In many churches in Ghana, the congregation gives frequent feedback to the preacher during the sermon. People might say amen, or make another affirming comment, or even giggle in appreciation or even clap. Once when I was in church and the congregation was not giving enough verbal feedback for the preacher so he stopped and asked us: “Are you preaching with me?”
Many people planning a missionary career change their minds after the first two or three years. Those are the hardest years because there is so much adaptation. It becomes easier to go back home.
But after the hard work of learning the culture and getting comfortable with it has happened, then it’s easier to stay. If a career missionary lasts 4 years, then they’ll stay many years.
But after enough years go by, the missionary can become more comfortable in his place of ministry than back home in his own country. At that point it can become easier to stay in one’s place of ministry and harder to move back home. At this point, the missionary may stay even though their health is failing or faithful local people are capable of carrying on the ministry. The issue ceases to be following God, but rather living in a place where one feels comfortable.
I’ve heard missionaries say this directly and shockingly: “I like it here”, “This feels like home” but not “I feel like God wants me here.”
When I first went to work in Africa, I was gone for 3-5 years at a time. Turnaround time for a letter was 4-6 weeks. Phone calls were expensive, so we called home once a year with a stopwatch running. I was really absent.
When we returned home for brief stays, my dad would want to see us of course, and he sure enjoyed his grandchildren. But when we were going back he would pray God’s blessings on us and encourage us to follow him.
He often said that all he really wanted was for his children to follow the Lord. He said that again the day before he passed away. He got great joy and satisfaction from knowing that I was following the Lord. That was enough for him. If I were to tell him I was going to establish a mission at the gates of hell and take his grandsons, he would bless me for following God.
He would rather have his children and grandchildren far away if that’s what they had to do to follow the Lord. It wasn’t just that he wanted his children to follow the Lord, nor that he wanted that the most. It was more than that. For him, having a child following the Lord was enough. It was so satisfying that it filled the void left when we went away giving him joy when he thought of us.
One of the laudable aspects of modern missions has been to take the Gospel to remote places and peoples. Such peoples were often considered undeveloped or even “primitive”. We’ve mostly abandoned that conception, replacing it with the idea that such peoples are authentic or that they represent an ideal way of living. Under that conception, anything that changes their traditional way of life is inauthentic – a kind of degredation or cultural pollution.
Even missionaries get caught up in this idea. I saw it in Africa when missionaries loved the people and culture in the remote place where they lived and ministered, but they disliked the cities, sometimes considering them to be less than truly African. The real Africa, for them, was rural Africa supposedly little changed through time and contact with the outside world.
Some missionaries even considered educated Africans to be less than fully African. I even heard one once say directly to a highly educated African that he was not really African when he showed that he no longer believed the local traditions about camelions.
It is certainly true that not all outside influences bring helpful change to rural peoples. Some are very destructive. But we are called to minister to the people in front of us, not some idealized version of them.
I grew up in a church where the idea of a call to missions was promoted. The idea was that certain people heard from God a call to be a missionary. My own experience was a bit different. Knowing how important the Bible was iny own life, I was easily convinced that it would be a very good thing to spend my life giving the Bible to others by translating it into their languages.
Later, after a few years on the missions field, I encountered another understanding of a call to missions. Some missionaries would resist getting involved in some programs or activities, saying “I’m not called to that.” For example, the church in a place where we were translating would say that they wanted more literacy but the missionary would say that they weren’t called to Literacy.
It appears to me that some missionaries understand their call to missions in a very specific way. They often developed their understanding long before leaving their own country. When the realities of the place they were translating didn’t fit with their understanding of their call, they denied those realities or said that they were someone else’s responsibility by saying they weren’t called to deal with those realities.
It looked to me like they were constantly trying to shoehorn ministry according to their call into a place where it didn’t fit. They couldn’t consider that they had perhaps not fully understood their call. I remember a leading Christian in one of the countries where we worked explaining this phenomenon very well, saying that new missionaries often come with a fully developed idea of their ministry before they knew anything about the place they were going, and then they resist any changes to their conception based on the realities on the ground.
Some people go overboard trying to conform to their context, and others do the opposite trying to rigidly maintain their call. The former effectively abandon their call while the latter effectively allow no space for the voice of the Spirit.
If your car keys are missing, it’s more likely that they’re on your dresser than in another state. We look in the obvious places first. It makes sense. We solve problems the same way – by looking for the obvious solutions first. When the translation of the Bible into a language fails to progress well, we looked for the most obvious problems first. Were the translators well-trained? Did they have adequate resources? How’s their morale?
But things change when dealing with a perennial problem – one that’s been around for a while. In such cases, all the obvious solutions have already been tried. That doesn’t keep us from trying them again, however. I remember the moment that it dawned on me that we were trying the usual solutions on a translation program that had been under-performing for two decades. Church leaders were saying that something had to change but we were just trying again what had been tried several times before. The obvious was obviously not a solution.
The solution had to be in something untried, something different, something not obvious at all. The problem was that anything untried is also untested. We don’t know if it will work. But is that really a problem when all the tried and tested solutions have failed? Isn’t what might not work better than what has already failed?
I got some inspiration idfor this blog from Seth Godin Obvious. Places First
Most of what we do is motivated by urgency, fear or fun. If there’s a fire or an accident we act out of urgency. If it makes us happy or gives us satisfaction, we act because it’s fun. If we’re worried someone will disapprove or check up on us so we avoid doing something, we are acting out of fear. All these reasons to act are often legitimate.
But there’s another reason to act – because it’s important. What’s important might not be urgent. It might not be fun, or it might have negative consequences of which we might legitimately be afraid.
Our circumstances dictate what is urgent, or fun, or to be feared. But where do we get our sense of what’s important? Where did I get my idea that it is important to translate the Bible into the languages of the world? Why did I pursue that whether is a fun or not? Or whether it was safe or not? Or whether it seemed like the most urgent thing or not? Where do we get an anchor for our lives that’s not moved around by what’s urgent, or fun or scarey?
Jesus said to first seek the kingdom of God. That allows us to make something important the center where it can moderate the urgent, pleasurable and scarey.
PS: This blog was partially inspired by Seth Godin
When I lived in Kenya I once went to a missionary dentist who had a clinic. The dentist I saw was an American who was visiting on a short term missions trip. He had trouble with the glue used by the clinic because he had not used it before. He had to work hard to lean it off and then start over.
He was assisted by a Kenyan dental assistant who saw his struggles and said “Sorry.” The American dentist responded “It’s okay, it’s not your fault”. The Kenyan assistant was taken aback.
It was a classic case of misunderstanding. When Kenyans say sorry they mean it only as an expression of empathy, not as an admission of responsibility or guilt. The American dentist took it as an admission of responsibility. Furthermore, Kenyans say it all the time, even to mean “excuse me” if they have to squeeze by someone in a tight hallway, for instance. So the Kenyan assistant empathize with the dentist’s difficulty and wanted to express sympathy. Unfortunately, the miscommunication meant that the sympathy wasn’t acknowledged.
When I arrived in Burkina Faso in 1978 there was an ongoing effort to eradicate river blindness, a desease that left some villages with 30 percent of the adults blind and which affects the sight of 800,000 people worldwide. It infected the most fertile areas of that arid country which suffers from famines, causing people to move away from desperately needed farmland. It drove people away from rivers and the nessecary water they provide. The decades of effort and tens of millions of dollars spent fighting River Blindness had only modest success. River blindness persisted.
But William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura discovered a drug for which they were awarded the 2015 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. This new drug radically lowered the incidence of River Blindness. Better, it also treated many other debilitating parasitic deseases which cause suffering in some of the world’s poorest communities. For a very small fraction of the cost of previous eradication efforts and a much higher success rate people could take this drug only once a year with few side effets and they would never go blind. It’s been rightly called a miracle drug.
People no longer feared living in areas with adequate water and where the ground could produce enough food. Better yet, people can use this drug to get rid of worms and other parasites in their farm animals, such as the donkeys which pull carts for those farmers too poor to own a truck which is almost all of them. The Nobel committee said that the drug “provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually. The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable.”
It has been called one of the most important drugs ever discovered, along with penicillin and aspirin. It is estimated that humans have taken between 3 and 4 billions doses of it.
The wonder drug Campbell and Omura discovered, in a slightly different form, is Ivermectin – the drug being derogatorily called a “horse dewormer” in the US press because, on top of its many marvelous properties, it deworms horses too.
Years ago, a devotional speaker said something that has stuck with me.
When we had enough money, we always knew God’s will.
One part of translating the Bible is managing a budget, just like pretty much any endeavor. Of course, there’s rarely enough money. Because there’s not enough money to do everything, we have to make decisions; difficult decisions; decisions not everyone agrees on; decisions that will disappoint some people. Faced with such choices, we turn to God for wisdom. We look to Him to reveal his will. The fact that we don’t know what to choose, is proof that we don’t know God’s will.
But when we have enough money, there are no hard decisions. There’s no need for wisdom, and we easily fall into the trap of thinking that we know God’s will without seeking or asking. God’s will, we pretend, is obviously to do it all.
In context, the speaker was saying:
When we had enough money, we just assumed that knew God’s will.
Scarce resources are tough, but they also hide a blessing – the opportunity to seek God, to renew our contact with Him. Plentiful resources are easy, but they can hide a trap – that doing it all is what God wants.