by Joshua Massey
In today’s America, missionary appointees have great opportunities for significant cross-cultural ministry experience before they go overseas.
In today’s America, missionary appointees have great opportunities for significant cross-cultural ministry experience before they go overseas. An ever increasing number of Buddhists pagodas, Hindu temples, Sikh gurudwaras, and Muslim mosques are being built throughout North America. God has brought the nations to us. This mass immigration of nations is no longer confined to urban centers; it is getting more and more difficult to find a US town where no immigrants reside. These trends provide tremendous opportunities for those God is preparing as his ambassadors to the nations.
In 1987, an elder at my church listened patiently as I described my vision to reach Muslims in South Asia. He then asked, "Tell me about your ministry to Muslims here."
"Well," I replied somewhat befuddled, "I don’t actually know many Muslims here. I do have a good Egyptian Muslim friend but we don’t see each other much these days. Besides, I am so swamped with work, school and ministry at the church that I can’t imagine I’d have much time to spend with Muslims locally even if I did know some."
Vern then gently asked, "What kind of ministry do you think will better prepare you for church planting among Muslims of South Asia: leading small group Bible studies (something I’d been doing for several years already), or friendship evangelism among Muslims?" The answer was embarrassingly obvious.
Vern then encouraged me to pray that God would lead me to some South Asian Muslims right here, in my own hometown. I did. And within days, almost miraculously, I began seeing Muslims everywhere! I found Syed in my political science class-I never noticed him before. I saw one bearded student walking around my university campus and felt sure he must be a Muslim from South Asia. I met a young Muslim woman in my biology class the following semester, and later invited her and her husband to my home for dinner one night. Guess who her husband was? The bearded student I’d seen around campus. I began seeing South Asian Muslims at gas stations, mini-markets and even in my own neighborhood. They were everywhere! God answered my prayer by opening my eyes. But one question still baffles me to this day: How could I have been so blind?
ROOTS OF BLINDNESS
I believe my blindness to the incredible opportunities all around me was related to the erroneous idea that "missions" is something that occurs overseas, not in my hometown. Church and mission leaders all want to see some kind of "ministry experience" from missionary applicants before going overseas, but few expect significant pre-field, local, cross-cultural experience. There are, of course, good reasons for this historically. Muslims, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist immigrants have not always been present in such significant numbers as they are in the United States today.
In the early 1900s most foreign-born immigrants in the United States came from Europe. European immigration steadily declined from 1910 to 1970, but the 80s saw a clear turning point. According to current US census reports, over half of all foreign-born immigrants in the United States arrived less than eighteen years ago. Just how many people in the United States today are foreign-born? Ten percent! One of every ten persons you see in the United States was born outside the US. And rather than those foreign-born immigrants coming from Europe as they have in the past, they are now coming in increasing numbers from China, India and Vietnam-centers for the greatest populations of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh peoples.
What is God doing in our day? I believe he is trying to correct our erroneous ideas of what it means to "do missions." Missions is people, not geography. We need to abolish the idea that pioneer missions is only overseas. God has brought members of countless unreached people groups to live among us in the United States.
Ministry in the church prepares a missionary to minister primarily to believers, but the pioneer church planter must begin by ministering primarily to unbelievers. Add to the task of ministering effectively to unbelievers the communicative challenges of language and culture, and it is no wonder many who go to unreached pioneer fields later revise their approach to spend the bulk of their time ministering to believers in existing churches. Conversely, the new missionary with experience ministering cross-culturally to unreached Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Sikhs in his or her own hometown is far more likely to weather the challenges necessary in pioneer church-planting contexts.
DIVIDENDS OF BEGINNING NOW
When God began opening my eyes to see South Asian Muslims in my own hometown, I could never have imagined how he would use those relationships to prepare me for fruitful ministry abroad. Not only did I begin learning the language from my newfound Muslim friends, but also proper cultural etiquette from South Asian elders, peers and youth. I learned stories, anecdotes and Islamic proverbs which form a significant portion of being culturally literate in the eyes of South Asian Muslims. I became increasingly comfortable with spicy food and South Asian music. South Asian films, humor and pastimes taught me a great deal about their worldview and helped me accumulate a wealth of trivia necessary to develop communicative illustrations rooted in their cultural traditions. As time neared for our departure to South Asia, one Muslim friend arranged for the head of an Islamic institute to meet us at the airport. He, in turn, introduced us to other Muslims who took us into their home until we found housing.
The warm reception we received from the Muslim community was all the more key given that we were the first missionaries from our agency in the city, with no teammates upon whom we could have called for help. There were a few Americans in town, but my wife and I believed that the more we depended on Muslim friends for assistance, the more deeply we would grow in relationship with them, and the greater our circle of Muslim friends would grow. The fact that we knew their Muslim friends and relatives in the United States seemed to strengthen our bonds of friendship all the more.
God used our time in the States to prepare a way for our entry into South Asia. Before we’d even arrived, we already had a circle of Muslim friends just waiting to meet us. These friends introduced us to still others who opened their homes and hearts to me and my family. Throughout our first term, we had countless opportunities to share the gospel after trust had been established through friendship.
As we came to the end of our first term, a close Muslim friend insisted we stop by his home before we went to the airport. To our surprise, his extended family (over 25 people) had gathered from all corners of the city to say their goodbyes. We all sat on the floor to enjoy our last supper and then they asked me to pray, as was my custom. As I asked for God’s blessing on the food and thanked him for leading us to such good friends, I marveled at what God had done in such a short time. We had only been there two and a half years! How did God develop such a large network of intimate Muslim friends to whom we could share his good news? He did so by opening my eyes to see the amazing opportunities I had to get involved in Muslim friendships years before I even arrived in South Asia.
Too Busy to Be Prepared? As I travel to Bible colleges across the United States, speaking to students about the opportunities to extend God’s Kingdom among Muslims, I find that the same blindness I suffered from in the 80s continues to plague God’s people today. When I share the encouragement God used to open my eyes, some reply, "But I’m working full-time! How is it possible for me to have a significant ministry to unreached peoples in my community now?" I ask, "Do you think it is going to be much different overseas? Tent-making roles can be very demanding of your time. You need to think strategically here even as you will there. Get started right here reaching internationals, even if it is only a few hours a week."
When a church-planting missionary candidate misses out on significant pre-field preparation through intimate friendship evangelism with internationals of other religions and instead merely engages in the study of them through books, they often get to the field and wonder, "Now what do I do?" Consider this example: A new missionary on the field is visiting a Muslim friend who excuses himself for prayer. The missionary contemplates, "What should I do? Should I go to the mosque and join him in prayer? Should I hang out here with the ladies and look like a Christian who doesn’t pray? Should I wash up, ask for a prayer carpet, and prostrate in prayer toward Jerusalem? Maybe I should just go get a soda! What shall I do?"
At a time when the new missionary could be beginning "upper division" course work in the ongoing learning process to reach his target people, it is as if he or she is just beginning with "lower division" course work that could have been learned years before arrival. A new missionary may have all kinds of theoretical ideas from books, but rather than test these ideas among Muslims in the home country before journeying overseas, he or she often begins experimenting on the front-lines, alongside added complexities of language and culture. It is true that many lessons can only be learned on the field, but it is equally true that we could do a much better job of preparing for the field by developing genuine friendships with those to whom God has called us by seeking them out wherever we are. God does not call us to geography; he calls us to people.
THE NATURAL APPROACH
After recently serving as an interim missions pastor, I personally found it difficult to recommend to an agency any candidate who had not demonstrated at least some faithfulness in the ministry that they were going overseas to do. While genuine humility, a servant’s heart and basic perseverance can go a long way, it seemed terribly awkward to send a missions candidate to reach Muslims overseas who had never taken the time to develop even one friendship with a Muslim during several years of preparation for missions service.
Consider how much easier it would be for a church to send a missionary for pioneer church planting if that person had demonstrated ministry abilities in local outreach to unreached peoples. Commissioning such candidates with proven experience would be natural for any sending church: "We have seen this person (or family) demonstrate faithfulness in ministry here. They have served poor Cambodian families, ministered to the Hindu community, cared for Bosnian immigrants, spent countless hours in loving dialogue with Muslims, or blessed numerous Vietnamese refugees. We now send them to Asia to continue the work for which God has obviously gifted them."
If you happen to live in one of those rare parts of the United States where there truly aren’t any immigrants, you can still get similar experience by working among the poor, in "the bad" side of town, prisons, orphanages, drug rehab centers and shelters for battered wives and children. To be better prepared for the realities of church planting among the unreached, just about any uncomfortable place outside the secure walls of your church will suffice. There are real challenges in Kingdom living all around us.
PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS FOR PREPARATION
God has brought millions of unreached peoples to our very own homeland, not only so that his church in the United States would have the privilege of partnering with him in drawing the nations to the Son, but also, I believe, to prepare us for works of service overseas where unreached peoples reside in greatest concentrations. If you are preparing for church planting among Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Sikhs, consider logging at least 1,000 hours in intimate friendship evangelism with such peoples before going. If you can’t see them around you now, pray for God to show them to you. Then lift up your eyes and look at the gas station attendants, workmates, schoolmates and shopkeepers-especially in those parts of the city that you don’t often visit. They are all around you!
And don’t worry if there aren’t any Christian "programs" to position you among these people in your area. In fact, even if there are, you might consider focusing on more natural relationships with coworkers, fellow students, restaurant owners or shopkeepers whom you frequently see. Relationships that occur naturally are often much easier to maintain. Stay focused and be intentional.
Most of us will not have people knocking at our door to be our friends when we get overseas. We need to get used to the process of seeking out and making new friends. Nothing magical happens to us when we go overseas. We do not suddenly transform into some kind of super-missionary when we get off the plane. If God has called you to reach Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Sikhs, get started now. Why wait till you get overseas?
Joshua Massey is a cultural anthropologist, currently coordinating the development of contextualized evangelistic and discipleship literature for Muslim background believer church planters in Asia.
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