In the opening words of his gospel, the Apostle John declared that God Himself had lived "among us." The Message paraphrase of the Bible colorfully renders John 1:14 as "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood," while the Common English Bible says, "He made his home among us." The classic Amplified Bible says that Christ "tabernacled (fixed His tent) among us"
These various expressions all point to the fact that Jesus lived as a First Century Jew. He spoke the mother tongue of the people. He ate at their tables. He celebrated holidays with them. He traveled around with them. He interacted with their children. Jesus was truly at home in First Century Jewish culture.
In this day of instant communication, airplane travel, and Google Translate, rookie missionaries can be tempted to try shortcuts or even opt to bypass the hard work of language learning and cultural acquisition. That might seem like a strategic move that will allow them to launch into ministry immediately. However, omitting language and cultural acquisition would be a short-sighted decision for new missionaries. Effective missionaries never see following Jesus' example of "moving into the neighborhood" as a waste of time. Like Jesus, perceptive missionaries spend time acquiring fluency in the language of a people group. They adapt to unfamiliar customs. They embrace a culture not their own and come to feel at home in it. There are no painless shortcuts on that road.
Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 18:2-4 about becoming "like little children"? To be sure, Jesus used those words in a different line of thinking than that of going as a cross-cultural missionary. Nonetheless, that idea of becoming like a little child does speak to the subject of assimilating the culture of the people to whom we want to minister. We do need to become like little children as we enter an unfamiliar culture. We need to go in with our eyes wide open, trying to learn everything we possibly can. Sure, it will take time, and missionaries will make mistakes along the way, but the process will increase their long-term productiveness as Christ's ambassadors.
If we're going to minister in the way Jesus did, we must "pitch our tent among them" (as some scholars say the Greek verb in John 1:14 could be rendered). Will "living among them" be hard and sometimes seem sacrificial? Yes, but we must do it if we are going to follow the example of our Lord.
This mini-essay on Christlike attitudes and actions that need to be present in cross-cultural missionary service is one of a dozen articles in the "Missionary ministry that reflects Christ" series published in Engage magazine.
What can we learn from the woman whose biography by Carol Christian was titled God and One Redhead?
Mary Mitchell Slessor (1848 - 1915) was a Scottish Presbyterian missionary who served in Africa. In 1876, she went to what is now Nigeria and died there after 40 years of Christian missionary work. In addition to preaching the gospel, she was a school supervisor, dispenser of medical aid, mediator of village disputes, promoter of women's rights, and a rescuer of children from infanticide. She embraced a standard of living that was at the level of the people she served.
"More African than the Africans"
Missionary work that follows New Testament patterns involves settling in with a people group for a significant period of time. It means living with them, connecting with them on a variety of levels. It entails eating their food, learning their language, and enjoying their humor. It includes becoming able to genuinely empathize with them.
Such purposeful participation by missionaries in another culture is called "identification." It does not necessitate "going native" and totally forsaking one's own culture. It means becoming bicultural in addition to becoming bilingual.
Through the centuries, many Christian missionaries have exemplified good identification. One example would be Mary Slessor and her 40 years of missionary service in Africa.
Born into a poor Scottish family in the middle of the 1800s, red-headed Mary felt a call to ministry at age 11. Coincidentally, that same year, she went to work in a textile factory. She had an alcoholic father who could not provide for his family. So young Mary worked ten-hour days, six days a week, to help support her family.
Missionary David Livingstone, who was then in Africa, became Slessor's hero. At his death, she determined to follow in his footsteps. And she did. Two years later, at age 29, Mary Slessor arrived in Calabar, a region of what is now Nigeria.
Initially, Mary was assigned to work in a city school along with other European missionaries. Her heart, however, was in doing pioneer work among unreached people. Other missionaries spoke of the "savagery" and "heathenness" of such people, but that was exactly where Mary felt the gospel needed to be lived and proclaimed.
Four years later, she was able to move out into a tribal area. Deciding to live with the local people as they lived, she moved into a traditional African house. As she settled in, identifying with the people she had come to serve became a core value. Among other things, she discarded the multi-layered petticoats worn by many European missionary ladies, choosing instead simple cotton dresses more in line with what African women were wearing.
Because of Mary's strong personality, other missionaries sometimes found it difficult to relate to her. Not so with the Africans. Her identification with them was so authentic that an African church leader once said she was "more African than the Africans."
Indeed, because of Mary Slessor's close identification with the people, her living out the gospel among them enabled her to be instrumental in settling tribal hostilities. She successfully battled witch doctors' "healing" practices and fought other practices contrary to God's design. For example, she got one tribe to give up their practice of killing infant twins. She was so respected and influential that she came to be called "the white queen of Calabar."
In authentic identification, missionaries can say (either out loud or at least to themselves), "When I am among you, I feel at home." That seems to be where Mary Slessor arrived in her pursuit of identification.
-- Howard Culbertson,
"Mary Slessor's desire to make a difference was not deterred by her gender or the status of women in those days but was fueled by a sincere determination to be a blessing for the people of Africa." -- Aneel Mall, Northwest Nazarene University graduate student
Jesus' example of living among the people he ministered to serves as a compelling model for today's global missionaries. Just as Jesus immersed himself in the culture, language, and customs of the First Century Jews, modern missionaries should genuinely identify with the people they serve. Mary Slessor's 40-year missionary service in Africa, in which she connected deeply with the people she sought to serve, exemplifies the benefits of becoming multi-cultural and multilingual. Missionaries who follow this path carry forward the true spirit of Christlike missionary service, embracing the legacy of remarkable individuals like Mary Slessor.
More biographical sketches in the "Doing missions well" series published in Engage magazine.