I’ve combined several lesson into this post. Many of them were academic in nature and involved a great deal of story-telling about social and cultural action. Much of this recap comes from our reading. Although the lectures had good content, they weren’t the most dynamic of lectures and I didn’t take many notes. So I did the best I could turning these lessons around into my (mostly) my own words.
I’ve introduced the barriers—language and culture—which can hinder the spread of the gospel. For culture, we know that we need to contextualize the message; in other words, present it in culturally relevant ways, while guarding against syncretism. One of the most important cultural distinctions we must be ready for is the idea of community decision-making. In America, we are very individualistic. Our society teaches us to live for ourselves and do and believe in what is good for you. We’re independent thinkers! Therefore our efforts at local evangelization are geared toward individuals. But we cannot take this model overseas. There, community is most important. Many missionaries have been blocked in their efforts when trying to convince a single person to follow Christ. Doing so can result in alienation and ostracism from their people. Convince a family unit or tribe of the Gospel and let the Holy Spirit sink the truth into them, you have completely different results. Remember “Ee-Taow”? To have this kind of influence requires us to build a bridge between the cultural divide. In doing so, we must not become authorities or builders, but servants who walk along beside. Take a look at Paul’s response to the Thessalonians:
So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thess. 2:8-12)
Language is something that can be magnificently difficult to break through. One expert in linguistics said “There is no such thing as a word in one language that has a perfect equivalent in other language.” Just look at our own. Take a simple word like “world”. It can have multiple meanings in context. In Scripture, we see “God so loved the world”, “Love not the world”, “The world was created by Him”, and “If the world hates you, it hated me before it hated you”. In each case, it means something different. Every language has its figures of speech or idioms, and rarely do they transfer without serious distortion. The Bible is full of figures of speech! You couple this with cultural interpretation of a story, and you can easily see the monumental task missionaries have in accurately conveying the true intent of a biblical passage. Yet taking the time to learn the language of the people is so crucial because they will not see Christianity as theirs until God (in His Word) can speak to them in their language. Today there are still 2,000 languages that do not have a biblical translation.
So when we go, are we going to meet a physical need or a spiritual need? The 10/40 Window represents the greatest degree of non-Christian peoples. But is also includes over 80% of the poorest in the world (living on less than $500 per year) and over 80% of those with the lowest quality of life (in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, etc). The problem is, we dehumanize the situation. It becomes overwhelming and abstract. It no longer seems like a real problem. And we end up thinking the “poor” are anyone who has less than us. In America, you can own a home, car, cell phone, and have a job and still be considered poor. But that’s relative poverty, which is based on standards of living. What we’re talking about are the blind, the lame, those who can’t read, victims of war and injustice, and slum dwellers. That’s absolute poverty, a situation where people have insufficient resources to meet basic needs. The disparity is great and we cannot be okay with it. In America we have freedom of religion, but in most of the developing world, they are chained by religious restrictions. Here, 86% identify themselves as Christian; there, 83% have never heard the gospel. We have 300,000 seminary-trained ministers while there is roughly only 1 pastor for every 50 congregations overseas. It has been shown that a church spends $10,000 for every person who comes to know Christ in evangelistic outreach; the equivalent for the 10/40 window is 10 cents.
History has shown us that we tend to swing like a pendulum in our global campaigns to care for physical and spiritual needs. In other words, we seem to be grappling with the question of which one is more important, “social action” or “evangelism”. But they are one and the same. Where a physical need is greatest, we should meet it, thereby opening a door to the spiritual. And where truth needs to reign primarily, then we need to address the spiritual need, which ultimately will address the physical. We absolutely must take a holistic mission approach. Isaiah 61:1-4 says,
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God…that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
You see, those who have been captives and brokenhearted become “the planting of the Lord”. They will restore the devastation. Practically speaking, this means that we shouldn’t just throw our money at problems or think that clicking “like” on Facebook to increase awareness will do anything. (Sorry, side rant there.) When a local people mobilize local resources to take ownership of their needs, guided by our knowledge and experience, which in turn are rooted in the values of the Kingdom of God, the effect is much more long-term and actual change is produced, rather than just passive impact.
Honestly, it really isn’t that complicated, though the details are many and varied for each culture. But the bottom line is summarized nicely by Dr. Ron Blue. Live among the people and win their friendship. Then at the earliest possible moment, get them into intimate contact with the Bible. This will get to the root of the needs in the world.