Has anyone ever noticed? In third-world countries good missionary practice involves long periods of language study and learning of the culture and beliefs of the people the missionary is called to. We call this missions.
In America we expect or even demand everyone we approach have the same cultural background and define theological terms the same way we do. Rather than seeking to gain acceptance in a culture we stand on the street corners and exercise our right to offend anyone passing by. We call this evangelism.
Now, many are already offended by the broad generalizations I just made and I admit I am pushing some buttons here. Yet, my experience shows this is not all that far from reality in far too many evangelical circles. As believers we are all individually and collectively called to bring others into a meaningful relationship with their creator. It is our duty, and should be our joy, to introduce our friends to the one who is father, friend, mother, and creator to us. “…Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). If we are to effectively carry out our commission we must attend to three essentials: language, culture, and relationships.
First, we must speak a common language. This may seem, at face value, the easy part. We assume we are all speaking English or Spanish here. Yet this is one of the great snares. Several years ago I was taking a course on cults from Ruth Tucker and decided to invite the LDS over for a little introduction to their faith. The standard introduction they use is six visits. I made no attempt to challenge them and didn’t expose my own beliefs. Through the first three sessions (each more than an hour) there was almost nothing said that could be construed as unorthodox. This is very intentional on their part. Since LDS is a pseudo-Christian it relies on the ignorance of lapsed Christians who know a little about their faith but have significant gaps in their understanding. By using this common ignorance the LDS can say they believe in God, and Jesus, and salvation without anyone questioning what these terms mean. God…who is God? Jesus…who is Jesus? Salvation…how is one saved? These terms, as basic as they are, are rarely truly learned by the mainstream believer except in trite Christianesse phrases devoid of true meaning. Such learning is no learning and leaves the believers prey to false teaching. There is no more common definition to theological terms (if there ever was). When we relate to a Pagan and hear her speak of the Goddess it is our opportunity to learn what she believes the Goddess is? And every Pagan will have their own definition for this term. Once we understand his meaning of Goddess, only then, can we begin to explain how our God relates to the Goddess.
Second we must consider culture. Traveling two blocks in Saint Paul can be much like traveling around the globe. Today’s America is extraordinarily and wonderfully diverse. No longer (if there ever was the day) can we expect that our neighbors and school mates watch the same movies or listen to the same songs or hear the same news on the radio. The woman next to us at work may have grown up two houses down but may have few similarities otherwise. How many have taken the opportunity to talk to a someone who practices Asatru (worship of the ancient Norse gods) about what her beliefs and culture are like? Have you ever been at the bedside of a sick Hmong person and wondered what the knife was for (or had to convince the RN not to call security)? With culture comes personal history and these stories are very very powerful. Why is she a Wiccan? Is it demon possession or was her father abusive or is she simply an intelligent and creative woman who has found no depth in the cheap, bland practice of some Evangelical church? In either case does it seem like a good idea to talk about the love of the Father and his demands for righteousness? Perhaps not yet. Learning the culture of your friends and, most importantly, their personal stories is vital to both relationship and communication.
Third, is the building of relationships. In a world of shallow, meaningless acquaintances and encounters depth matters. We all know when someone cares, when someone is really there for us. So often we read the stories of those who have gotten involved in gangs or cults or hate groups and find the same things: relationships. It was there that they found friends and acceptance. It was in these most unhealthy of societies that individuals find relationship. When we read these stories, of all things, it is in these stories we stand condemned. The most basic of needs a body of believers has failed to provide. When we hear the story of someone who went elsewhere for acceptance it is the culmination of failure, not on their part, but on ours. We have failed to speak their language. We have failed to understand their culture. We have failed to relate to them as creatures made in God’s image.
As we, as a body of believers, begin the examine the sharing of our faith as a spiritual discipline I pray that we delve deep into the meaning of that duty. I pray that we exercise this discipline as a desire from the depth of our souls and as a part of our daily life rather than as a task we must accomplish. In my experience of salvation one passage has stood out like no other. Every time I encounter it I am almost brought to tears. In Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse he addresses his followers for the last time in the flesh. “I no longer call you servants..but I have called you friends…” (John 15:15). Whether we call it evangelism or missions or witnessing we are called to only one thing. To bring others into relationship with our creator that they too may be called friend.
George J. Sawyer III
George is an associate of the Galilean Fellows and owner of SawyerTraining, Inc. He can be contacted at gsawyer (at) sawyertraining (dot) com.