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Revered for All the Wrong Reasons

by Tyler Emler

As the crowd pressed against the bus windows, I felt more like a rock star than a Christ-like servant. White people rarely taxied down the winding dirt roads to this Indian village. Certainly fewer had come with a sincere desire to serve.

As the crowd pressed against the bus windows, I felt more like a rock star than a Christ-like servant. White people rarely taxied down the winding dirt roads to this Indian village. Certainly fewer had come with a sincere desire to serve.

A clamor of smiling Indians showered us with Hindi greetings as we poured out of our minibus. They welcomed us by wrapping flowery, yellow garlands around our necks as if we were conquering heroes. We were told this treatment was reserved for honored guests. When we arrived at a rally promoting unity among India’s fractured castes, we were given chairs while most others stood. From where I sat I noticed giant colorful banners lining the walls that spelled out the names of all nineteen members of our team. “Isn’t servanthood supposed to be humbling?” I lamented to myself.

Whether your ministry is among Arabs, Turks, Latin Americans or Indians, a dilemma Western missionaries face is how to respond to exaltation. Benefits of our nationality and upbringing, along with the novelty of our fair skin, are often enough to win us a seat at the head of the table. Reactions to the adulation can range from embarrassment to fear that we are leeching away some of God’s spotlight. After feeling this undue adoration in many parts of the world, my encouragement to cross-cultural workers is to receive and be thankful for any honor bestowed on you. Not because we deserve it, but because from that vantage we can powerfully point to Christ.

Paul strongly states in 1 Corinthians 12:13 that in God’s kingdom ethnic and social classes are obliterated. All are equal before God. But the reality of our world is that men and women would rather glorify a select few than embrace equality. And my experiences indicate few are esteemed more that Americans. I saw the effects of Western pop culture while walking the streets of Cairo a few years ago. Youths of all ages wearing American brand clothing flocked to me, anxious to practice their English and seduced by the hope for an American friend.

Rather than despise the attention brought to us by our nationality, we should embrace it. God is positioning us where we can have the most impact. He is capable of working through men and women’s vanity to accomplish his purposes. We see in the Bible that he exalts people for a reason. This is what led to Esther’s intercession, Daniel’s prophecies and Joseph’s provision that sustained the covenant.

I learned these lessons well as I sat in that Indian village. A local church had asked us to take part in a neighborhood rally designed to address the problems among the Indian poor. They broadcasted our arrival by pounding drums and parading us through the streets. Hundreds of people followed us to a makeshift tent. The event that started with us as VIPs, however, afforded us the opportunity for groundbreaking acts of love in that community. The neighborhood watched as we knelt and washed the feet of Indians who were labeled “untouchables” by their culture.

Any humility we displayed as we stooped to wash their dirty feet was accentuated since we had been touted earlier as exalted guests. It highlighted our concern for them, just as Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem treading upon palm branches made washing the disciples’ feet all the more dynamic. That any person would consider him or herself unworthy of my touch is a product of a fallen world. But as I knelt and touched an elderly Indian man’s feet, joy lit his face. We looked at each other, and for a moment we were equals. Eyes welling with tears, he repeatedly pumped his clasped hands, expressing gratitude where language failed.

Operating within the prejudicial framework that I was from a nobler status, God broke down the illusions of the caste system by having me simply wash an Indian man’s feet. Many similar opportunities would present themselves if we would receive honor rather than shun it, and then redirect it toward heaven. If you find God is exalting you in your mission field and you are looking to turn it for his glory, here are tips that might help.

1. Learn why the culture views you as superior. This will allow you to neutralize misconceptions that might cause divisions in your relationships. For example, if you are revered for your American education, those you reach out to might feel inferior because they are unable to read and write.

2. Aim for strategic humility. If you are honored, receive it warmly. Then look for opportunities to exercise radical humility that will challenge worldly views of status. If you are considered wealthy and often invited to dine with social elites, eat your lunches on the street corner with orphans, or commit to menial tasks.

3. If you are given a platform, point to Jesus. If for whatever reason your voice is valued above others, steer conversations toward the one who is truly worthy of attention. Make the most of every relationship. Seize divine opportunities to offer the testimony of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

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Tyler Emler serves on public relations staff with Antioch Ministries International, a church-planting organization. He has worked in missions on four continents. Based in Waco, Texas, Tyler is also a carpenter, freelance writer and lay leader in his church.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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