By Caleb Crider, Co-Founder of Upstream
When a Christian missionary leaves his home and enters a foreign culture in order to share the Gospel, she's quite out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, we expect the missionary to do certain things. They should learn the local language and customs. They ought to understand the social structures, and learn to communicate the Good News in a way that ensures its clear transmission among the people.
A missionary, after all, lives among individuals who are far from God. They do not know the Creator or honor Him as Lord. In many cases, a missionary may be the only evangelical witness living among a people group. Missionaries give their lives that people may hear the Gospel and see it in action.
Why would we expect anything less from our churches? Like the foreign missionary, we live among people who are ignorant, indifferent and even antagonistic toward our faith. In many cases, we are the only believers our friends know. Similar to the missionary in a foreign land, we, as followers of Christ, are "strangers and pilgrims" even if we've never left our hometowns.
In Philippians 3:20-21, Paul writes, “But we [Christians] are citizens of Heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives, and we are eagerly awaiting for Him to return as our Savior.” 1 Peter 2:11 calls us "temporary residents and foreigners." We're all outsiders with the task of living the Gospel in 'foreign' cultures.
Webster's defines 'alien' as, “… belonging or relating to another person, place or thing; otherworldly; differing in nature or character, typically to the point of incompatibility; a resident of another home, country or planet.” As the church, this is our place in the world: wholly-other residents of the communities in which we live.
We must engage people as missionaries if we are to do what we're meant to do–make disciples and represent Christ. This means reconsidering much of what we believe and how we act. For far too long, we've ignored basic missiological principals like contextualization, indigenousness and reproducibility.
Let's consider applying what all missionaries know:
No, we're not talking about making church "cool" or watering down the Gospel to avoid offending anyone. Contextualization means doing the translation work required to insure the message is communicated in a way it can be understood.
It's important for a church to reflect the culture in which it's planted. No one should have to cross cultures in order to hear the Gospel and see it in action.
If your church model depends on professional ministers, a building, expensive programs or a central personality, new believers won't be able to reproduce it among their tribes and social circles. These things aren't bad, but we need to be clear about the fact that these are unnecessary extras.
When the church takes seriously its role as missionary, the people of God see themselves as ones sent to live and proclaim the Gospel among their communities and neighborhoods. Each of us becomes a "specialist" of sorts, uniquely placed in our jobs, schools, groups and scenes. Our roles are well defined. We study the culture in order to speak into it. We actively look for bridges to share the Gospel in meaningful ways. We do the work of translating the Good News into the lives of our friends, families and coworkers.
This, it turns out, can be difficult work.
Talk to any vocational missionary, and they'll tell you being a missionary isn't a natural thing to do. It isn't natural to deliberately engage people in conversation that goes beyond the topics of sports and the weather. None of us are born with the tendency to put the needs of others before our own. We're not generally raised to see ourselves as priests and pastors for the unbelievers with whom we share life. If you wait until it feels "natural" or "normal," you'll never get around to explaining the Gospel at all.
When the church is the missionary, it stops outsourcing mission to the "professionals." It takes responsibility and recognizes its purpose on this earth is to be an agent of redemption. Gone are the distinctions between "ministers" and "church members."
When the church is the missionary, the only difference between "missionaries" in foreign lands and "the church" is location.