by Robert Boardman
Some basic principles of Christian living.
In Borgos, Spain, my wife Jean and I boarded the overnight express for Germany. Unable to sleep at about 3 a.m., Jean peered out the window. We were at the Spanish-French border. To her amazement, our train was hoisted into the air and fitted with different wheels for the French track. Years ago Spain’s General Franco had picked narrow-gauge track to ward off foreign invaders.
Suspicion and distrust prevail, not just at international boundaries, but in our hearts, even in Christians. For a missionary, failure to allow Christ’s love to overcome prejudice could be the greatest hindrance to penetrating cultures.
To straddle worlds is never easy. Missionaries must pay a price. Culture shock makes it difficult. A new and strange language, different time and money values, new social rules and customs — plus the loss of our own familiar surroundings— make the transition difficult. Our familiar props are gone and we are no longer in control like we used to be.
In our travels we have met many valiant missionaries straggling to penetrate complex cultures and subcultures. Compounding their difficulty, cultures change so rapidly. Failing to keep up, missionaries fall into despair and uselessness.
This battle is not limited to remote tribal regions. Take Europe, for example. Jean and I were speaking in a country that for years had been morally conservative. One day we took a break and went to the beach. We were totally unprepared for topless bathers. Then someone told us how much things had changed in that country just in the last two to five years.
On our return to the States, we began to think about some universal keys to cultural penetration that missionaries could use. How can we overcome the difficulties, fears, and prejudices of another culture? What follows is not an anthropological discussion, but some basic principles of Christian living. I’m not opposed to missionaries learning from anthropologists, of course, but these are fundamentals from another perspective. We must be men and women of God, know how to use God’s word, and allow the Holy Spirit to use us.
A MAN OR WOMAN OF GOD
God rarely reveals truth apart from people. They are his chosen instruments. E. M. Bounds said it so well: "Men are God’s method…What the church needs today is not more machinery, or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men (and women) whom the Holy Spirit can use-men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Spirit does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men of prayer."
To penetrate cultures, the missionary used by God not only prays, but also thinks and studies, looking for new ideas. While holding on to his biblical principles, he allows the local culture to sink into his life. Secure in Christ, he must, in effect, be penetrated by local culture before he can work effectively in it.
Culture shock often exposes our weaknesses and sins. Perhaps hidden in the underbrush of our own "native habitat," they now surge swiftly into the open. This missionary is embarrassed and hurt, but if he is going to be successful in his new culture, he must not stay down for a 10-count, but rise up from the knockout blow. He refuses to quit.
Working diligently to keep a pure conscience before God and people, missionaries must develop strong attachments to their adopted lands. Despite times of suffering and rejection, they persevere in their tasks.
Someone has said with much insight that people in a foreign culture don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. In a day when easy living and clever shortcuts often dominate our attitudes, growth in steadfestness and spiritual power must be emphasized. One African church leader pleads for "God-intoxicated" men and women.
THE WORD OF GOD
Missionaries, of course, are caught in what seems to be a headlong rush to godlessness. They have seen countries throw away the moral laws of God and watched people quit going to church. The public seems to have accepted the "God is dead" myth. National believers and pastors struggle with these prevailing cultural patterns, too.
The list of public sins is depressing: violence and terrorism, drunkenness and carousing, infidelity and public nakedness, pornography and abortion. The poor and the weak are exploited. In business and government, cheating, lying and greed are exposed almost daily. If anyone dares speak out publicly against these things, he is hooted, ridiculed, and rejected.
Where does a missionary stand in these circumstances? On the Word of God. There he finds right standards and God’s perspective on rapidly changing cultures.
Yet, missionaries must mix effectively with people who do go along with the cultural tide, if they are to win them to Christ. They are "in the world, but not of the world" (John 17:11, 14). The Bible is their firm footing. Scripture speaks out plainly against immorality, greed, idolatry, drunkenness. Missionaries must avoid these sins while building friendships with people who do not know Christ.
Throughout my missionary career I have shaved under many adverse conditions: no hot water, no soap, no mirror-or one so low (in Japan) that I shaved on my knees. But whatever the conditions, the key to a successful shave is a sharp blade.
Fitting into a different culture is something like that. Living conditions aren’t ideal. But the Word of God is our razor blade, "keener than the sharpest two-edged sword" (Heb. 4:12, Weymouth). It removes "whiskers" when we use it, not only ours but through our ministries those of other people as well.
THE SPIRIT OF GOD
Tragically, some missionaries go off to do battle on foreign territory without the quickening power of the Holy Spirit. I have met some of them. They trust in church tradition, their high-powered organization, their intellect and academic credentials. Yes, in the world of missions there are many things to trust in besides the power of the Holy Spirit.
But only the indwelling Spirit of God can motivate and enlighten us to use scriptural principles for successful cultural penetration. He can and does give us counsel about how to live, act, and speak among different people. He gives wisdom, knowledge, discretion, and understanding. He reveals missionary objectives and strategies to help us to fulfill our ministries. He also convicts people in the local culture of their unbelief, their lack of righteousness, and the coming judgment (John 16:6-8).
At the risk of oversimplification to make a point, often I have sensed while working in a foreign culture that almost any method will bring fruit, provided the Holy Spirit quickens us. Therefore, he must be the missionary’s closest confidant, chief counselor, and best friend.
W. A. Criswell once said that "without the presence of the Spirit there is no conviction, no regeneration, no sanctification, no cleansing, no acceptable works. We can perform duties without him, but our service is dull and mechanical. Life is in the quickening Spirit."
A VISION OF THE GREAT COMMISSION
Paradoxically, a missionary can find himself working in missions and still lose his missionary vision. As God gives converts and Christians start to grow, "the uttermost parts" become "Jerusalem." These converts and growing disciples must be taught and catch a vision for the worldwide scope of the Great Commission.
However, often as their work blooms, missionaries find tremendous needs in their own backyard as well as around the country. Their vision stops there. Or, if a missionary plugs away at a particularly difficult task, he may see no further than that. Either way, the church on the mission field is left in the dark about the Great Commission. The missionary leader can’t see sending his own key men and women to another country, because he needs them so much.
Such churches in time become ingrown and sterile. The missionary then loses an important asset in penetrating his host culture. It is not either work at home or abroad, but both. The church with a missionary heart and vision usually is effective in evangelism, too.
When I worked in Japan I found it difficult to teach world missions with conviction. With believers such a minuscule percentage of the population, why should they be sent to other countries? I’m thankful that the Japanese themselves caught the missionary spirit. They saw it in the Scripture and in the example of missionaries who came to their shores.
Whenever the Great Commission looms large in a church’s thinking, that church possesses healthy faith and dynamic hope. Missionaries need this reminder as they plan their objectives for local church growth and for cracking barriers to faith in the culture.
Whatever the culture-primitive in isolated nooks and crannies of the globe, or sophisticated in the industrialized nations-it can be penetrated by missionaries who are people of God, using the Word of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, and convinced that world evangelization is every church’s duty.
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