The original cross-cultural experience

Dave and I found a 30-minute window of time to meet in a busy coffee shop, amidst the hustle and bustle of King St Newtown.  Dave is in his early 20s and wanted to talk about mission work in Africa.

As we found our seats he leant toward me and opened.  “What’s the least training you think I should do before going out as a missionary?  The need is so great.  I’ve been on short-term mission trips and I know I can do it already.  I can do evangelism and lead Bible studies run a youth program.  The Bishop there wants me to come.  Don’t you think I should just go?”

I hear comments like this a lot and I love the enthusiasm.  The gospel needs around the world are real and urgent and most of us could do with more enthusiasm.  As I sat with my young friend though, I knew that under God he could have another 40 years or more of Christian ministry in front of him.  His enthusiasm and urgency needed to be informed and shaped by a concern to build a strong foundation on which to build for the long-term.

But, what kind of foundation prepares a person best for long-term cross-cultural ministry?  Even if we invest three or four years in training of some kind, we still have decisions to make about what to focus on in that time.  I want to make a pitch for the value of studying the Bible in original languages and studying theology and Church history from original sources.  The ‘original sources’ approach prepares us well for long-term cross-cultural ministry in at least two very important ways.  

First, those who engage in international cross-cultural ministry often have to assume a greater responsibility for their own continuing growth in the Scriptures.  They are intentionally moving to an area because of the gospel needs of that place.  They can’t expect the same regular access to insightful, stimulating Christian fellowship and Bible teaching.  Reading the Bible in its original languages opens more doors to be challenged and surprised by the Word of God, and so to be consistently refreshed.

Second, the process of studying the Bible in original languages is a cross-cultural experience in itself.  You realise that the task is not simply about learning a new vocabulary, for there is rarely an exact equivalence between words of different languages.  Languages shape and are shaped by cultures, and so to understand a language you must engage the wider culture.  Studying theology and Christian history from original sources put us in touch with real people from different cultures and worldviews.  We are exposed to understandings and expressions of Christian faith shaped by these differing cultures and worldviews.  We must develop a theological discernment which takes account of these things.

The more limited our engagement is with other languages, cultures and history, the greater the risk that we may confuse the essence of the gospel with the one language and culture in which we came to know it.  When this is combined with a training focus on practical methodologies the risk is further multiplied.  We lack the points of reference to discern the difference between ministry first principles and particular expressions of those principles.

We must develop habits of going back to original sources and first principles.  As we reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the church in various cultures throughout Christian history, we are likely to be far more humble and nuanced in our communication across cultures.  As we enter a new culture and attempt to teach the Word of God, we are not simply trying to translate what we learnt in English into a new language.  We are joining our new friends in a journey back into the world and culture of the Bible.  We do this to help them understand and bring the Word of God to bear in their own culture and language.

So, what was my advice to Dave?  Get involved in cross-cultural ministry right away!  

(I have to say - I may be biased - but I also want him to come along to Moore for the next few years and to invest well for the next 40 years of ministry!)

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