Company seems to speak in the first-person “we” when referring to work done by other organizations (in the missions world, it’s called “partnering.” (By the way, Johanna gives an excellent clarification in her comment on that same post.)
The communication is further confused by the various initiatives and campaigns they’ve sponsored. OneVerse and End Bible Poverty, from what I gather, are programs of the Seed Company, which is an organization started by Wycliffe, while the Blank Bible Challenge seems to be more of a campaign, done in partnership of an organization and one of its programs. Each of these has its own URL and though they’re all quite well done, it’s hard to tell what’s what and whether the money they raise is all going to the same place.
Bring in the church
Currently, trained consultants assist first-language (native) translators to insure accuracy in new translation projects. At any given point in time, a consultant is interacting with multiple translators on multiple languages. The process does not require the consultant to be fluent in each of the languages. Usually, the dialog between translators and consultants happens behind closed doors. But what if it didn’t?
I recommend that The Seed Company pull back the curtain on the translation process, and allow the general public to see and participate in the “behind the scenes” discussion. Making these interactions (which may happen over the internet) open to all would be a great way to intrigue, equip, and involve more people on mission. Those translators who are working from English source material could benefit from the input of many. It would allow participating individuals and their churches, to get to know nationals and interact with them personally while working on valuable translation projects.
The Seed Company App
Despite the fact that The Seed Company has digital copies of hundreds of translations of the scriptures, they don’t generally handle the publication and distribution of those translations. But they should. A mobile app would be a perfect way to distribute the scriptures freely. Say I run into an Afghan immigrant at a bus stop and find myself sharing the gospel with him. I look up a passage of scripture in English using an app on my iPhone, and The Seed Company app allows me to show that same passage to the man in his native Hazaragi dialect of Persian. Then, as we part ways, I email the man the scriptures in his language as a gift.
This would be way more helpful than an app that “helps” me not drink coffee and send the money to translation agencies instead.
Don’t hide behind objectivity
Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, the Seed Company should personalize its work by highlighting the personalities of its people. Let interesting people like Johanna Fenton and Gilles Gravelle and others explore innovative ways of telling the stories of translation. We don’t need more “objective” (whitewashed, staid) coverage of “what God is doing on the mission field.” We need real people to work through the tensions, challenges, joys and blessings of this adventure we call mission. Every organization needs at least one spokesperson to make it personal. Who’s The Seed Company’s?
EDIT: Changed some wording in the second and fifth paragraphs for clarity, and edited the eighth to show that not all translation consulting happens via the internet.
PREVIOUSLY: The Endangered Cultures List
The Seed Company is the advance guard of scripture translation. Their strategy is specially designed to jump-start the process by finding nationals to lead the work and prioritizing the translation of certain passages. It’s quite remarkable, really.
But there is more they could do to accelerate Bible translation.
Historically, scripture translation has been done by trained professionals. Involvement of supporters has therefore been limited to financial contributions. Give money, the strategy goes, and we will produce the translation. That’s not to say that Bible translations are being done through the tedious work of lone individuals- it’s a group effort. For every target language, translation efforts depend on a network of nationals, scholars, researchers, linguists, and writers to do the job. The Seed Company uses modern technology and its OurWord translation software (see video embedded in The Seed Company’s home page) to facilitate communication between translators and consultants.
As large and dynamic as these teams can be, I say they’re not large and dynamic enough. I would open them up to public participation; crowdsource the work.
Crowdsourcing is relying on the participation of volunteers to accomplish a task or maintain knowledge. Open source software is one example of crowdsourcing- its copyright allows users to makes changes to the source code, improving its compatibility, functionality, and usability. Wikipedia is another good example. Thousands of volunteer editors write the entries to the online encyclopedia that is accurate and up-to-date (and has put traditionally-edited print encyclopedias out of business).
The Seed Company should set up a wiki site that allows everyone from amateur linguists to phililogy students to national believers to aid in the translation of the scriptures. As with Wikipedia, users could write, edit, and maintain accurate translations of passages and books of the Bible in every available language. The source could always be available online to anyone who wanted to participate. The works-in-progress would provide tangible projects for churches to take on. Rather than holding potentially supportive churches at a “pray, give, or go” arm’s length, open source scripture translation would invite people in to direct and tangible involvement. Churches could support individual translations and help recruit native speakers to assist with the work.
A greater base of locals would have ownership in the project, adding a level of indigeneity to what might otherwise be seen by supporters as patronizing efforts by outsiders. Regional versions could be accommodated, allowing for hyper-local translation in linguistically-diverse areas. The process would be maintained in an ongoing fashion; translations would no longer be considered either “in progress” or “finished,” and could instead keep up with the rapid changes all languages undergo. Curation of a translation by nationals could be an indicator of the viability of an indigenous church among a people.
Some have already turned to “the crowd” for projects related to the Bible. Crossway has tracked the highlighting practices of users of its online ESV Bible to find the most commonly highlighted Psalms. Self-described conservatives are crowdsourcing a “conservative” version of the King James Bible (what they call a “translation,” I’m calling an “interpretation.”) Nevertheless, their project shows that such an undertaking is possible and productive; the conservative New Testament was produced in about a year.
Sure, there are concerns and objections (mostly on the part of professional translators)- can we trust the translation of the public? Of unbelievers? What about militant atheists who want to vandalize the project? How can we guarantee the accuracy and integrity of a translation done by strangers? What about the languages of isolated tribes who don’t have computers or internet access?
Well, for starters, technology can make this work. Version and editions tracking can make managing such a project viable. Those nationals who are currently regarded as “translators” would become editors. Their job would be to review and approve editions and proposed changes. Users could flag questionable or unhelpful translation wherever they run into it, and links could provide alternate translations. Source material could be viewed parallel to the target translation, and reference material could be easily accessed. All of this can be done on a text-based website designed to work on mobile phones.
At the very least, a raw translation can serve as rough drafts for professional translators rather than having them start from scratch. It would be the ultimate in accountability, as translation progress would be publicly visible. It would build community among participants, instill a sense of ownership, and give churches practical handles for supporting churches.
Crowdsourcing would greatly accelerate scripture translation.
NEXT: The Seed Company, Misunderstood
PREVIOUSLY: The Words of the Word
Advocating for literacy can be a PR problem for scripture translation agencies. You see, literacy campaigns within literate cultures are widely accepted as good things. But promoting literacy among pre-literate peoples (those who do not have a written language) can smack of imperialism. Combine that with efforts toward evangelization, and the general public can really come to resent scripture translation missionaries as colonialists who insist on ruining innocent cultures with Western ideals.
To make matters worse, scripture translation has been married to the anthopological approach to missions for the last 30 years. The task-orientation of this philosophy has made translation more about the task than about the people. Consequently, its come to be seen as auxiliary to mission; something that isn’t missions itself, but helpful to actual missions. Of course, this isn’t true.
If I were leading the scripture translation group, The Seed Company, I would combat this with a broad campaign to raise awareness of the impending demise of languages and cultures. In this light, missionary scripture translation is literally saving cultures. The first thing I’d do is start a list of endangered languages and circulate it widely. I would make a theological argument for the preservation of minority cultures based on Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 16, and show their missiological value by highlighting the uniqueness and each endangered culture.
I’d remind people that each culture’s history and perspective provides us with an opportunity to know and see God from a different angle. Tim Keller says, “The city is home to more image-of-God per square foot than anywhere else.” I would add that losing a culture is the world losing observable image-of-God. The Seed Company could champion the value of human cultural diversity. When a culture interacts with the scriptures, we can learn a lot about God. Translating the Bible isn’t about making isolated cultures more like ours, it’s about giving them a voice so that they might influence others.
Doing so would help distinguish The Seed Company from its parent organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators as the social side of missionary translation. It would have the added benefit of facilitating partnership with a broader range of organizations and might bring in public and corporate funding (and mainstream attention) for specific efforts. With such an emphasis, there’s no reason that The Seed Company couldn’t partner with groups like the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in the Enduring Voices Project. This would surely accelerate Bible translation.
Furthermore, I’d cast literacy as the solution to globalization, which is both a social and spiritual problem. If we don’t translate the scripture into every human language, we’ll soon all be shopping at Walmart, drinking Starbucks lattes, and speaking the lazy, slang-infested language that passes for English these days. My campaign would feature images of the children of an isolated tribe in the Amazon wearing clothes from Abercrombie and Fitch and starving men from Somalia in line to order food at McDonald’s. That world isn’t good for anybody. Globalization is the opposite of indigeneity. Proposing a one-size-fits-all solution across cultures is social Darwinism. Indigeneity means that members of a tribe, tongue, and nation should not have to join another culture in order follow Jesus.
Scripture translation as literacy promotion and culture preservation would be a campaign that a new generation of activists (and donors) could really get behind. It would recast missionary Bible translation efforts as sociology rather than propaganda.
That’s not all I’d change if I were running The Seed Company…
NEXT: Translators Wanted
I admire the work of those who translate the scriptures into different languages. Indigenous church simply isn’t possible without a version of the Bible in the local language. Groups like Wycliffe Bible Translators and The Seed Company mobilize translators around the world to produce reliable working translations of the Bible into the languages of the “unreached.” Their work assists missionaries and local churches alike in making disciples of all nations.
Few people realize how difficult the translation process can be. Of course, the material is extremely sensitive and requires respect and care. After all, we are talking about the Bible here. Professionals labor over the text for years to produce a working translation, and, according to OneVerse, translations costs $26 USD per verse. There is also the question of interpretation. Despite what the King-James-Version-only crowd might say, there is no objective version of scripture. That’s why there are so many versions of scripture in English alone: each has its bias and perspective.
In some cases, translation is being done into languages that have no written form; translators literally start from scratch, forming an alphabet of native sounds and then working from there. In these cases, people need to be taught to read the languages they already speak.
Another challenge to scripture translation is the rapid rate of change that languages face today. Dictionaries struggle to keep up with the changing language, as illustrated by the Oxford English Dictionary‘s recent addition of the “words,” OMG” and “retweet” and exclusion of the term “cassette tape.” Accelerated by technology and social media, a language changes quickly enough to render a scripture translation obsolete before its even finished.
Many Bible translators find themselves working to translating the scriptures into dying languages. According to National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project, a minority language dies out every 14 days. The extinction of a language means the end of a cultural identity and the possible loss of that culture’s history. Scripture translation doesn’t just help with the spread of the gospel, it builds literacy; allowing one generation to tell its stories and the next generation to understand those stories and benefit from their wisdom.
As much as I appreciate the work of scripture translation organizations, I’m not sure what they’re doing is sustainable. If I were in charge of The Seed Company (and this series of posts will likely guarantee this never happens), I would change everything. Over the next few posts, I’ll explain how.
NEXT: The PR Problem
Mission isn’t about the recipients, it’s about the Sender.
Missiologist David Bosch wrote that mission should be defined in terms of its nature rather than its addressees. It’s true that Jesus spent a lot more time talking about Himself and His relationship to the Father than He did about the specifics of the people He came to save. In His final instructions to His followers, Jesus doesn’t say, “People are dying and going to hell… therefore go…” He doesn’t even mention the need. Instead, He reminds us that He is boss, and He sends us. “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me… therefore go…” We go because He sends us.
Most of the time, missionaries get distracted by the tremendous and terrible need all around them. Overcome with compassion for lost and suffering humanity (which is obviously a good thing), they take their eyes off of the Sender (not a good thing at all). The problem with focusing on the need is that it’s overwhelming, everywhere, and ever-present.
Of course we need to know the people to whom we’re called. Demographics and sociological research are vital to knowing where people are, how they think, and how best to communicate the gospel into their cultures. But statistics are a terrible place to start our mission.
If you really want to know how your church or organization fits into God’s global mission, by all means, make a map. But before we worry about what people groups live where, let’s map those places to which God is calling His people. Let’s track what God is actually doing through His people rather than trying to project what we think He should or might do.
Picture it: a map of the world marked with all the places that churches feel led (or, in missions-speak “called” to) and maybe a key to what sorts of gifting and skill sets “the called” bring bring to the mission. The map could include churches, networks, and organizations who are organizational hubs for work among certain peoples and places. The resulting graphs would look more like epidemiology than demograhy or ethnography.
In this way, the efforts of churches may be directed at, say, Central and South America. But the churches planted there may send their people out to the Middle East and West Africa. Churches in Korea may be led to all of Asia, and press on to the Indian subcontinent, who then go to Central and Western Europe. The spread of the gospel is being catalyzed through revival, natural disasters, and social and political events.
In addition to mapping where people have obediently gone, we could gain further insight by noting where people have been called but not yet gone. That would be an ideal way for missions “mobilizers” to know where to put their efforts- toward equipping those people who have already heard from God to have the courage and competence they need to be obedient to what God has told them to do.
Mission is not about the great need in all the world. It’s really not even about the people for whom Christ died. It’s about the King and His mission to redeem people to Himself though the church who serves as a sign of the Kingdom. Mission is about the Sender.
Replace the nutrients and taste with preservatives and slick packaging, and you can get the general public to eat just about anything. Something about the convenience of it all made frozen and dehydrated “prepared meals” commonplace in Western homes. After a couple generations raised on ready-made meals, obesity has become a first-world epidemic, and cooking actual food is something of a novelty. Prepackaged food may be cheap and easy, but it costs a lot.
Christians, too, love for everything to be prepackaged. When it comes to mission, churches love their programs, seasonal campaigns, and 4-part sermon series. Put together a six-week study or a ten-day trip, and people will sign up. But in mission, like with TV dinners, convenience comes at a price.
When someone else tells you how to participate in mission, they also do the part that makes one a missionary. You’re left with only the option to do whatever it is they’re telling you to do or do nothing at all (and feel pretty bad about it). But the truth is that we all need to go through the process of praying through the question of to whom we are sent.
The process that builds your relationship with God; you become more dependent on Him, and you learn to hear His voice. These aren’t just helpful skills for a missionary, they’re survival skills for all Christians everywhere. So it really wouldn’t do for me to offer an alternative to existing approaches, would it? To warn of the dangers of popular missiologies and then to offer another finely-developed theory to replace them?
No, the role of the missiologist is not to develop a missions strategy for you, your organization, or your church, it’s to call you back to the scriptures and help you walk in step-by-step obedience to the Spirit’s direction for you on mission. It’s to remind you that there’s a distance between the culture you live in and the Kingdom of God, and that your job is to sort out how to best be a taste of the coming Kingdom.
In my analysis of the Anthropological approach to mission, I’ve tried to show that people group thinking is helpful, but not necessarily a biblical mandate. I’ve also tried to show the need to replace the philosophy of missions as task with one of mission as identity. But what does all this look like practically? I can’t tell you. That would be cheating.
It’s nothing personal. It isn’t a question of security clearance or “need-to-know.” And it’s not that I don’t have any ideas; I’ve given much thought to what I believe to be appropriate strategies for a church on mission. I think there are better ways for us to understand and engage in God’s global mission. I think that the church should be central to the selection and sending process. I think missionary should be a synonym for disciple. I think we should only go when and where the Holy Spirit directs us. I know we need new models for sending, support, organization, and incarnation. I’m excited about the possibilities for gift-based service and incarnation at every level of society. I’m a strategy guy, so I’ve got my theories.
I’d really like to suggest an alternative approach to mission, but, as you can see, I just can’t.
I notice street signs.
Yes, all motorists are supposed to “notice” the signs that direct the flow of traffic, warn of possible danger, and inform us about our location. But I notice them because I’m a communication geek.
Did you know that the United States Interstate Highway system has its own typographical font? It’s called “Highway Gothic,” and it was designed for legibility from a distance and at speed. It’s kept traffic flowing safely since 1945.
There’s even an international committee of graphic designers who worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop universal symbols for signage on roads and in subways, ports, rail and bus stations, and airports. Their goal is to create symbols that will communicate the rules and routes of transportation to as many people as possible.
In the U.S., the “no” symbol is a red circle with a diagonal slash through it. In Europe, they don’t use slashes, just the red circle.
Each state is responsible for the wording of their signs, which can be quite a challenge. Longer messages mean more letters and larger signs, resulting in greater expense. Being terse can save money, but smaller signs are less visible and succinct language can be more easily misunderstood. Abbreviations and inconsistencies are not advised. The purpose of a road sign, after all, is to help drivers orient themselves along the way, navigate irregular conditions, and warn them of what they’ll face up ahead.
I’ve written much lately about mission being our identity in Christ. When we come to know Jesus, we do so by joining Him in His mission. All followers of Christ are therefore missionaries. But what does that mean?
It means that we are signs.
The Bible is clear that we are saved to do “good works.” Our default behavior in this world is to love our neighbors, do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. We do these things because righteousness is the effect of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. By allowing others to see our efforts, we point people to God. This is our role in God’s global mission.
Ultimately, I’m with missiologist David Bosch: as Jesus followers, our lives serve as signs– “previews” to the already-but-not-yet Kingdom of God. We give people a glimpse into what life can be like when people are forgiven of sin, made right with their creator, and sent out to make disciples of all nations. As Bosch often writes, “our mission is not more than this, but certainly nothing less.”
In order to be signs of this one, specific Kingdom, we must pay attention to how we communicate it. Like the road signs that direct traffic, we must be visible, recognizable and understandable to those we wish to direct. Works of peace, generosity, and justice require verbal proclamation of the gospel in order to point people to the One who saves.
This is a key missiological point: we do not bring the Kingdom of God to people. Neither do we bring people to the Kingdom. All we can be (and it is much!) are signs pointing people to the Savior, who brings the Kingdom to people. Our presence, be it at home or in a far-off place, is to point people to the Most High God.
We can be good, helpful, informative signs or dangerously vague signs; but as His people, we are God’s signs to the people around us.
Imagine that you move to a far-off place to live among a tribe of people of a culture very different from the one you grew up in. Here, you’re truly a fish out of water. They do everything differently here, and you don’t like it one bit.”Things are much better back home,” you complain. “Why can’t they just do it like that here?”
You publicly challenge the chief’s authority, explaining that he has too much power. You recommend that he limit his authority to only a few, vital tribal concerns, and that they institute free-market capitalism. You’re offended by the tribe’s customary dress, as loincloths and grass skirts are immodest. You recommend more appropriate attire. You scoff at their concern over the use of the land, you disapprove of their art, and you refuse to allow your children to play with theirs.
In this imaginary scenario, you’re a pretty bad missionary.
In matters of justice, the missionary must speak out. He should not be shy about calling sin what it is. In all things, he should demonstrate how his relationship with God through Jesus influences his every opinion and affects every aspect of his life. But to social ills, the missionary offers Christ alone as the solution. He recognizes that a society’s problems are merely symptoms of the underlying issue- that people are separated from their Creator, and utterly lost without Him. They will neither honor Him as God nor give thanks to Him. As the scriptures say, they have became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts have been darkened. Lost people will do the things lost people do. They are powerless to do anything else. Even if they were to muster the wherewithal to act like Christians, it wouldn’t get them any closer to God.
The missionary who puts effort into making his host culture more like his home culture is like the soldier who has become entangled in civilian pursuits. On the mission field, this makes you a bad missionary.
In the United States, though, it makes you a conservative.
Conservatives publicly challenge the authority of officials they disagree with. They’re champions of free-market capitalism. They constantly complain about immorality (which is rampant) in America. They scoff at society’s environmental concerns, disapprove of its art, and work to isolate themselves from the very people they’ve been placed among.
Across the country, evangelicals have come to identify with social and political movements that aim to preserve a culture that no longer exists. Nostalgia for the good ol’ days is no less counter-mission than the international missionary who longs to turn primitive peoples into Midwestern American suburbanites. Yes, we should participate in society and work for the good of our cities. We should vote our conscience, live out our values, and support those who seek to do good. It’s important to be well-informed. It makes sense that we would have an affinity for those who share our perspectives. We must be on our guard against the evil all around us.
But we can never forget that we are pilgrims and strangers. Our citizenship is not of this world. We are missionaries here, and our role is to show and tell people that Jesus alone is the answer to their God problem. In the midst of political debates, changing societal norms, and frustrating ignorance, it’s important that we not get sidetracked by trying to change the culture through anything other than the redemption of those to whom we’ve been called.
Everything we do is to that end. What neighborhoods we live in, what schools we send our children to, the cars we drive, the bond measures we vote for. You’re a missionary, just passing through. There are no points for surviving.