It’s not easy being an official representative of one nation to another. Diplomatic emissaries often find themselves in difficult situations- delivering bad news to hostile hosts. Miscommunication, even between friendly states, can be costly. Good ambassadors work hard to learn local culture and language in order to be effective communicators, but when the message isn’t what they were hoping to hear, leaders tend to take it out on the messenger. This it why the Geneva Convention mandates diplomatic immunity.
Diplomatic immunity is a law that protects official representatives of a nation by not holding them accountable to local laws or regulations. This is why the French Ambassador can smoke Cuban cigars on the steps of the United Nations building (or in the lobby when it’s cold outside). This is why the official representative of the unofficial nation of Kurdistan can drive as fast as he’d like on the turnpike. Diplomatic immunity means that while on “mission,” a nation’s spokesperson doesn’t have to deal with parking tickets, auto registration, or fishing licenses.
Immunity from prosecution insures that diplomats are treated with a certain amount of respect. Honor the messenger, the thinking goes, and you can count on civility between his nation and yours. Ambassadors are given full authority to speak on behalf of the nation they represent, and making China pull over and take a breathalyzer test is bad for business, no matter how badly its Consul might be swerving as he drives his unregistered SUV down the highway.
Christians, of course are representatives of God’s kingdom. Our presence in the world is for the purpose of communicating a Message and fostering a good relationship with citizens of our host cultures. We do this by being present in the community, attending local events, getting to know people, and sharing with them the unique characteristics of the Kingdom we represent.
The difficulty of our mission is that our message is generally offensive. We’re tasked with finding the most effective way to communicate that message, and “cultural translation” requires our exposure to people and behaviors that run contrary to the values of our Kingdom. To make matters worse, our fellow messengers sometimes break protocol and hurt our reputation, risking our access to the societies to which we’ve been assigned. Hostile parties have spread misinformation about us. Some of us may hold tightly to political protection by freedom-of-speech or assembly laws, but the truth is that as spiritual emissaries of the Most High God, we don’t have diplomatic immunity.
Despite the power vested in us by the One who sent us, we have no credibility in this place. We’re not respected as ambassadors- possibly because the consequences for failure to recognize our Kingdom are not immediately obvious to our host cultures.
If we really saw ourselves as representatives without diplomatic immunity, how would it change the way we interact with the cultures in which we move?
Believers often look to the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul as the model for missions. He did, after all, travel around telling people about Jesus and leave a trail of networked churches in his wake. But Paul isn’t the best picture of a missionary.
Paul didn’t seem to0 concerned with contextualization- mostly because he stayed within his own context. Sure, he moved in and out of different societies: Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans. But these were the subcultures he lived among well before his call to mission. We don’t see Paul having to learn different languages, for example, his Hebrew served him well among the Jewish community, and his Greek allowed him to communicate everywhere else. He traveled within the Roman Empire, where, as a Roman citizen, his was the dominant culture. For the most part, Paul was already a member of the tribes he ministered to. That’s not to say that he wasn’t a missionary; let’s just consider him more of a “home” missionary than a “foreign” missionary.
The best example of a missionary? Jesus.
The Incarnation was the greatest mission trip ever. When the eternal Word became a human being, He left His home to live in a very different place in order to communicate God’s love for mankind. He didn’t hang on to his divine cultural identity, instead he traded it for the humiliation of being a helpless human child. We consider it “extreme” when an American missionary adopts indigenous dress; I wonder how long it took for God to get used to the confines of the human form. Some missionaries spend years learning the local language- Jesus probably took what, two, two-and-a-half years? He didn’t even have a foreign accent!
Jesus’ whole life was about context. When He was tempted by the Enemy, he could have smited (smote?) him with lightening bolts from His fingers, but He didn’t because that’s not how we did things in human culture back then. When He was nailed to a cross, He could have given the signal for a million angels to swoop in and take Him down, but He didn’t, because He thought it was important to suffer on our terms. Without the credibility of being recognized as God, Jesus entered the human conversations around religion, social norms, philosophy, and politics. He did this so that we would believe in Him.
Of course, Jesus also gave humanity glimpses of his culture of origin. He healed and forgave people, and He bucked even the most deeply ingrained customs if they contradicted His message. Jesus stood up against social inequality, dead religion, oppressive leadership, and political ideologies. He followed our rules for things like time and space and the need to breathe air so that we would be able to relate to Him and begin to understand what He was saying. He played the part, but only until the time was right.
At just the right moment, Jesus broke the cultural rules. Big ones, too- like death and gravity and walking through walls. He did this because it was time to show that was was, indeed, not from around here. He had come for a reason, motivated by love and a clear mission. That makes Him the best missionary of all.
Merry Christmas, dear reader.
I’ve always been perplexed by your lack of direct involvement in international missions. It’s not that you shy away from preaching about international issues. You often encourage social action- you’ve led your church’s campaign to help local public schools. You support a child in a poverty-stricken village in Malaysia. You’ve raised money to finance the digging of wells in Africa.
You certainly talk quite a bit about God’s global activity and about our mandate to go and make disciples. You talk about being missional and living out your faith in your community. Your church often engages in service projects in your city- no-strings-attached ministry to people in need. You welcome people of all sorts into your gatherings.
You’re not stingy, either. Your church gives lots of money to various ministries both local and abroad. You sent a truckload of water bottles to help Katrina victims. You support missionaries in different parts of the world. You preach boldly about generous and sacrificial giving for the sake of this work.
But still, when it comes to planting indigenous churches among people of other nations that do not know Jesus, you’re not doing much at all. You redefine the word “mission,” so that everything the church does somehow falls under this new, catch-all category, but when we talk about the work of crossing cultures with the gospel, you don’t have much to offer.
After meeting you, visiting your church, listening to your podcast, reading your blog, and following you on Facebook and Twitter, I believe I have some insight into your lack of participation: You’re afraid.
You’ve never been on a mission trip or vision trip because you’re terrified buy the thought of leaving the comfortable life you’ve built for yourself. The prospect of going without Starbucks and Tex-Mex and Super Wal-Mart is hard for you to swallow.
You shirk spiritual responsibility for engaging a people group with the gospel because it’s outside your are of “expertise.” The meaning of the gospel and it’s practical application to your local expression- that you can do. But wading into the unknown waters of another culture? You’re not used to not knowing how to act or what to say.
You’re comfortable with being known and respected in your social circles. You’re the pastor, after all, and people value your perspective on everything from theology to politics to technology. Outside your context though, you’re a nobody. You have no credibility in foreign lands. You suspect this, of course, and choose to stay home.
Everybody knows that missions can be hard. In addition to language learning, thoughtful dialog, and cultural exegesis, required skills may include auto mechanics, carpentry, hunting- even self-defense. Your skill set doesn’t require getting your hands dirty. You’re more comfortable studying, preaching, leading meetings, finding the best deals on a book at Amazon.com, or managing multiple Twitter accounts. The difficulty of the mission frightens you.
So go ahead- preach about taking responsibility being a “real man.” Ridicule those who lead smaller churches or sing “sissy” songs to Jesus. Watch your Ultimate Fighting and mock anyone who disagrees with you. Your actions undermine your words. You’re afraid to be obedient in mission.
Fear, of course, is not of God. As believers, we’re not called to comfort, control, or to be the first among, well, anyone. Now is the time to repent. Now is the time to lead your church to direct involvement in God’s global mission. You’re capable, you’ve got the resources, and you’ve been commanded to go.
What are you waiting for?