BY LARRY MCCRARY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR,
In my opinion, one key missional question is this: Do I create something from nothing, or do I join something that is already in existence?
I have been faced with this question both in the North American context and in the European context. When I go into a new area to begin ministry, how do I connect with people?
One model is to start a ministry or group from scratch. You get to know your area. You determine certain needs and then you create something to meet that need. Maybe it is an English camp, food distribution, or a seeker Bible study. The idea here is to be able to create a group from nothing.
The simple strategy steps would be to:
Get a big idea
Put your plan together to start the group
Invite people to the group, either by word of mouth or other marketing strategies
But what if there is another way?
What if the best way to enter into a culture would not be to start a group but to find a way to join an existing group? Instead of being the driver of a new ministry, what if you could connect even deeper by joining a group that is already in existence? In Europe, there are many different clubs in the community. What if you simply find a club that interests you and join it? You start getting to know the people. You have fun participating in the club. Pretty soon, you may be invited into some significant spiritual conversations. It’s a win-win.
Sometimes we need to join an existing group. Be the learner, not the doer. I see this in a sense with Paul as he interacted in Athens. He was a tentmaker by trade. He went into the marketplace on a regular basis. We also know he was sharing his faith. The council in Athens invited him to speak to them and explain his “bablings.” As Paul worked in the marketplace and was able to share his faith in the context of his work, he was likely invited into their place to share the gospel.
FIND A HOBBY
What do you like to do? Sometimes, we may make living as a missionary harder than it needs to be. Just be normal. Be an interesting person. As you do your hobby, you’ll find some people who also like it. Live as a follower of Jesus in your new context. This may seem like a very simplistic idea, but finding a hobby that you actually enjoy doing is crucial to missional living in any culture.
It used to be that if you wanted to engage someone outside of your culture, you had to have some kind of outreach program that often included a spiritual tract or puppet show. These days, we know that people are willing and eager to interact with those who are different than they are if it’s through a mutual interest.
If you enjoy playing a sport, find a way to do that in your host country. One young man loved to play soccer, so when he moved to Spain, he had a natural way to connect with other men in his neighborhood. After a few months of attending a Spanish church, he was invited to play soccer with men from the church. Instead of trying to create his own league or team, he joined something that already existed. This worked well because he had the opportunity to learn from the believers in his church as they all interacted with the guys from the neighborhood and unbelieving friends that came to play.
Meredith is a mom who really enjoys scrapbooking. Although this is a concept that is very foreign to women outside of the U.S., she has found that women in her country love it. She has been able to do something that she loves alongside women from her culture and has built some great relationships through it. On multiple occasions, she has been able to share her faith and how it affects her daily life.
BE A LEARNER
Churches often ask what they can do on the mission field. How can they help? They commonly ask this, assuming the answer will be that they should come to teach, show, model, and develop the people they are trying to help. We come in as teachers. We come in as healthcare workers. We come as scientists. We come in as business leaders. And to be honest, sometimes we come across as know-it-alls.
What if, instead, we came in as learners? I had this idea a few years back when a church asked me if they could come over and put on a soccer camp for youth. I lived in Spain at the time — enough said! But instead of ending the conversation there, I decided I would toss out an idea. I suggested that instead of coming over to start up a soccer camp, why not come over and be part of an existing soccer camp? This way you would be learning with them. The key is to come into a place and get to know people and be able to share the gospel in a relevant and relational way. While this church decided not to pursue this route, other churches have moved toward the model of being learners. One church that meets in their own coffee shop decided to send a couple of their baristas to attend a barista school in Italy. Coffee not your thing? That’s okay. Your creativity is the limit. In 2012, I led a trip to Tokyo with a group of pastors. We ate a lot of sushi, but we also met a lot of people living as salt and light in a difficult place. Here is an excerpt from my journal:
“Yesterday in Tokyo, we met with a Japanese businessman. We were able to ask him a lot of questions. We learned a ton from this guy, but here is a good word that I wanted to share. When asked how can we prepare North American business people to come over and successfully work in an international setting, he said, “tell them to listen first.” So many times we are known for speaking and telling others how to do things before we have any relational credibility established. He said we need to work hard in our jobs and we need to listen first. In his experience, once you do these two things, you will have an audience more interested to hear about your life or business suggestions. How well do I listen?”
I always say that when you travel to another culture, you need to have humility and be a learner. Be willing to laugh at yourself as you make language mistakes and cultural blunders. You cannot be an instant success with language, work, and relationships when living in a cross-cultural context. It takes time, so give yourself some grace. Be patient with your family, and be patient with yourself as you practice the language, figure out public transportation, and learn the ins and outs of your new culture. I once heard that it takes six to seven years of living in a country before most people become truly fluent in another language. If this is the norm, try not to stress if language learning is slow.
I can speak from experience in this area. Learning Spanish was a task that proved somewhat difficult for me. I worked hard at it, and I attempted to use it as much as possible, but I was way behind my wife when it came to fluidity in conversation. There was no other choice but to be patient and trust that my language abilities would increase with time.
The ability to exhibit patience will get you very far in another country. Every time you find yourself waiting in a long line (or mob, in some countries) at the post office or some other place of business, try and forget you are on a time crunch. Most likely, you aren’t as pressed for time as you’d think. If you are like me, it’s in your nature to hurry and maximize your time. However, when waiting in a long line, see this as an opportunity to observe your culture. What are people doing while they wait their turn? How do they interact with each other? If you can practice patience, you may learn quite a bit about the people you’ve come to live among.
Shared experiences can lead to spiritual conversations. I take the train into the city. In theory, it is an easy thing to do. I go to the station, buy a ticket, and get on the train. For some reason, the second step caused me problems in Germany. Each time I went downtown, I had a problem with simply buying a ticket. If I could speak with a person, then I could make it happen. I could point and grunt and try to pronounce the words enough to get the ticket. But Germany is automated in many ways and you have to actually buy your ticket at an automated kiosk. Again, simple in theory, but you need for the machine to actually work. From my experience, there was usually only one of the machines that worked at any given station. There was one machine on each side of the tracks. I chose the wrong machine at least three times. However, I had the opportunity to have three conversations each time from some fellow strugglers who also had problems getting a ticket from the machine. Each time, the frustration of not being able to get a ticket when I wanted it led to a conversation with someone.
I wonder if such conversations have anything to do with a common experience. If a group of people who do not know each other are thrown together, say in an elevator, then it is quite normal for no conversations to take place unless the elevator becomes stuck. Then conversations would take place due to this common experience of crisis. There has to be a sociological term for this.
My point in these stories is that a crisis (in these cases, even extremely minor ones) can often generate a great opportunity for conversations. You never know how the Lord can orchestrate such conversations. I am learning more and more to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as he gives me these opportunities.
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