Eat the food, wear the clothes, live among the people. Travel as they travel and experience what they experience. Live the daily life of the people to whom you have been sent to minister. Rejoice in their victories and shed tears for their pain. But missionaries are not anthropologists, they are warriors. A Christian is to show the world it needs something radical.
Christian missionaries are encouraged to embrace their adopted cultures. Immersing oneself into the culture where a missionary serves is said to help the missionary better understand the people he is trying to reach. Indeed, learning the nuances of a culture helps a missionary comprehend how to convey and contextualize the grace and mercy of Christ.
The danger for any missionary, any Christian for that matter, is making the gospel secondary to the culture. All cultures, whether in your adopted or your home culture, are derived by man and therefore sinful. Every culture in this world, modern or historic, is superficial and wicked when placed alongside the kingdom of God.
No missionary, indeed no Christian, should idolize or embrace the cultures of men. The Christian is called to engage and confront the culture we live in, not immerse ourselves in its trappings.
Not This World
This world is not our home and as Christians we should anticipate a level of uncomfortableness entrenching ourselves in this culture. The focus of a missionary should be to help man see how wicked this world is, and not encourage others to embrace it. Scripture clearly cautions disciples of Christ against worldly adoration. We are advised against being transformed by the world (Rom 12:2), and loving the world (1 Jn 2:15-17).
Christians are sojourners and exiles in their respective cultures. We should not live our lives like residents, but like the insurgents we all have been sent to be. J. Gresham Machen, one of the founders of Westminster Theological Seminary, said, “Modern culture is a mighty force. It is either subservient to the gospel or else it is the deadliest enemy of the gospel.”
The World Hates You
There is little profit in embracing a worldly culture which despises that which is good. It is radically offensive to our selfish, me-centered culture of man to promote the idea that we need Jesus to save us and reconcile us to God. Few things could sound more repugnant and contrary to any culture than a faith which believes man is fallen and his ways are wicked and only by diminishing himself and exalting Jesus can he be saved from eternal torment.
No missionary should be shocked he is giving his life for a culture which despises him. The Bible assures believers we are not of this world (Jn 15:19). Disciples of Jesus have been warned that the world hates those who are not of the world (Jn 17:14); and more to the point, the world hates you (1 Jn 3:13). Count yourself in good company, because the world first hated our Lord (Jn 7:7, 15:18). Tim Keller reminds us, “To reach people we must appreciate and adapt to their culture, but we must also challenge and confront it.”
Christ Or The World
The missionary must make a choice. He must decide if he will embrace the things of man and forgo Christ, or if he will embrace Christ and forgo the things of man. God did not sacrifice his son and send his missionaries into the world so those missionaries could inform the world that it is just a little besinful and that its culture has great value. We have been made a completely new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17, Rom 6:4, Jn 3:3) and the world and its trappings should be repugnant to us. Missionaries are going into the world to transform it, not to coddle it.
When we are in love with this world we are in danger of deserting our true calling (2 Tim 4:10). Obedient missionaries are not to embrace the cultures of the world, but embrace the holy conduct of Christ (1 Pet 1:14-15). Disciples of Christ must make a choice.
In, Not Of
Christians are not called to spurn the world like the Hare Krishnas or Brahma Kumaris. Christians are called to live among the lost and share with them the joy found only in Christ. Someone once observed, “The Christian, while in the world, is not to be of the world.” Disciples of Jesus are called to stand out, not blend in (Mat 5:13-16).
Missionaries should engage, walk in and confront the culture to which they have been sent. Christ descended to walk among humanity and show the world he was different, not to embrace the humanity around him. Missionaries, too, have been sent to provide a contrast which points to Christ.
Eat the food, wear the clothes, live among the people. Travel as they travel and experience what they experience. Live the daily life of the people to whom you have been sent to minister. Rejoice in their victories and shed tears for their pain. But missionaries are not anthropologists, they are warriors. A Christian is to show the world it needs something radical. Whenever a Christian embraces a culture, his own or one foreign to him, he lends approval to the ways of man. Help the culture in which you live to see Jesus is all that is worth embracing.
Mike Pettengill is a missionary serving in Equatorial Guinea with Mission to the World. He previously served seven and a half years as a missionary in Honduras. To learn more about the Pettengills’ mission work visit Pettengill Missionaries.