Groggy from a lack of sleep the night before, I stumble into a coffee shop near the language school where my wife and I have been taking classes. We like to frequent this place because the owner and many of the staff are believers. I greet the woman behind the counter in the local language, but struggle to find the words to place a proper breakfast order. Thankfully, there are always pictures at which to point when my memory fails me. I make my way to table and wait for my food all the while kicking myself for butchering the language so badly. I am sure I look somewhat crazy sitting all alone muttering what I should have said under my breath. However, the self-deprecation seems to dissipate once the smell of breakfast reaches my nostrils. As I am about to take my first bite, I see some movement to my left. I realize that the women that took my order and served me my food are now sitting on the floor in a circle. They are having their morning Bible study and devotion. Even though I only understood every eighth word, I couldn’t help but be blessed by their witness and faithfulness to the Lord. It was a beautiful thing to witness.
As I continued with my breakfast, I realized that these were not the only women worshiping around me. In the parking lot of the building next door, I could see two young women bowing and burning incense before the spirit house for that specific building, a common practice in South East Asia. To my left, a Bible study, and to my right, a Buddhist ritual. The two couldn’t have been any more different. It was then I realized in a practical sense what my role as missionary should be: to equip those sitting on the floor to reach those standing directly across the street.
Foreign Missionaries vs. Indigenous Missionaries
Throughout the history of missions, brave men and women have left their homelands to reach people who have little to no access to the Gospel. While their biographies are filled with incredible accounts of miracles and God’s faithfulness, most of the heroes of the faith faced foreign disease, intense persecution, even death. Many missionaries packed all of their belongings in wooden coffins because it was likely that they would never return home to see their loved ones. These are the men and women we read about in the textbooks, but they represent a only a small minority of foreign missionaries. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of believers who die daily without ever having a book written about them. Their life stories are never made into a Hollywood blockbusters. Nevertheless, these faithful men and women are heroes of the faith. These are indigenous missionaries.
As Westerners, we like to think we know everything there is to know about making disciples. While I would love for that to be the case, the several months I have been on the field have already proven that that is nowhere close to being true. Western missionaries often try to force western missions strategies that don’t translate well in their cross-cultural setting. This is not to say God cannot use these things, but those instances seem to be the exceptions to the rule. Contextualization is key to developing effective church planting methods. In a setting where an indigenous church already exists, the foreign missionary should partner with the indigenous church leadership to discuss how to communicate God’s Word in a way that makes sense to their people. Training indigenous missionaries is extremely vital to international church planting because it ensures that the advancement of the Gospel is not dependent upon the presence of the Western missionary. If he or she leaves, work will continue to go on, and it is important to note that it is already contextualized work. The indigenous workers already know the language and culture. Praise God! The only thing they sometimes lack is proper Bible training and/or biblical motivation for witnessing to their friends and family. This is where the foreign missionary can be of significant help.
Missions Isn’t a Game of Simon Says
I must confess, young missionaries, such as myself, can sometimes be a tad over zealous when it comes to cross-cultural ministry. Even seasoned veterans can sometimes put the cart before the horse. Western missionaries seem to fall unknowingly into the trap of bossing the local church leadership around when it comes to outreach and ministry. Perhaps it is just because we are Westerners, or perhaps it is because we have put a lot of time into training for the field. Whatever the reason, the foreign missionary should never try to usurp the leadership of the local church because he or she disagrees with their methodology. The indigenous church must theologize for themselves in order for the church to thrive. Foreign missionaries are to be ambassadors for Christ, not Western colonialists. Also, there is danger in believing that western and orthodox are synonymous terms.
When training indigenous missionaries, we must stress that the Great Commission applies to them too. Yes, they are called to reach their people for Christ, but He may also be leading them specifically to enter into a new cross-cultural context. Sometimes we get so caught up in our ministries that we forget to encourage others to fulfill theirs. In a world that is rapidly globalizing, more opportunities are arising for cross-cultural missions. Whether it be teaching ESL, working with orphans, fighting human trafficking, conducting business as mission, creating Christian media, or translating Bibles, God is opening doors for believers from every corner of the globe to go to the nations. It should be the goal of the foreign missionary to help the indigenous missionary form a biblical, holistic view of missions.
Moving Forward: Baby Steps
There are a couple of ways foreign missionaries can begin to embrace and encourage indigenous missionaries. First, we must befriend them and learn their language. This sounds obvious, but I have seen too many western missionaries who view these hardworking men and women as nothing more than their personal translators or drivers. Learn how to communicate with them in their native tongue so that bonds would be formed and misunderstandings be limited. Second, pray for them and with them. Pray for their boldness in sharing the Gospel and testifying to what the Lord has done in their lives. Pray that God would protect them and their families so that they would be able to minister effectively. Finally, find time to pray with them as you all seek wisdom concerning how to partner and work together in fulfilling the Great Commission. Third, encourage them to be a part of a Bible-believing local church. Mission agencies and organizations are truly great, but they are not the model found in Scripture. It is the Church’s responsibility to train, send, and support missionaries. Good missionaries are missionaries who stay grounded in God’s Word and fellowship with other believers. Finally, trust in the Lord. Trust that God is working, even when you don’t see any immediate results. When it comes to training indigenous missionaries, some will want to cross the street in a heartbeat, others will require time, patience, and prayer. Don’t give up on these men and women. Invest in their lives long term and show them how to live on mission with God through the way that you live your life. God promised that people of every tribe, nation, and tongue would be gathered around His throne in worship, and our God never breaks a promise.