I’ve spent a good amount of time overseas while working for a parachurch organization. In my travels, I’ve met some dear missionaries who are truly seeking the kingdom first as they invite others in. From my time in their company—both working alongside them and observing their work—I’ve learned some things we can apply as we engage with unreached people in our own culture.
1. Missionaries do their research
On their first days on the field, missionaries are trying to avoid committing cultural faux-pas as much as they are trying to avoid contracting malaria (quite literally, in some cases). A missionary might not even try to evangelize until he or she has had a chance to really get to know the people. And as anyone knows who has tried to master a foreign language, the best practice is immersion. So they will go live with people and experience, firsthand, how they function on a day-to-day basis. And while they’re in this learning phase, they tend to observe more than they offer advice or introduce new ideas. Isn’t this what Jesus did when he came to earth? He spent 30 years observing and living among us before he started preaching the gospel of his kingdom (even if this wasn’t his sole purpose for waiting that long). Can we say we’ve done our homework before trying to change someone’s mind about an issue?
2. They keep the main thing the main thing
Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, coined the phrase, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” and my goodness is it relevant to the church. The Christian version of this quote is “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). This is How to Be a Missionary 101: Your number one priority is to share the gospel and invite people to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Full stop. Everything else should come second, including (especially!) political agendas. This principle also applies to discussing the intricacies of doctrine and theology. A brand new believer should not have to make a decision about infant baptism or whether or not the gifts have ceased. The point is this: The main thing is helping people enter the kingdom. After this has happened, then and only then can we move on to these other issues.
3. They’re very considerate of others
Missionaries are diligent to keep anything that would hinder someone receiving the gospel from entering into their “workspace.” What I mean by this is what Paul was talking about when he said, “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:13). One time I was in Indonesia (the largest Muslim nation by population) during Ramadan—a time of year when Muslims fast during the day for a whole month. Out of respect for their culture, I made sure not to eat in public during the day. As a Christian, would it have been permissible for me to eat? Absolutely. But the last thing I wanted to do was offend someone I was trying to minister to. What things do we do in our own culture, that we know are offensive to some people? Is it possible to scale back on these?
4. They look for ways to help first, then talk later
Missionaries understand the concept of faith without works. It doesn’t go over well to go into remote, poverty-stricken villages and say, “Hey—I realize you guys just experienced a major natural disaster, but can I take some time to explain the four spiritual laws to you?” Ummm…no. Instead, they look for ways to develop relationship by helping first. I believe this can especially apply to our approach to unreached people in our culture. Let’s start with the practical things we can do to help first, which will open doors for us to share the gospel later.
5. They work together
Nothing brings people together like a common mission. I’ve seen missionaries “cross party lines” like you wouldn’t believe. It doesn’t seem to matter what denomination or (shocker alert!) what gender a person is when you cross paths in the hill country of Myanmar. Really, it doesn’t. You may not agree with that other person on lesser details of doctrine, but it’s OK. You may do some things a little differently than your friend, but that’s OK too. As long as your fellow missionary is keeping the main thing the main thing by sharing the gospel, you want to help. So often we allow our disagreements to divide us rather than allowing the gospel to unite us. How much more effective could we be if we stopped the in-fighting?
My point in sharing these observations is to encourage us, as leaders, to start engaging our culture with wisdom and an attitude of humility. What would it look like if we started to see culture from an outsider’s perspective? After all, we are technically citizens of another kingdom (Philippians 3:20). And that’s something we should never forget.