Discernment in cross-cultural ministry

Missionary work that reflects Christ

When I was about eight or nine years old, someone gave me an autograph book. I went around badgering people to sign it. Some just signed their name on those small multi-colored pages. Others wrote personal notes. A few wrote a scripture verse before signing their names.

During one of our family's annual visits to Missouri where many of our relatives lived, I asked an elderly great-aunt for her autograph. Before signing her name, she wrote, "All is not gold that glitters."

That saying didn't mean a lot to me then. For one thing, I had no idea it was from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. And, I didn't really comprehend all that it meant. Now, with the passage of time, I've not only learned that it is from a piece of classic literature; I have also come to understand that "all that glitters is not gold" highlights the need for us to exercise discernment (Deuteronomy 32:28, 2 Chronicles 2:12).

Discernment was, of course, very evident in Jesus' earthly life. That gift of discernment, that ability to see things as they really are, is something not only helpful but also necessary in cross- cultural missionary ministry.

Jesus, of course, knew very well that all that glitters is not gold. So, even though He acted in kind and loving ways, no one could fool Him. No one could "pull the wool" over Jesus' discerning eyes.

Being discerning does not mean Jesus was suspicious by nature. However, He could see through the fog that often obscures motives, attitudes, capabilities and even depth of commitment. Jesus understood that personal sin hinders people from being what they were created to be. Thus, people who encountered Jesus were sometimes startled when He brought up issues in their life.

Of course, Jesus not only saw things in all their ugliness. He also discerned what could be. So, while Jesus knew that all that glitters is not gold, He saw possibilities in people.

Global missionaries need an abundance of discernment. In cross-cultural living, discerning what is really going on and reading between the lines is not easy. For obvious reasons, no missionary will ever reach the level of discernment which Jesus possessed. Still, people in cross- cultural evangelism must pray for and use discernment as they seek to:

While we can see discernment modeled in Jesus' life, it is significant that the concept also shows up in the First Corinthians 12 discussion of spiritual gifts and in Hebrews 5:14 in a paragraph about distinguishing between good and evil.

Today, as you pray for missionaries, ask God to give them a huge helping of the kind of discernment that Jesus possessed!

"I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes." -- Psalm 119:125

    -- Howard Culbertson

This 500-word mini-essay on Christlike attitudes and actions that need to be present in cross- cultural missionary service is one of dozen articles in the "missionary ministry that "reflects Christ" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine produced by the Church of the Nazarene.


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