Many of our partners come to Western Europe to work alongside us and are overwhelmed by the sin that they see practiced and even glorified in these cultures. Entire segments of the population find their identity in the sin that characterizes their lives. For many of our co-workers, it can be overwhelming to see such blatant disregard for all things that pertain to holiness. Recently, one volunteer commented, “Back home, people at least have the decency to try to hide what they’re doing!”
Many well-intentioned church planters and evangelists become so distracted by the sin around them, that they lose sight of the people. Their message changes from “Good news! There is hope in Jesus!” to the familiar “Bad news! You’re going to hell, sinner!” Of course, they’re right. Sin separates us from the Creator. Repentance is the vital response to salvation. I can see how it could be tempting to focus on preaching against sin.
But lost people don’t need to stop sinning. They need Jesus. In fact, without Jesus, lost people are incapable of curbing their appetites for sin. They are slaves to it. At best, they could learn to exchange the unacceptable sin in their lives for the hidden, “hey, nobody’s perfect” kind that is more acceptable in Christian circles. Sin is in our nature. It is the jail cell we’re all born into. The only escape is new life in Christ.
Besides, even if unbelievers could (they can’t) modify their behavior to match (outwardly, at least) a lifestyle becoming of a Christian, it wouldn’t matter. Not sinning doesn’t get us any closer to salvation. Why then, would we ever focus on people’s sin? Why would we exchange the message of redemption for one of condemnation? Why would we act as though it was our job to convict people of sin?
You’ve heard stories about missionaries suffering through difficult living conditions. You know that nearly all of them struggle through the processes of language learning and culture shock. Some have been ridiculed for their nationality, others have are persecuted for what they believe. Few would complain about these trials; after all, they signed up for this job, right?
You know who didn’t sign up for the job? The children of missionaries. Missionary kids go through everything their parents do (and usually more), but they don’t always have the choice of opting out of “suffering for Jesus.” Their parents may do it all the time, but nobody takes MKs seriously when they play the “It’s God’s will” card.
Many missionary kids go to sub-standard schools where they are teased and humiliated in languages that they don’t understand. They have a hard time relating to their peers and many end up being socially inept as the result. They are emotionally traumatized by ongoing identity crises and constantly feeling like they don’t belong. More than we’d like to admit end up resenting their parents and the God who called them to the field.
Is it okay that a missionary’s children suffer for the sake of his calling? I don’t know.
I believe that if God calls a person to missions, He will also, in some fashion, call their spouse and children. I’m not sure how it all works, but I figure that God knew when He called me what sort of family I would one day have.
MKs are amazing. They are almost always mature for their age, and wiser than they should be. Most know the reality of the unseen spiritual activity all around them, and are therefore more spiritually aware than “normal” folks would be. They, being constant outsiders, develop compassion for outsiders and a servant’s attitude for those in need. MKs usually grow up to be great missionaries. I think we should talk about them more than we do.
Since the demise of the short-sleeve pastel “missionary shirt” (you know- the one with two pockets on the breast and two at the waist), the button-down Oxford shirt with casual chinos has been the uniform of missionaries around the world. Some people like to spice it up a bit with an embroidered logo. Others dress it up with a shiny belt and pinstriped shirt. More than a few dress it down with hiking boots (or white sneakers) and a baseball cap. The outfit would seem to be the perfect attire for any situation that a missionary might find himself in.
Should missionaries dress like the people to whom they are ministering?
As foreigners, we will always be different from the people around us. But if some of those differences can be minimized by changing our shirts, shouldn’t we do it? When the bright, colorful sneakers with the white tube socks come walking up, most European nationals check out. What if dressing the part makes our message and transformed lives seem a little less foreign? I’m not talking about allowing missionaries to dress provocatively or immodestly (both concepts extremely relative, by the way) in the name of contextualization. By writing this post, I’m not refusing to submit to the authority of IMB leadership. I have nothing against my Dockers-wearing colleagues. I’m not a liberal.
I’m just asking.
In some cases, it seems clear that adopting the traditional style of dress is a necessary part of incarnation and cultural integration. Wearing robes, dashikis, mu?umu?us, burqas, and whatever they call those barber-smocks that Pakistanis wear, all seem like the price of admission into the culture for missionaries. But those are all cases where the people wear more clothing than we typically do in the States. What about those cases where it is the custom of the nationals to wear a loincloth or less?
What if dressing like the nationals means wearing Hugo Boss, Prada, or Dolce & Gabanna? In Western Europe, fitting in can be expensive. What if dressing appropriately for the cultural context means having to upgrade from Old Navy to Burberry?
Not so long ago, internet chat rooms were mostly populated by perverts and turbonerds. The current generation of young adults, however, has moved into the neighborhood and changed the rules. They’ve never known life without computers. For them, meeting people online is a normal part of life. They have real and meaningful relationships with people that they only know virtually.
Why not plant online churches as part of our global missions efforts? I’m not talking about evangelistic websites, comment-thread debaters, or hordes of E-vangelists copying and pasting Bible verses into site guestbooks. I mean commissioning real missionaries to engage unbelieving people in every corner of the earth through the internet. I believe that real churches could be planted through virtual efforts that mirror our real work on the field. Contextually appropriate gospel presentations. Relational discipleship that is both practical and biblical. Indigenous worship among communities of committed believers.
All it would take is a little training of committed cybernauts and some time. “Virtual Partners” could start to see their MySpace, Facebook, and Flickr pages as platforms to engaging online social circles. Blogs and message boards are great forums for the exchange of ideas and sowing of the gospel. Affinity-based websites are visited by people from all around the world. Social networking sites make it easier than ever for people to connect.
Some might assert that the anonymity of the internet makes true intimacy impossible. That may have been true in an analog age, but these days, people welcome the anonymity as security to share their most personal thoughts. Others might be concerned that comment threads on public blogs and boards are a poor place to have meaningful conversation because there’s so much room for misunderstanding. This isn’t so much a problem for lifelong internauts. They are adept at concise, meaningful (to them and their kind) conversations in multiple ongoing and overlapping encounters.
Globalization has made English (well, a form of English) the common language of the world wide web. That makes initial contact with different people pretty easy. Why not have partners start their ministries by finding a national to teach them the language of the focus people group? People group research would take on new meaning if the source material was a member of the people group in question.
I’m working on a couple new job requests. I’m looking for some new people to be full members of our team who only come and visit a couple times a year. They’ll go through orientation, learn language, and build relationships with people here through the internet (without quitting their day jobs). If you’re interested, send me an email.