Anyone who’s been following the housing market in the current economy is familiar with the term “short sale.” Basically, a short sale is when a borrower can’t pay the mortgage, so and the lender sells the property for leas than it’s owed in order to cut its losses. Sure, a house may be worth more, but the time, cost, and hassle of trying to foreclose and sell in a down economy aren’t worth it. We borrow the term when we tell kids not to underestimate their potential, or “sell themselves short.”
I’m confused by the current tendency to sell short the mission of the church. Many today talk about missions as though the point was to inform the nations rather than to make disciples of them. As though our commission would be fulfilled if we were to preach the gospel once within earshot of every person on the globe. These people would make the mission about giving people a “chance to hear” the gospel.
Preaching the gospel is certainly central to the mission. Romans 10 asks, “…how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?” But the mission is more than just preaching the good news.
Others would sell the mission short by making it about meeting physical needs (which is something we are commanded to do!). These proponents of “preaching the gospel without words” claim that standing for justice and feeding the hungry is enough. It isn’t.
In Matthew 28, Jesus commissions the church to go and make obedient disciples. This is the mission– not to make converts. Not to give people opportunities to hear the good news. Not to “reach” people. To make disciples and to teach them to obey. What does this entail? Preaching. Meeting physical, social, and personal needs. But preaching alone isn’t enough. caring for the needy isn’t enough. The mission is more than these things alone.
The mission is to move people from wherever they are spiritually to maturity in Christ. When cultures must be crossed in order to do this (I think culture must always be crossed), missionaries must do the work of incarnation (presence) and cultural translation (contextualization). Anything less is selling the mission short.
No, I’m not referring to that guy you’ve known since Jr. High that only calls when he needs something (though, come to think of it, watch that guy). “False Friend” is a philological term that refers to a word in the language being learned that sounds similar to a word in the student’s own language. A word that sounds familiar doesn’t always carry the same meaning as its homophone (er, soundalike).
For example, the English word, carpet sounds similar to the Spanish word, carpeta (file folder), but the words do not have the same meaning.
The word bad, in German, means bath or spa. (And, incidentally, in 1980s America actually means good.)
The French love when Americans use the word journée when they mean voyage, but then French are known for their sense of humor when it comes to language.
Of course, the concept doesn’t only apply to language. When people of one culture see something that seems familiar in another culture, it’s easy for them to assume they know what’s being done and why. Two people shouting in each others’ faces on the street corner? In Italy that’s long-lost friends happy to see one another. Men walking down the street arm in arm? Not necessarily homosexuals. Ear-to-ear grin? In Asia, it could mean someone’s embarrassed.
Outside your home culture, people don’t see Jesus in you because you don’t smoke, drink, or use foul language. Idol worship doesn’t always involve statues and incense. Animism doesn’t always express itself in grass skirts dancing around a fire. It turns out that paganism can look a lot like Christianity (and vice versa). Evil doesn’t always wear black.
In order to incarnate the gospel in a culture, you’ve got to do your homework. Cultural exegesis and immersion are key to understanding the bridges and barriers to the gospel. To the question “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus gave various answers.
In post-Christian America, all mission is cross cultural. The culture of your city is not yours. Beware of False Friends; your assumptions will ruin your potential to communicate the gospel in a way that actually communicates the good news. Online relationships may not be “real” relationships where you come from, but they’re the most influential for millions of people around the world. Don’t let the rhetoric of the narrative offend you into isolation. When fighting to define words, concepts, or institutions, choose your battles carefully lest you start to see the people you’re supposed to love as your enemy. Start every conversation with a question.
KKK meeting? No! Easter parade in Spain!
Being a missionary where God has you isn’t just an attitude or posture (though it certainly begins there). It requires a certain set of skills that can be developed over time. One such skill is cultural exegesis.
All you Bible scholars out there know that exegesis (literally “to draw out”) is the act of studying something (text, art, language) and extracting meaning from within. The opposite of exegesis, then, would be eisegesis (literally “to draw in”), where the observer brings the meaning to the thing being observed from outside (usually his own presuppositions).
When reading and interpreting Biblical text, we can either find meaning in the text, or we can project our own meaning into it. We usually purport to value exegesis over eisegesis, but we tend to do quite a bit of both.
Applied to culture, exegesis means discovering why people in a particular culture do what they do by observing them and viewing their cultural influences from their perspective rather than interpreting their behavior through our own cultural lenses.
This, of course, is very difficult. None of us are outside culture– the ways in which we view the world around us are largely dependent upon the cultures in which we were raised. Thankfully, cultural exegesis doesn’t require absolute objectivity– it does, however, require immersion, personal engagement, and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
In textual criticism, we seek to (as much as possible) return to the original material. A credible interpretation of, say, the Gospel of Matthew, won’t come from a study of 1 Corinthians or a commentary on Matthew. You’ve got to read the book itself to be able to understand it. Same thing with culture– reading Darrel Bock’s Breaking the DaVinci Code isn’t the same as reading Dan Brown’s popular novel. Listening to me explain postmodern culture isn’t the same as you spending time with those who hold that worldview.
Immersion is necessary. Think Jesus spending enough time with drunks and sinners to be accused of being one of them, or Paul knowing popular Greek philosophy well enough to quote Epimenides and Aratus, (who, I’m told, were the Jonas Brothers of the 500s BC.
That said, cultural immersion can be dangerous. Sure there are spiritual dangers in every culture. But most of us have been raised to be able to identify the dangers in our own cultures. Put us into a culture that isn’t our own, and we’re not so good at seeing the warning signs. It’s not enough to watch all the popular movies or read all the influential books– unless we’re deliberate about what enters our minds, our cultural activity won’t result in insight, it will only serve to corrupt our thinking.
Personal engagement is, quite simply, making friends within culture. These friends will serve as guides and informants for us as we dive in. They’ll be able to explain their own reasons for why they do what they do. True friendship will provide us with a more sympathetic attitude toward the people we’re getting to know. It’s hard to listen to people you hate, and it’s hard to hate people you know and love.
The Holy Spirit is our only defense against the charms and temptations that can snare us in culture. Only by walking in total and step-by-step dependence on Him will we learn a culture well enough to be able to engage in missional translation of the gospel into culture. He knows what’s in a person’s heart- what motivates and moves him. The Spirit was present within a culture before we ever were, and will continue His redemptive interaction long after we leave.
Cultural exegesis is something we have to practice. At first, we’re tempted to bring our own meaning to what we observe; especially when what we observe appears to be similar to what we’ve seen in our home cultures and know to be evil. A “bar” in the United States is not the same thing as a “Pub” in England. A “coffee shop” in the Netherlands isn’t like your local Starbucks (not usually, anyway!) “Tells” in your home culture (“Only a prostitute would dress like that.” “You can’t be politically liberal and theologically conservative.”) don’t necessarily hold true in host cultures. Only time, intentionality, and God, can help us gain the sort of cultural fluency that allows us to preach and live the gospel in it.
“Red Rover, Red Rover, send Stevie right over!”
Most churches actually require unbelievers to be the missionaries. In order for them understand the gospel and its effect on their lives, they have to enter our church culture and extrapolate for themselves what a relationships with Jesus would mean for them. They have to learn a new language in order to hear the gospel. They have to assume our worldview. They have to see past our politics, ignore our offenses, and overlook our ignorance, just to hear the gospel.
In response to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” our words say, “Confess and believe,” but our actions say, “In order to be saved you must learn to understand and appreciate our music, our culture, our version of community, our attitude toward you as an unbeliever.” This is not good news.
It used to be that you could distinguish between local “ministry” and cross cultural “missions.” Not anymore. Your influence will not grow– your “light” will not shine brighter– simply by doing more of what you’ve been doing. Your comfort in your setting is keeping you from being effective in ministry because you assume that you’re a member of the culture you work in. You’re not. You’ve got to be a missionary to the culture in which you find yourself.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply join a culture. It won’t do to just blend in. Contextualization begins with dressing, talking, and acting the part, but it doesn’t end there. Our mission to make disciples requires us to incarnate the gospel by communicating and demonstrating what a disciple would look like in this culture. Crossing cultures requires us to live as models of what it would look like if they came to faith from within their own cultural context. This can be difficult, to say the least.
Incarnation requires that we do our homework. We have to deliberately and intentionally join the conversations that are happening within the culture. This means reading, watching, attending, eating, and experiencing the same things that our people do. But we’ve got to do it wisely. We can’t just passively consume the way dead people do, we’ve got to have our guard up, be in tune with the Spirit, and never go alone. We must learn the language of the “locals” in order to build redemptive relationships with them.
For too long, our ecclesiology has been divorced from our missiology. We must begin to see ourselves –our churches– as missionaries.