As we noted in the previous post, missions is every believer’s business. We live out grace and peace and carry the message of good news every day, regardless of our location.
But I would suggest that the Great Commission includes taking the message to the end of the earth, and this Commission is not given to just a select few. Nothing in the text implies a limitation as to personnel or geography.
Now, of course we can’t all go to Latvia, or who would serve the rest of the planet? I would suggest that the fact that in God’s providence you were born where you were would certainly indicate that God intends you to take the message to your own people.
But still. We need to go.
It has become common these days for us to subcontract cross-cultural missions to “professionals,” who live full-time in Latvia, or wherever, and focus on taking the message to that particular culture. That’s a great idea, and it seems to work with reasonable efficiency—though I’m inclined to think that it’s better for Americans to train indigenous pastors than to try to carry the burden of church planting themselves, given the amount of resources and time required for an American to plant just one church overseas.
But I don’t think that paying someone else to go absolves us from our responsibility to go as well. Sure, it’s expensive to go, and we can stay for only so long, and we’re not as effective in an unfamiliar culture as an indigenous believer would be, but there are things we can do effectively, and there are things we can learn that will increase our effectiveness in our own day-to-day outreach at home.
That said, it is possible to do overseas outreach very, very badly. In my experience, Americans seem to be especially clumsy working in unfamiliar cultures. The expression “the ugly American” didn’t come from nowhere, and the stories are abundant. I can recall an experience in China at a Buddhist temple where my family was observing quietly and appreciating the architecture. The priest had indicated to us “no photos,” and of course we respected his wishes. After a few minutes a couple of American twenty-something girls came in, wearing halter tops and short shorts, chewing gum and talking loudly, with no apparent awareness of the sort of place this was. “Oh, look at that! Cool! OMG!” The look of dismay on the face of the priest was hard to miss.
Sure, it’s a false religion, and he’s a false teacher, but he’s also a human being in the image of God who needs to hear the message, and this kind of thing can only make the task more difficult. I was horrified—and embarrassed for my country.
I wish that I was just cherry-picking, but this sort of thing seems to happen all the time. I suppose we could speculate on why. The USA is a big country, insulated from the rest of the world by oceans on both sides, with the result that many Americans never visit a different country their whole lives. Europeans and Africans, on the other hand, cross national borders and work in multiple languages fairly routinely. And despite all the talk of polarization and regionalism in our country, the culture is relatively homogeneous; you can travel from Atlanta to Wenatchee and still understand the regional accent, conduct business smoothly, and manage not to be offensive in daily customs such as greetings.
So yes, I would suggest that all believers need to get some experience in taking the gospel to another culture. But I would also suggest that we should take that responsibility seriously enough to prepare properly, so that we don’t make things worse by going. That means we’re going to have to learn some things about the culture—they do things differently there—so as not to fulfill the American stereotype of being offensive all day long with absolutely no awareness that we’re doing so.
We’ll get to some specifics next time.