by Charles Troutman
Honest, down-to-earth counsel about intensely personal matters is outlined here.
This is a letter I would like to put into the hands of every missionary leaving North America for the first time, to be read enroute on the plane, and then on each anniversary thereafter. It assumes the academic preparation and orientation required by each mission board. The subject is the life-long personal and spiritual development of each new missionary, his or her number one priority. My own mission experience was in Latin America. Missionaries in other parts of the world will have to make the necessary adaptations.
As you become part of the task force building Christ’s church world-wide, I want to share with you several personal matters that can make a great difference in your new life. First, within a very short time after arrival you will long for more training in Bible, communications, cultural understanding, political awareness, psychological insights, and a deeper walk with God. You will feel that your own abilities do not match the demands before you. You will be right. But God will use the elements of your new environment to train you in holiness, wisdom, and understanding to make you his mature and dependable instrument. God is more interested in what you become than in what you accomplish. Going overseas marks a radical new phase of your growth in his image.
For example, in your new culture many of the rules of behavior and their corresponding value systems differ from the patterns you have become used to. Your personality and character will develop and change as you interact with the people around you. The Latin view of time differs considerably from yours. You will want to demonstrate a generous and longsuffering patience for which you cannot be prepared. You are also going into a situation with pioneer overtones and you may be called on to serve in areas where you do not feel prepared. The other side of this coin is that you may develop some undiscovered talents ignored in a specialized society. The ideal of the Renaissance Man, capable of doing everything, is still strong in Latin America.
The new role of the foreign missionary is more like that of an employee of a national organization. This will test your creativity and patience, since there is so little precedent. You are breaking new ground. Your personal horizon will also be broadened in discovering the conscious and unconscious needs of people raised in a culture differing from your own. We were surprised to find that high school and university students are frantically concerned about the relationships between the sexes, especially courtship and marriage. All previous surveys had indicated that politics was their basic concern.
Second, the personal growth of a foreigner overseas comes largely through relationships with a wide variety of nationals, both Christian and otherwise. As a believer, motivated by a desire to witness and serve, you will find this a mind-boggling experience that will stimulate your spiritual growth beyond any of your present expectations. You may work and fellowship with evangelical Roman Catholics whose biblical perspective on the Christian life will send you back to your Bible to check previously unexamined positions. You will have lots to learn. The charismatic movement in Latin America emphasizes all the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the development of each congregation. Generally, it is more comprehensive than its North American counterpart. This doctrine of the Spirit has a wide application throughout the whole church in its life and witness. You need not speak in tongues, but some of your fellow missionaries and national brethren will.
Your congenital North American paternalism will suddenly come into clear focus as you work with capable Latin Americans. It will peel off like onion skins, painfully, until you are firmly convinced of their equality rather than your superiority. You will also have the jolting experience of discovering that you are working with "Christian Marxists," whose evaluation of the United States and Canada is very different from your own. You will gradually recognize that the gospel encompasses the whole world, including those of opposite political positions. You will come to see that a Latin American plus Jesus Christ does not equal a North American. You will often question’ whether there are any creative possibilities in a revolutionary society. As you live and work in a country in turmoil, you will find that the status quo, even though backed by the U.S. State Department, does not always represent a Christian ideal. You may even question Gods ability in such situations. This opens the way to a mindstretching, soul-searching experience. Living in a revolutionary society will make you aware that the gospel of Christ has a great deal to say about matters outside the confines of doctrine, worship, and personal devotions. You will become very aware of social, economic, and political issues.
As you become increasingly familiar with your adopted culture, you will find that the battle is not only against prejudice, poverty, false doctrine or repressive systems. The spirit world may be the greatest enemy of all. Spiritism pervades all classes in Latin America and is a hindrance to both spiritual and secular development. Few North Americans can perceive this situation. The Old Testament prohibits research and investigation into the spirit world (Lev. 19:31, 20:6, 27), while the New Testament teaches that some believers, but not many, will be given gifts of discernment and exorcism (I Cor. 12:10, Matt. 10:1). As a foreign worker you must be aware of this unseen world, but when facing it directly, it is wise and biblical to seek help from those gifted by the Holy Spirit.
Third, your own needs, your family’s, and the desperate situations all around you will drive you into a deeper and different kind of devotional life. Your regular devotional time will include Scripture reading, meditation, and intercession, with the use of some kind of prayer list. You cannot afford to miss Sunday services, even if the worship is not as helpful personally as you would wish. This is your spiritual foundation. In addition, you will want to delve into the arts and music as far as they are available where you live; into cultural studies, problems of politics and economics of the people around you, and especially the literature of Latin America and Spain.
This growth of your devotional and intellectual life will be difficult in Latin America because it will have to take advantage of unexpected opportunities when your regular schedule is interrupted. The Lord expects us to start over again after each period of failure. Realize that you must read more than ever before. Include some of the great devotional works, theological-expository study, church history-missiology, biographies and descriptions of Latin American realities and its literature. Keep three or four books on your desk or beside your bed.
Fourth, you will always be a foreigner. This limits real identification with the people of your adopted country, but foreignness imposes no limits on establishing meaningful relationships. In Latin America this will take place within a fairly rigid class system. Simply because of your education and salary, you will enter Latin society at the upper-middle-class level. You will be expected by most nationals to act the part, even though you may work with the poor. You may be able to establish relationships with some of the upper-class, but because of this rigidity, you will probably be more effective in the levels of society below you, even though you do not consider them inferior. North Americans often have trouble seeing this class structure for what it is, but it is a subtle, dominant fact of life. Every country has its patterns of relationships among the classes and as you discover them they can be used as "bridges of God." As a foreigner, becoming involved in such activities as local businesses, schools, home ownership, development programs, churches, universities, changing citizenship, etc., will help you establish relationships that nationals understand.
The manner of establishing such relationships varies from country to country, but it rarely involves the glad hand, back-slapping, come-to-dinner approach of North Americans. To discover how relationships operate, first establish a sound one with your Latin employer and your national pastor. You will then be prepared to enter the wider society. Your children soon may feel more at, home in Latin America than in the North. They are the ones who can identify easily and this will broaden your base for natural friendships. You can grow along with them. Realize that your children may marry Latins. Relationships in Latin America, as in North America, are most commonly established through status, family, and mutual activities. But Latin America is a person-to-person society, as the North is not, where interpersonal relationships outweigh all other considerations. People come before business, projects, appointments, or Christian work. Take time for people.
Fifth, in a society based on these deep personal relationships, your witness for Christ, including your specific job description, will depend largely on your own personal and spiritual growth as a Christian. It is a biblical principle that personal development must include and express itself in outreach. This is not a self-improvement ideal. Opportunities vary, but most Latins are very open to a personal approach and even the humblest are usually good conversationalists. The most effective longterm missionary witness is that of the Christian family in a foreign culture. But do not be surprised that family tensions are aggravated in trans-cultural living. There is no shame in seeking counsel; the issues are too great. In this people-centered culture, conversation plays a tremendous part. Facility in Spanish or Portuguese is more than a mere convenience for living.
An international advertising agency based in Brazil provides its own foreign personnel with this good rule of thumb, which is also applicable to missionaries. Do all your work with these two assumptions: If an idea works in North America, it will probably flop in Brazil. Nationals can usually do a better job than foreigners.
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