We Don't Make The Rules

In order to prepare for life and ministry in the Middle East, a young missionary once devoted several years to the study of Islam. He read the Qur’an, visited several mosques, interviewed an imam, and even took introductory courses in Arabic. He prepared an entire apologetic based on what he had learned to be common Islamic objections to Christianity. He found various contradictions in Muslim thinking that he intended to exploit as soon as he had the opportunity to engage in evangelism of Muslim people.

This missionary had done his homework, yet when I connected with him about six months after he had arrived in country, he we extremely frustrated. Everywhere he went, he found people who claimed to be good Muslims, but none of them believed exactly what the missionary had learned that Muslims believed! Undeterred, the missionary had found himself in the awkward position of teaching Muslims what they were supposed to believe, just so he could then explain how Jesus was better. He went around rebuking nominal Muslims for not following the tenets of their faith. He debated religious leaders over what it really meant to follow the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. How was he to have a fruitful conversation with these people, if they were so ignorant of the religion the claimed to follow?

It seems silly, doesn’t it? Why would a Christian missionary, sent to make disciples of Jesus, waste any time at all explaining the teachings of the Qur’an instead of teaching the Word of God? May God save us from thinking that we have so figured out the people with whom we’re interacting that we fail to even listen to what they’re actually saying.

Lately my Twitter feed has been buzzing with debates: Christians debating non-Christians about the science of fetal heartbeats, Christians debating other Christians about the merits of Critical Race Theory as an analytical tool for understanding human experiences. Conservatives debating liberals over socialism. In every case, I get the strong impression that despite all the back-and-forth, very little communication is happening. The worst part about it all? Christians–God’s people who have been sent as His ambassadors, witnesses, and disciple makers–insisting that they are the keepers of the “rules” of the discussion.

The thing is, philosophies and perspectives don’t always fall neatly into well-defined categories. Recent studies indicate a resurgence of socialism in U.S. politics. Conservatives have been quick to dismiss these would-be socialists with cautionary tales of the failed social, political, and economic policies of Colombia or the Soviet Union. But are young Americans really advocating for a government takeover of all businesses, transportation, banks, schools, farms, and factories? If we stop and listen long enough to get past the word “socialism” and it’s historical definition, we might find that they’re using the word quite differently than the Viet Cong might have in the 1950s and 60s. In reaction to unchecked economic competition, some are looking for alternative systems. Their reasons are valid: spiraling debt, skyrocketing insurance premiums, low-paying jobs, and burdensome tax laws are all heavy burdens to bear. Jesus had much to say about worry, generosity, dependence on God to provide our needs, caring for widows, orphans, and foreigners, and working hard, and good stewardship. If Christians were to engage with “socialists” around these issues, around the challenges we all face every day, the likelihood of us having solid opportunities to share the gospel only increases.

Isn’t that our goal? More gospel proclamation and more disciple making? Are we out to convert people to Christ, or to capitalism? If we shoot holes in the logic of their patchwork-quilt of a worldview, are they any closer to Jesus?

It must be said that in our segmented society, all communication is essentially cross-cultural. Even when we talk to people who seem to be a lot like us, we must overcome a variety of cultural and sub-cultural barriers if we’re going to understand and be understood. God’s people on mission should pursue dialog, not diatribe. Let’s not become experts in economics, philosophy, or religion in order to demonstrate our mastery of academic concepts, let’s be experts in Christ and Him crucified, that more would know Him.

The reality is that we don’t get to set the rules. Those to whom we’ve been sent can change the definitions of words, hold contradictory opinions, change the standard, lie, deny, and ignore. We will never be able to keep up with their philosophies, trends, political ideologies, and social constructs. But that’s okay. We can be experts in Jesus, and He is what people need after all.

Knowing, Being, Doing

My job is to design training for cross-cultural workers. It’s really interesting work. First, we determine what a good and healthy worker needs to know, be, or do. Along the way, we’ve compiled quite a list of knowledge, character traits, and skills that faithful and effective cross-cultural disciple making requires. Some things on the list are exactly what you might expect: missionaries need to now how to share their faith, interpret scripture, and learn new languages and cultures.

Missionary knowledge is (relatively) easy. It’s easy to assess what a Learner already knows-just ask her a series of questions. Where there’s a deficit in understanding, it’s easy to provide her with the needed information. Retention of that information, then, can be checked over time through simple quizzes.

Missionary skills are a bit more difficult, because a skill is learned over time through practice. Skills have to be developed. Nevertheless, it’s pretty easy to assess a missionary’s skill: have an expert observe the worker’s behavior, and that expert can quickly get a sense of his or her skill level.

Missionary character is clearly the most difficult to assess for, train to, and evaluate. Of course, behavior is the primary indicator of what’s inside a person, so we can begin to understand who a person is by watching what they do. But being a missionary–especially a good one–is more than just activity; in many ways, there’s a particular missionary perspective that makes all the difference in a person’s usefulness to cross-cultural disciple making.

No one is born a good cross-cultural worker. Becoming a good missionary is a matter of discipleship- learning, practicing, improving. But the result of training is understanding, a Christlike attitude, and lots of transferrable skills. Would that every Christian received this sort of training!