We have this delightful mythology of the middle class white Christian who goes to some “dark heathen land” to preach the gospel and finds people who respond to the message with enthusiasm. He reports large numbers of conversions and baptisms, he establishes churches and all is wonderful. This mythology is fed by missionary hymns and missionary stories for children, youth and adults. It all sounds much like Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.”
Did it ever really work like that? Missionaries had to bring back glowing reports so that financial support for missions would continue to flow, but how realistic were those reports? How many of those converts came with the expectation of receiving some material advantage from the wealthy white man?
There is a very real problem that a missionary can do his best to explain the gospel and Christian life to people of another language and culture, and think they are getting the message. Very often they do not. The missionary’s task cannot be only to tell the story as he believes and lives it in his own culture. He must try to understand the culture of those who hear him so that he can make the gospel come alive to them in their setting.
Beyond even that, people need to see a real life example of working Christian congregation. This is something that cannot just be told, it must be seen over a period of time. A congregation of dedicated Christians can, and should be, a far more effective witness of the truth of the gospel than any individual missionary. It is a major step in any mission project when the missionary can step back and let the local congregation continue the work that he began.
The apostle Paul instructed Timothy to be a model to the believers in word, in conduct, in charity, in spirit, in faith and in purity. That is a tall order, yet one that all Christians should take to heart, not only missionaries and preachers. People are watching to see if our faith does something to make us different from other people. Are we more honest, more caring, more sensitive to the needs of others, less anxious for material security and the trappings of wealth?
When Paul preached the gospel in Corinth, he also worked as a tent maker to provide for his own needs. At other times he gratefully accepted help from other congregations. But in all circumstances he lived as the people around him lived. He could honestly say:
“For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
The calling of a missionary is not to be someone with superior knowledge and virtue, but to be equally in need of the truth that he preaches to others. To enter fully into the life and culture of others so that he does not appear to be preaching a North American lifestyle with a dollop of Christianity, but simply the pure gospel with no overtones of coming from a status of superiority.
The heading of this post says it is impossible. I know that is an overstatement, yet I also know from personal experience just how difficult it is, even in one’s home country. Nevertheless, the needs all around us demand nothing less but that we endeavour to apply the apostle Paul’s example in our own lives.