Since 2009 we have been helping church leaders experience for themselves what it means to be sent. We accomplish this through 7-10 day trips to major global cities.
These “traveling think tanks” are called Jet Set Trips.
Each trip is designed to expose participants to global missionary skills and a network of global missionaries, allowing church leaders to more effectively build a culture of local and global mission at their church. It’s like a vision trip guided by Upstream leaders.
The culture of the Deep South–the heart of Dixie, as it’s often called–is deeply rooted in family, church, and traditions that go back as far as any historical reference can recall. This culture is where I grew up. It’s where generations of my family grew up. I come from a long line of traditional Southerners with large families and sprawling farms filled with cows, horses, crops, river banks, and old farmhouses.
At the foundation of all that history is a strong Methodist faith that is clear on beliefs, practices, and family norms. These things are home to me and represent everything that my family holds dear. Our values were established and lived out within those definitions of culture that were passed down from generation to generation. Everyone has a family lineage that has shaped his or her own family culture. Culture has everything to do with who we are and the value system that shapes our society–our perspective, goals, expectations, and beliefs.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining four other women and traveling to southeastern Europe as part of an Upstream Jet Set Trip. I had little understanding of what we would be doing or the culture that we would be experiencing. In my research prior to the trip, I learned that this area was founded and based on Russian Orthodox beliefs and values, which are theologically based in Christ. From my Western perspective, that was a good thing as orthodox doctrine is the foundation of Protestant faith in the United States, as well. My expectation was that we would have a lot in common. I was excited to experience this small, relatively unknown area of eastern Europe.
Once we arrived, however, I realized that my expectation was that my western Christian values would meet their eastern Christian values with only minor differences. However, what I learned could not have shocked me more.
While our new friends are Orthodox Christians by cultural definition, many of them do not know Christ at all.
There are three things about this that have made quite a lasting impression on me. First, Russian Orthodox beliefs on paper are based on Christ; however, the church does not teach or encourage a relationship with Christ. Due to the rise in communism in that area years ago, God and all biblical influence were forbidden in those countries. Over time, Orthodox Christianity evolved into merely a cultural identity with no practice or understanding of their foundational beliefs. This has caused a crisis among “Christians” in the area because most of the people who identify as Orthodox do not even know Christ at all! The church is only open a few times a year (Christmas, Easter, weddings, and funerals). There is almost no opportunity for the local Orthodox Church to teach biblical truth, even if it wanted to.
Second, “Orthodox” is an identifying culture and race. There, people are either Orthodox, Muslim, or Croatian Catholic. The majority of the country identifies as Orthodox, but that stems from generations of family culture and traditions.
Third, the Orthodox cross is a symbol of race and culture, not Christ. Where there is a cross, the message is clear: this is an Orthodox area. The underlying message is also clear: this area is not for Muslims.
By definition, the Eastern Orthodox faith is essentially aligned with Protestant faith in the belief that God revealed himself in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and that he provides salvation by faith in his crucifixion and resurrection. The differences, however, are substantial in the way of life and worship.
Weeks after returning to Arkansas, I am still processing how far off course this country has shifted from its foundational doctrine. But the fruit from this Jet Set Trip is starting to ripen as my eyes are opened to how many people in my circle of influence “know Christ” culturally, but do not really know Christ in life and worship. Now my senses are tuned in to how easy it is to be off just one degree from center, which can so easily leave us far from Christ. The impact is devastating.
Now my daily conversations with people have taken a different approach. It’s less about mentioning God or Christ with my words and more about showing them Christ in my actions. And when the Spirit prompts me, I share with my words the hope that is Jesus.