Unpacking my suitcase after a three-week visit to one of the poorest countries in Asia, I was amazed at how much I had brought back that I had not needed.
I had been ministering alongside a UFM missionary. Cross-cultural ministry can be a frustrating experience, a bit like being in one of those large plastic inflatables you see in leisure resorts which floats on the surface of the water. You climb inside, and like a hamster in his exercise ball, walk over the surface of the water. In cross-cultural ministry, we are not meant to float atop the surface of a culture in a Christian bubble. Rather our goal is to penetrate below the surface. The compelling love of Christ calls us to use heavenly wisdom to discern what we should pack in the cross-cultural gospel suitcase and what we can afford to leave behind.
Thinking about what to take
When packing for a trip, you avoid taking the proverbial kitchen sink. There are essentials you dare not go without, but there are non-essentials you can afford to leave behind. I asked my friend two questions: ‘What are the essential and foundational gospel principles of ministry and practice, which you had to take with you?’ and, ‘What are the non-essential matters you could leave behind — not because they are wrong in themselves but because they can become unnecessary cultural baggage?’
The first thing he packed was the good news of Jesus Christ’s redeeming work in saving guilty sinners. He took an unswerving commitment to bring the unchangeable message of the gospel and a conviction that preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified was his number one priority. And like Philip in Acts 8, he is prepared to share Jesus just with one person. However, he also packed a commitment to consider carefully how best to communicate that message with those he was going to. Paul had communicated the same gospel message to his Jewish hearers in the synagogue (Acts 13), but in a different manner to those he addressed on Mars Hill (Acts 17). In both places, Paul was faithful to the content of the gospel but wanted to communicate it clearly to those who had different cultural backgrounds.
The content of biblical truth is most effectively used by the Holy Spirit when it is presented in a way that best resonates with the hearers. Those who bring the good news need to do so in a manner that will gain the ears of their hearers. We are not suggesting we empty the message of its divine content but rather consider how we can best relay the truth. Our Lord spoke directly to Nicodemus and yet chose to gradually draw the woman by the well to the living water (see John 3 and 4). Their different backgrounds called for a gospel presentation that would speak to their own circumstances.
My friend has taken considerable time and exerted much energy ensuring he has a working knowledge of the language of the people. To learn a new language was a laborious and tedious task but how beneficial it has been to converse fluently with those he is reaching for Jesus.
He also stored away in his bag a readiness to adapt his preaching and teaching to include local idioms and illustrations. Stories which arise from his hearers’ own cultural background were particularly potent to illustrate a biblical proposition and bring the gospel home. A refined simplicity that caught the ear of his hearers, under the Spirit’s blessing, made great in-roads in helping to penetrate the culture with the message.
He did not forget to take too, a trust in the Spirit’s power by grounding the message he brought in a passage of Scripture. A clear, simple outline arising out of the text is essential for helping to establish new believers with a confidence in the Word. Such an approach establishes where the Christian’s authority lies.
He chose to leave behind the logical, step by step approach, so familiar to us in the West, choosing instead to repeat the main teaching point of a passage by bringing the same truth to bear in a different light. A careful, circular development of the main teaching point. My friend understands that as there is the milk of the Word and there is the meat of the Word, so one does not feed a person meat in the same way one would feed them milk.
He unashamedly took with him a readiness to occasionally ‘act out’ what he was saying. A good teacher is a demonstrative teacher. But my friend didn’t become a mime artist or slap-stick comedian. A simple action was beneficial in aiding the communication of his message. My friend knows that the mindset of his hearers is more concrete than conceptual and a demonstration helps brings home the truth, clarifying what is being taught from Scripture and reinforcing the understanding. Our Lord Jesus spoke to his hearers in the ordinary things of their day when he talked about sparrows, sheep, sowing seed and sweeping houses. Illustrations from everyday life are windows into the truth, which may be helped by briefly acting out those illustrations.
A servant spirit
Finally, a highlight of my visit was riding pillion on a motorcycle (legally without a crash helmet). It’s been many years since I moved upmarket from my old Honda to a car. It was great fun to be on a bike again, but I have to admit it was hard not to want to take hold of the handlebars. We all love to take control. There is an ever-present temptation in cross-cultural ministry to become masters or rulers. My friend has carefully packed a true servant spirit that is willing not only to work alongside indigenous Christian leaders but also to work under them. He has the vision to train up men to be future leaders and yet to be patient enough to bear with them in their mistakes and strong enough to challenge them gently when it is called for. It demands a gracious patience to work with folks even when you know things are not being done effectively. A servant spirit learns the knack of not wanting to hold the handlebars of leadership, but instead to trust indigenous leaders enough to ride pillion with them.