As promised, here is the second segment of Ben’s guest post.
For years, my idea of missions never really surpassed the thought of going to another country and starting a Bible study. Teaching God’s Word is certainly a necessary part of missions, but recently, having experienced it for myself, I have been realizing that missionary life encompasses much more than just trying to build something. The aspects of learning a new language and culture have freshly revealed their significance, and by the Lord’s grace, He is opening our eyes to these things, and giving us the opportunity to practice them. The broader view of missions, at least in the beginning, is being a learner. We must learnanother peoples’ culture and language, for the purpose of better communicating the gospel to them.
Before I continue, shortly before I began writing this, I was sharply reminded of a needed, underlying principal. I can try as much as I want to understand a culture and speak their language, but without my submission to the Holy Spirit, and therefore Him moving and working in and through my life, I will not see God work. Jesus Himself said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) In missions, or in any context as a believer, God works completely by His grace to impact others through my life. He orchestrates conversations, meetings, and situations, and is able to use me even when I don’t speak another language or do not relate culturally to others. Again, without Him, we can do nothing. Therefore, my point in bringing up the importance of being a learner of culture and language is this: In the midst of God’s work, I also need to be diligent to acquire the tools that are available to me. While, any fruit is all by God’s doing, practically, if I can’t speak with someone because I don’t know their language, obviously, I cannot communicate the gospel to them. This means that I have the responsibility to take the time to learn how to communicate with that person. When I have the tool of another language, God will use that tool for His glory.
Another quick side-note: Some of what I am about to say isn’t completely based on what we’ve learned by our experiences thus far, but we’ve also had the privilege of gleaning from other former missionaries, and are currently reading a great book by Paul Hiebert, called Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. As we have been experiencing things we learned from others, however, these points have been proven true to us.
The importance of beginning as a learner and observer, as opposed to a teacher and doer, started to come into focus through various recent events and conversations. A few months ago, I was talking with a national pastor of a Calvary Chapel here in Europe, listening to his heart. He was sharing that he felt a lot of Americans come to his country very unprepared, full of pride, thinking that they know how everything should be done in wanting to see a church planted. He had an experience where a man literally showed up, unannounced, to serve with their fellowship. As this pastor asked the man what he wanted to do, the man replied by saying that he was a Bible teacher, and should be given Bible studies. The national pastor was quite disheartened. Who is this man who just shows up without any knowledge of my people or language, yet thinks he has something to offer us? I saw that this mindset and attitude lies within me as well. Maybe I wasn’t showing up at random to churches asking for Bible studies, but from my Westernized point of view, I did feel that I knew what I was doing, and how to interact with people here regarding the gospel. I assumed that I could show up in another country and things would simply take off. However, when I actually arrived and began living there, I was hit with the many differences separating me from the people I came to serve. The reality is, in another country, the nationals aren’t the foreigners, I am. I shouldn’t expect another people group to relate to me as a Westerner, but I must be the one to learn how to relate to them in their context.
The sad thing is that there are many people who come to other countries in the hopes of starting a Bible study, and seeing people come to know the Lord, but never learn to relate to the people on their level. If we only learn enough language to get by, surround ourselves mainly with those who can speak English, and don’t identify with their ways (in a way that still upholds a godly lifestyle), we will remain foreign. If I remain foreign, so will the message I preach. It could make people feel like they need to become a Westerner to be a Christian, or it could totally push them away. This is exactly what the Jews were doing to the Gentiles. This isn’t to say that the Gospel isn’t “foreign” in itself; it is because it calls all peoples and cultures to change! God created it to be presented in each culture and retain its power. My part is to make sure that I am not hindering it in any way (see Hiebert pg. 53-56; 76).
My point in all of this is that in entering a new country to share God’s love, to more effectively minister to the people in greater ways, I must first take the time to learn how to become an insider to their way of life. As an outsider to a culture and language, I can only remain where I am, on the outside, separate from the people I came to serve. I must grow to understand their way of thinking, the ways they view relationships, time, God, etc. This is all specifically important in the beginning stages, because that is the time when I am the freshest to be able to learn these things. If I don’t pinpoint them then, these cultural differences could go unnoticed in the future (See Hiebert Part 2, chapter 3). If I don’t take the necessary time to work on language skills now, my accent and sentence structure may never improve. On top of all this, if I enter in with a learner’s heart, I will be much less likely to push people away, than if I come in with a teacher’s attitude. As a learner, I am much more approachable. People are actually are excited to show me their ways, food, history, etc. Ever since we began to relate to the people in this way, this has been proven to us over and over again.
We will always have American roots, we will always have a slight accent, and we will never fully understand their culture, but we should be becoming relatable to them, just as Jesus came as God in human form, functioning in our world. The difference is that Jesus had to take a huge step down from heaven to earth; we simply re-locate physically and learn how to live in another context. In all that I mentioned above, I want to clarify again, I am not limiting the gospel’s power to cut through cultural boundaries in any way, and I am continuing to share the Lord when I have the opportunity, despite these boundaries. God is far more than able to save any sinner. It is His working in their heart. In all, if a bridge needs to be built that will further the gospel, then by God’s grace, we should build it.
To close, as I shared in my previous post about the things I have been learning recently in Croatia, my wife and I are currently living in a small town in Croatia, serving alongside Calvary Chapel Čakovec (a fully functioning Croatian church). Since our recent move, the Lord has continued to confirm these things to my heart. Being immersed into their language and culture has been proving itself very profitable. Every daily situation can easily become a learning experience, and everyone around us has become a teacher in something we need to learn. We are excited for the present as we learn and live for His glory as well as for the future and whatever it holds”.
Thanks Ben! Let’s continue to keep Ben and Emily in our prayers as they seek to bring the Gospel to those who haven’t heard in Croatia.To read more about what the Lord is doing in and through them in Cakovec, feel free to read there updates HERE.