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 learned that not only is that phrase from a piece of classic literature, but I have also come to understand that the principle "all that glitters is not gold" expresses the need for discernment (Deuteronomy 32:28-291 and 2 Chronicles 2:122).

Discernment was, of course, something 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 kindly and lovingly, 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 lives.

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 that 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." -- Psalm 119:125

Discussion questions

  1. How does discernment fit into the broader context of spiritual gifts and the Christian faith as a whole?
  2. How does the proverb "all that glitters is not gold" relate to the need for discernment in cross-cultural missionary ministry?
  3. How was discernment evident in Jesus' earthly life? How can it be possible for missionaries to exercise similar discernment?
  4. What might be some of the challenges missionaries face in cross-cultural living where discernment is needed?
  5. What are some ways that discernment would help missionaries in their efforts to build relationships with responsive groups of people and foster sustainability in church-planting movements?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

1"They are a nation without sense,
   there is no discernment in them.
If only they were wise and would understand this    and discern what their end will be!"

2"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who made heaven and earth! He has given King David a wise son, endowed with intelligence and discernment."

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, a monthly online magazine.


Discernment in the life of a cross-cultural missionary can be said to reflect Jesus Christ for several reasons:

In short, discernment in the life of a cross-cultural missionary reflects Jesus Christ by embodying his values of spiritual sensitivity, wisdom, adaptability, empathy, compassion, and servant leadership in the context of engaging with diverse cultures and sharing the message of salvation.

Some Bible Verses about Discernment

Note: Different English translations were not used just to find an exact word we were looking for (in this case, "discern"). Rather, consulting multiple English translations of the Bible can help us understand the richness, complexity, and enduring relevance of God's Word.

More Ways Missionaries Can Reflect Christ

More on world missions for you