by Don Dent
Though they may take on different forms than in the past, traditional “cross-cultural” challenges will continue to be an important aspect of missionary life during the twenty-first century.
Many of us have felt the excitement that comes from cross-cultural break-throughs such as these:
- The broad smile of a neighbor when we’ve found the right phrase or pronunciation to express in the local language something we’ve wanted to say for months
- Relief in the eyes of a patient local friend when he sees we finally realize we have repeatedly committed a terrible faux pas
- Mutual respect from community leaders because we appropriately took part in an important community celebration
- New openings to sharing the gospel because our presentation addressed key issues in our hosts’ worldview
We need these moments of elation. They encourage us to keep learning language and worldview amid the times of frustration and failure. Despite much talk about globalization, modern technology and travel have not erased many critical gaps that divide the world by language and culture. These cultural gaps are characteristic of the unreached peoples who are today’s last missions frontier. While more Christians are making valuable contributions through short-term missions, many elements of the mission task are still best accomplished by those committed to living as incarnational, cross-cultural ambassadors of Christ. Though they may take on different forms than in the past, traditional “cross-cultural” challenges will continue to be an important aspect of missionary life during the twenty-first century.
First Corinthians 9:19-23 is perhaps the best New Testament passage regarding the apostle’s calling to “become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” We are called to adapt and adjust our lives and methods to match our audience. I refer to this as the “cross-cultural challenge,” the difficulty of ministering effectively across cultural barriers.
Another “cross-cultural challenge” even more essential to our task often is under-appreciated or overlooked. Personally modeling the way of the cross of Christ rather than our home culture may be the greatest cross-cultural challenge missionaries face. We can claim to be cross-cultural missionaries if we attempt enculturation in a new place. But we can only claim to be cross-cultural missionaries if we consistently model the unique values of Jesus Christ. This cross-cultural challenge is infinitely harder than language learning and acculturation and even more vital to communicating Christ to those who do not know him. How many missionaries fail despite years of work because their lifestyles, actions and values are inconsistent with the gospel message they proclaim?
Whether we are Kentuckians, Koreans or Kenyans, we carry cultural assumptions and values that distinctively represent our home culture rather than the kingdom of God. Though it is neither possible nor helpful to completely deny our cultural heritage, cross-cultural missionaries must make intentional efforts to be ambassadors for Christ rather than merely representatives of their native country and culture.
As an American I have often been horrified at the widespread “soft power” of American culture. It seems we export the worst our culture has to offer, and it is often accepted uncritically by foreign audiences as representing all of America. American culture is assumed to be selfish, sensual, materialistic, rebellious and pagan—not exactly the best river down which to float the gospel. The worst part is that American missionaries, though Christian, have also been subconsciously influenced by some of these same values. Whereas it is fairly simple to assess how well missionaries can communicate in another language, it is far more difficult to determine how the values and habits they brought from their home culture undermine their ministry. This is an intensely personal, though not always private, struggle with the lies Satan has planted in our minds.
The culture of the cross stands in stark contrast to every worldly cultural value system. Jesus called us to take up our cross and live our lives crucified to our old ways of thinking and doing. Christians must live out their faith within their own cultural settings. Every cross-cultural missionary is obligated to seek to represent Christ as effectively as he or she can within an alien culture. This challenge should result in deep spiritual reflection that can be among the greatest benefits of long-term missionary service. Distinguishing between what parts of our lifestyle and values are simply cultural and which are essentially biblical can lead us to a deeper, purer walk with Christ.
Many Christians naively think that missionaries could not possibly struggle with these issues. Some new missionaries believe their commission to go overseas somehow erases all their old, natural habits. Because the culture of the cross is counter-intuitive to almost all human tendencies, biblical reminders and the guidance of the Holy Spirit are absolutely vital to developing sensitivity to cross-cultural mores.
Though I think it would be interesting to read an anthropologist’s assessment of the “cross culture,” I have not run across one. Perhaps this list of values will stir your thinking as you consider how to be cross-cultural. Because this is an intensely personal challenge for me, my reflections naturally focus on the differences between my American heritage and the values of the cross. Non-Americans, however, should also reflect on how their culture clashes with the culture of the cross.
VALUES GUIDING MY RELATIONSHIPS WITH GOD
• Definition—Glorifying Christ is the consistent purpose of my life rather than pursuing what I think is good for me (self-centered) or my people (ethno-centric).
• Scripture—“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb. 12:2).
• Questions—Is Jesus the center of my thoughts and conversations? Is he the primary reason for my decisions? Does my life revolve around him?
Committed Christians want to center their lives on Jesus. The challenge for those from many traditional and Eastern cultures is that family or clan is the most important consideration. Unbelievers from those cultures often find it difficult to understand and embrace Christ’s demand for personal faith. Americans, on the other hand, are taught to be individualistic and put themselves first. The difficulty for me as an American believer is placing Christ above my desires and plans. If I am not careful, I may attract people who are more interested in my “rugged individualism” than in my Savior.
• Definition—My life is characterized by consistently asking the Master what he wants and then simply doing it.
• Scripture—“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb. 5:7).
• Question—Is there anything I am unwilling to do for him?
Submission is a bad word in American culture. We are taught to respect the victor and bend our will to no one. To submit is to admit defeat, failure or inferiority. Choosing to place another in authority over our lives is simply unthinkable. Our natural tendency is to consider whether we want to obey him before we make a decision, but that keeps us in the driver’s seat.
• Definition—In God’s power and for his glory I am living a life that is “set apart” by his Spirit, consistent with his character, for his purpose.
• Scripture—“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified” (1 Thess. 4:3-8).
• Question—What percentage of my personal life and my ministry is a work of the Spirit?
In Western cultures, the pursuit of holiness is often supplanted by the pursuit of entertainment. Today many Christians spend time watching TV and movies, listening to music and reading what believers would have found disgusting just a few decades ago. God has certainly not lowered his standards of holiness. This pursuit of worldly entertainment is a growing problem on the mission field, one greatly complicated by internet pornography.
• Definition—I am continually offering my life to God as an act of worship.
• Scripture—“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship” (Rom. 12:1).
• Question—Is my whole life a sacrifice or do I see sacrifice as specific, intermittent acts?
For the average American, sacrifice is a foreign concept and experience. We might sacrifice a summer vacation to help our college kid pay tuition, but that hardly measures up to Jesus’ model of whole-life sacrifice. For Christians, examples of sacrifice in our midst usually make us uncomfortable. Many assume that missionaries have dealt with this issue once and for all, but we know it requires a daily re-offering of ourselves totally to God. Examples abound of missionaries asking local believers to sacrifice far more than the missionary.
VALUES GUIDING MY RELATIONSHIP WITH THE WORLD
• Definition—I humbly share my needs with the Father and trust him to take care of them.
• Scripture—“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6).
• Question—Are all my finances, family, future, health and other concerns turned over to God?
Living in total dependence goes against our American obsession with independence and self-reliance. “If you want it done right,” we say, “do it yourself.” We assume that dependence on others indicates failure. Our action-oriented culture conditions us to be disinclined to spend significant time surrendering our needs and concerns to God in prayer. Though most missionaries would state that prayer is their greatest need, prayerlessness is far more widespread among missionaries than anyone wants to admit.
• Definition—I trust God’s provision in all situations and am learning to be content with what I have.
• Scripture—“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:12).
• Questions—Am I satisfied with what God is providing for me? Do I want more than what I have?
The scores of advertisements we see daily are designed to make us dissatisfied with our lives, our looks, our meals and our possessions. To many it’s unthinkably negative to admit satisfaction. We must keep wanting, hoping and working for more of something. We feel entitled to more than we have. Every year too many missionaries leave the field because they have not learned to be satisfied with what God has provided.
• Definition—I choose that which pleases God rather than what pleases me.
• Scripture—“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
• Question—What am I intentionally denying myself for God right now?
Deny myself? Are you kidding? Everything in my cultural experience assumes I should protect my rights at all costs! Self-gratification fuels most human cravings, but America has raised the bar of selfishness to a level of idolatry rarely seen elsewhere. Even when we have made the big commitment to “leave it all” as missionaries, the everyday acts of denial remain a challenge.
• Definition—I joyfully join in suffering because I know its redemptive value for others and myself.
• Scripture—“Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
• Questions—Do I expect to suffer as a Christian? Do I follow him to the boundary of suffering and then hold back? Am I upset with him when I suffer?
Many of us wouldn’t mind dying for Jesus as long as we can maintain our sense of safety and security. Though taking appropriate precautions is wise, the American obsession with safety assumes that something has gone wrong if danger arises. Our expectation of comfort is almost as strong. We are so accustomed to protecting our own safety and comfort that suffering for Christ is largely foreign to the American church.
VALUES GUIDING MY RELATIONSHIP WITH OTHERS
9. Selfless love
• Definition—Laying down my life wholly for the benefit of others and expecting nothing in return.
• Scripture—“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
• Questions—Do I love when it will not be returned? Do I continue to love when it is costly?
Paul said that love should compel us. This means going beyond what I would naturally do. Most relatively healthy people find it natural to build a web of reciprocal love relationships, but we must go further. Our calling may take us to a people who are indifferent or even hostile to our goals. Only Christ’s love expressed through us is strong enough to sustain a life of giving ourselves to those who may not love us.
• Definition—I allow my heart and hands to be guided by God’s concern for those in need.
• Scripture—“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress….If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 1:27, 2:16).
• Questions—Have I become hardened by the overload of needs around me? Do I find practical ways to help others?
Two difficulties arise when we live out this kingdom value. One is that we have been led to believe that “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s in the Bible somewhere, isn’t it? Rather than taking pity on those less fortunate than ourselves, we are let off the hook because we assume their plight is entirely their own fault. What’s more, Americans are extremely susceptible to sympathy fatigue.
• Definition—My way of life involves developing and sharing a savory flavor in order to spice “the stew” in which I live.
• Scripture—“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6).
• Question—Is my life salty enough to evoke questions about God and am I ready to answer?
Missionaries may be of interest to the local people for a variety of reasons. Some may be attracted to the exotic curiosity while others may simply desire resources from us. We have sometimes wrongly assumed people will admire us just because we left home. How do we live our lives in such a way that people are impressed by our Christian character rather than our foreignness?
• Definition—Serving others is the motive, the method and the mode of my leadership.
• Scripture—“The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them… Not so with you” (Matt. 20:25-26).
• Questions—Do I want to serve or be in charge? Am I ready to be treated as a servant? Am I willing to lead in order to serve more people?
One area in which the world has influenced Christian culture is leadership. Many American churches model themselves after businesses. If we come from a church ministry background, we may be accustomed to being honored for our service. I don’t mind serving through leading until I am treated as a mere servant. The post-colonial missionary must be willing to lead inconspicuously and empower others to take the credit and limelight. In their adopted homeland, missionaries may face misunderstanding, lack of appreciation and even hostility. Some never recover from this. Longing to get back to the good old days of being treated with respect has shortened the ministry of many missionaries.
Don Dent has served for twenty-two years in the Pacific Rim with the International Mission Board. He has served both as a front-line church planter and in mission leadership
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