Contributed by Dick Brogden, Nour Yakoub, Yvonne Berty, and Joel Malek
With the rise of “Christian Background Believer” (CBB) near culture workers and local believers in missions (Hallelujah!) we have those joining the work force who are more fluent than non-native speaking workers and more astute culturally. This begs the question then of the role of non-native speaking workers. Assuming all cultures must still engage in missions (the Great Commission has and will not be rescinded until the Lord returns), what is the role of far-culture workers when there are more and more near-culture workers with superior linguistic and cultural fluency?
The following is a suggested list of critical roles the “Far Culture” worker can play in pioneer missions today. New cross-cultural workers should begin considering which of these roles they can grow in. No worker, near or far, should ever give up on attempting to learn the local language, learn evangelism methods, or on understanding how to disciple across cultures, but an honest assessment of current and future roles will allow workers today to develop in ways that best contribute to our shared mission of planting indigenous churches among unreached peoples.
These thoughts are presented by four of us across the spectrum of near and far. One of us is an American, with a Greek mother, born and raised in Kenya who has 32 years of experience on multi-cultural teams in the Arab World. One of us is an American with an Egyptian father and a wife with a Hispanic background who has lived, served, and led in Qatar as a bi-vocational worker for 15 years. Two of us are Egyptians with 10 years cross cultural experience in Libya, 7 years working with a multi-national team in Egypt, and now leading a team of Americans in Saudi Arabia.
The below represents our combined thinking regarding the helpful roles that far-culture workers are playing now and will increasingly play in the days to come in a team approach to church planting among the unreached. In the past, far-culture workers in pioneer contexts had to do everything, or thought they had to. Now, with the rise of near-culture workers who are better skilled in many areas the question is more “where do I best contribute to the team?”
While it is true that near neighbor peoples will have better language and cultural skills than those from afar, this is more true for language than it is for culture. This is because near culture workers have a very distinct culture from Islamic (or local) culture and practice and sometimes have more resistance to contextual approaches. Sometimes those who are culturally further away can be more dispassionate than those who are near – every culture can benefit from an external perspective, a perspective less affected by confirmation bias. The fact that near-culture workers have lived under the dominion of Islam sometimes blocks the spiritual horizon ahead of them. That gives a legitimate need and great value for the far-culture workers to present an alternate scenario, perhaps a little more bold and daring.
Far culture missionaries can model church planting approaches that are distinct from traditional church approaches. Near culture missionaries can sometimes try and impose their familiar church culture on the new believer. A mistake far culture workers have obviously made but can be more subtly repeated by near culture missionaries. For example, a near culture missionary could feel it more natural to attempt pulling the local culture believers in the direction of their own Christian culture rather than letting the church develop in a more context-appropriate form . This can almost be subconscious as in: (“they speak our language, they should look like us in the end”). Every missionary should be a learner and this includes near culture and local workers. It is not incongruous that we can learn from those whom we will shortly excel. Far Culture missionaries can model good missiology, even if near culture missionaries will be better practitioners over time. As far culture missionaries do their best, they can be an encouragement to near culture missionaries who can and WILL do it better.
Far culture workers can also be actively involved in helping near culture workers think through, develop, fund (including apply for grants or meet international donors), and establish bivocational professional identities and Business as Mission entities.
Hard work always yields both reward and insight. Far culture missionaries who have diligently studied language, culture, and church planting can serve as player coaches. They can advise, mentor, befriend, pray with, work alongside near culture workers. The coaching and mentoring is mutual as far and near culture workers exchange wisdom, perspective, and insight. The coach role can also be a “Resource”. Someone who stays on top of resources, tools, teachings, methods etc. that are available for the context including outside retreats, online groups, ways that others are doing CP, articles, dissertations, books, and lessons learned from others. Because most of the written and recorded material is initially in English, the native English speaker can more easily and quickly curate it.
There are advantages to having certain types of passports/nationalities. Those from non-Arab countries can sometimes receive more grace or laxity from local officials. A Saudi official for example will think twice before exporting or arresting an American, but not think twice about the same for an Egyptian. Far culture workers can often assume greater risks, such as the first meeting with a seeker whose name and contact was received from media ministry. Often the seeker also feels more safe in first meeting a far culture worker as they are more sure that person is not an informant, not well connected to people in the local culture (ie a gossip), or an under cover security officer – or even more sure that the far culture person will have less likelihood of being arrested and interrogated by authorities. The near-culture worker can be less likely to be seen as a “safe place” to hash out the enquirers questions and thoughts without risk of the community finding out. In positive ways (some government meetings, societal opinion, etc.) far culture workers can add value to team or BAM life – not through any merit of their own that makes them better/wiser than near culture colleagues, but just because of perception in the host culture.
For the sake of fairness it is worth mentioning that those from a far-culture who master the local language are indeed able to a great extent to disciple, mentor, and teach local believers. This cultural and linguistic fluency is still the goal, we are just recognizing that many far-culture workers will not attain to the same level as the near-culture workers.
Far Culture workers sometimes have access to finances and other resources that near culture workers may not, at least to the same degree. Those who are able to raise funds can direct those funds and resources to worthy people/projects on the ground. There are dangers here of course and abuses throughout history – and yet money can (and should) be used positively. Those on the ground and in partnership with local and near culture workers will have a better sense of worthy projects and scalable/reproducible approaches than those who live outside the context. Those on the ground will have a better view of the path towards indigenous churches and how capital can be used to catalyze ministry without undercutting local initiative or dignity. A far-culture worker wanting to act in this role could proactively study models, methods and local church structures that would allow healthy distribution of finances while minimizing the risk of dependence or financial impropriety. This would play out in training new
believers/churches to receive and distribute funds in a healthy way while the far-culture worker walks with them through real cases.
Global workers often (through travels, conferences, education, background) get to know various people/ministries/foundations who would not otherwise happily/healthily connect. These external peoples can be connected wisely to internal work on the ground. Additionally, while an affinity approach is welcome, reality repeatedly leads us to acknowledge aggregate approaches as well. Far culture workers can play a key role in bringing disparate individuals or groups together when the time is conducive. Global workers might have more patience and time for this if other near culture workers are heavily engaged (Because of better language and culture skills) pastoring a group.
In honor/shame cultures there can sometimes be a space for those with scandalous histories or sexual confusion to approach someone “further” away culturally. Some locals are freer to talk about sexual orientation problems or fears of family retaliation more with those from farcultures than near. It is also true, that sometimes it works the opposite way – locals more comfortable sharing intimate things with those who understand their culture better. Either way, by far culture and near culture workers loving one another in partnership, by God’s team being diverse and complementary we can demonstrate grace and unity in diversity – which is invaluable in both evangelism and discipleship.
Calling in Community
As important as language and culture acquisition is, we also want to point out that the call of God precedes ability. That Lord has and will continue to call His children from a variety of places and with a variety of capacities, and if we “speak with the tongues of men and angels but have not love”, we will not be effective cross-cultural missionaries. Those called of God from far-cultures who never attain full linguistic and cultural proficiency can model commitment, sacrifice, suffering, prayer and fasting, love, open house, and selfless care for people. Life and the love of Jesus can be communicated without fluency. The call of the Lord is not limited by our limitations when our heart is right and we have done the best we can. And when our calling is worked out in multi-cultural community we evidence love and family to the watching world and seekers. We model and demonstrate to them that diversity that is unity and that the family of God has room (and desire!) for all types of people with all types of gifts, and all types of limitations. When men and women from different nationalities mutually submit to one another in honor, celebrating the different gifts and strengths, we present a beautiful and inviting picture of the heavenly kingdom that is soon to come.
Unified diversity strengthens the Gospel message in the practical and daily life. How we work, parent, treat our spouse, exercise, eat, give, pray, serve others, speak truth, confess our sins, and interact with the poor and weak is all observed. When seekers or local believers see different cultures – from near and far – live out Biblical principles in the daily life with common integrity (even if varied application) it strengthens the Gospel call and case. Our lives lived out in the variegated body of Christ validates a universal Gospel and a Global community – which is incredibly inviting and settling for those being expelled from their own communities.
It is good for us to proactively consider what areas we can be used in as more and more “we are the only ones here” starts to fade as near-cultures join. We can all rest in the fact that the Lord does orchestrate all his instruments in a beautiful way.
We see it when we sit with our Asian friends and some of their language is worse than ours, which already isn’t great. And their culture is sometimes too stiff and slow to adapt (even though they understand honor/shame better than we do). But we know the Lord will use them – through prayer, through an example, or a connection – He is using them.
We see it with our Hispanic brothers and sisters who ache for family they miss back home and on occasion bunch up a little too much in an effort to replace that. Yet these brothers and sisters live and translate community so well as they model for us how to give extravagant time to love seekers and include them in their family. The Lord will use them.
We see it in our African brothers and sisters who boldly preach the gospel, sing in the streets, pray up a storm – whether or not the locals understand what they are doing. The Lord is using their faith, courage, and direct approach.
We see it in our Arab family who are so gracious with us when we constantly depend on them for cultural wisdom, interpretation of tricky language, context clues, historic perspective, and tribal insights. We see it in their humility when they learn from what the Global Body of Christ has learned along the missions way over the centuries.
We can see it in our individualistic and arrogant Western selves. Despite our brokenness and weakness and hubris and cultural blindness and idealism and focus on task over relationship and narrowness and self righteousness…and more…God has somehow used even us.
And He will continue to use us all. He still wants ALL His children to go into ALL the world and make disciples of ALL the nations. ALL for His glory.