Forrest McPhail, BJU Alumnus
Landmines have been heavily used in this past century of warfare. Some countries today are still riddled with mines in remote areas, and news feeds regularly feature stories of the gruesome effects of these diabolical instruments of pain and suffering.
Landmines are not meant to kill. They are meant to maim, to handicap in such a way as to require immediate medical attention. The reasoning goes like this: if we can seriously maim an enemy soldier by taking off his arms or legs, the loss of blood will require one or two of his comrades to help him get to a medic or hospital to save his life. One landmine can then take 2-3 men off the field of battle.
What do landmines have to do with pioneer missions? In cross-cultural ministry, and especially in pioneer missions, we must be armed with knowledge before we begin our task. If we hastily begin ministry in ignorance of certain Bible truths and concepts, we can become guilty of unintentionally burying “missiological landmines” that hinder our efforts and handicap the spiritual growth of the churches we seek to serve.
Our family has served in Cambodia, Southeast Asia, since 2000. When we first arrived, Cambodia was still in post-war survival mode. Now, though still a relatively poor country especially in the rural areas, the country’s economy is booming. Cambodia shares a Folk Buddhist culture very similar to that of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Sri Lanka.
In 2014 I wrote a book called “Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings” to help introduce God’s people to some truths that need serious discussion and prayerful study before they launch out into cross-cultural disciple-making in Jesus’ name. In June of 2018, the Lord gave me the privilege of becoming regional director for Asia/Australia/the Pacific for Gospel Fellowship Association Missions. Since then, we have been exposed to cross-cultural ministries in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. After what we have seen and heard on field after field, I am more convinced than ever of these truths.
In this blog series I would like to introduce eight factors that I believe contribute to the challenges facing most cross-cultural missionaries, especially those laboring in more pioneer contexts.
Factor #1: Preparatory work is foundational for evangelism.
Understand what people really believe
If we are to preach Christ and build a bridge from pagan unbelief to an understanding of the Gospel, we MUST understand what people believe. This is the starting point. I must understand what people believe generally in the culture in which I labor, as well as what individuals believe when I witness to them of Jesus. One of the hardest things for Christians to do, it seems, is to take the time to understand what a person believes before launching into the gospel.
In our context of Buddhist/animist Southeast Asia, we need to understand the major teachings of Buddhism and how they impact people’s daily lives and decisions. We need to know what they inherently understand when they hear words like “God”, “sin”, “heaven”, “eternal life”, “hell”, “grace”, etc. What does ancestor worship mean? What motivates them to perform these various rituals? What Gospel truths are more easily embraced, and which are strongly resisted because of their cultural bias? If we don’t take the time to make gaining such knowledge our priority, our evangelism and discipleship of them will be greatly hindered, largely ineffective.
Such knowledge does not come primarily from reading books about religion, but by talking to the people you are trying to reach. Being a learner of culture and humbling seeking understanding is one major way to become friends with those you are trying to reach. It takes time and dedication.
Understand how to present the Gospel in context
Missionaries must take the time to understand what people really believe and then learn how to preach the Gospel to them accordingly. In cross-cultural ministry, this will usually require the discipline of learning the language of the people whom we seek to reach. Language learning is essential for those committed to pioneer missions. Those who know the language of the people will preach Christ much differently than those who do not. Why? Culture and language are inseparable. To really know people, you must speak their language.
Many who serve cross-culturally do not bother to learn the language, choosing instead to work through translators. Others try to work through English, arguing that some know it well. Some ministries, rather than have teachers learn major languages, force their students to learn English so that they might be taught God’s Word. The result? Many students “trained” in English do not really understand God’s Word as they are so limited by English.
What would happen if Christians--if our churches--heavily emphasized how wonderful the gift of language is to the Great Commission? What if thousands of Christian young men and women gave themselves to Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, or Bahasa?
Understand the necessity of Creation in evangelism
What do the people that we are trying to reach believe about God? What assumptions do they have about Christianity’s God? Since most people in the world have no background in biblical Christianity, there is no better place to begin in our evangelism than Genesis 1:1. This is the foundational truth of the whole Bible message. Without it, the Gospel has no meaning. Even formerly “Christian” nations, which are now already secularized or rapidly becoming so, need the same emphasis.
In many pioneer areas, and with many unchurched people elsewhere, a strong emphasis must be given to Creation. Why? Creation teaches us who God is and who mankind is in relationship to God. The fall of mankind into sin teaches us the nature of sin and its consequences, of our need for salvation. Without the firm foundation of Creation and the Fall, there will be much confusion about the character of God, the nature of sin, and the meaning of life. Without this foundation, the Person of Jesus, His cross and resurrection, make no sense. Introducing people to God requires that we lay a Biblical foundation for who God is.
Factor #2: Guarding the Gospel is crucial.
The danger of syncretism
There are two default unbelieving responses to the Gospel: rejection and syncretism. Syncretism is the mixing of one faith/belief system with another. It is not an outright rejection of one belief system, but an acceptance of parts of each religion, thus creating a new one. Satan is masterful in encouraging sinful men to pick and choose parts of God’s revelation to believe or reject. Truth mixed with error in the name of Christianity is ever the way of the Devil. The danger of syncretism poses a serious threat everywhere the Gospel message goes, but it is especially damaging in pioneer contexts.
Rarely was Israel tempted to forsake Jehovah completely. Instead, they frequently sought to mix the worship of the LORD with the worship of false gods. This tendency is what God and His prophets continually spoke out against in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy is a book filled with such warnings.
In the New Testament, Jesus condemned both the Pharisees and the Sadducees for syncretism. One of the main themes in the Epistles is the danger of syncretism, especially that of the Judaizers who sought to mix OT law with NT Christianity. In the Pastoral Epistles, church leaders are called upon to guard the Gospel and rebuke those that contradict sound doctrine, even exercising church discipline on those that refuse to believe Gospel truths.
Unintentional encouragement of syncretism
Cross-cultural missionaries can unintentionally encourage syncretism among those that hear their teaching ministry. Impatience, driven by personal ambitions for the praise of men or success, leads some to pick unripe fruit, calling people to make decisions when they do not yet understand the Gospel message. The result is professed believers with a mixed bag of beliefs.
Another way missionaries can unintentionally encourage syncretism is by downplaying repentance. Instead of watching for true understanding and fruit of repentance among their hearers, missionaries sometimes assume that a knowledge of Gospel facts and verbal assent to them is enough to assume Biblical salvation. Warning: syncretists don’t repent. Instead, they agree to certain facts, and then add to and subtract from God’s truth. Syncretists often openly assent to Gospel facts while not believing on Jesus Christ according to the Gospel.
To be continued…
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.