No one likes to be the outsider, right? Do you? I remember when I spent three months in Tanzania during college. I was called the “mzungo”…basically, white man, foreigner, “alien”…whatever you want to name it. It’s not necessarily a fun thing to always be called and have people stare at you as the kids shout it out while you walk through the market. However, you DO get used to it after awhile, and once you’ve been there for some time, you aren’t a novelty anymore. People get used to you being there, they get to know you, and you become more a part of the local culture/community. In fact, you begin to understand some things about the culture that otherwise you wouldn’t. And that’s what I want to highlight here: not the downside of being the outsider, but the benefits.
For any missionary that’s been overseas for a decent amount of time, he or she can relate to this. A missionary’s job is to understand the culture as much as possible, become a part of it to the point that he or she can contextualize the gospel within that culture in an appropriate way. A missionary wants their audience to “get it”, to understand the message. To tell you the truth, we ALL should desire this: to help our audience (the unsaved/lost) “get it”, to help them understand the gospel message in their language, in their thinking, in their cultural framework/worldview. This isn’t always easy, but it is always, ALWAYS possible. Why? Because God created culture, He is the source of culture–I believe it brings God joy when he sees the variety & diversity around the world in His created beings, us humans. In fact, I know it brings Him joy…otherwise, he wouldn’t have initiated the creation of so many different cultures at the Tower of Babel through the instantaneous appearance of various languages. God did at the Tower of Babel what mankind wouldn’t do in obedience to God’s command in Genesis to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.
However, all this to say…the benefits of being an outsider are sometimes a blessing, and sometimes they are not. For instance, I grew up in Brazil, yet spoke English inside our home (for the most part), and Portuguese outside of it. Now, I’m a missionary in Brazil with my “fully-American” wife and kids. She’s learned Portuguese, and the kids have too pretty well. Now, as outsiders in Brazil, the longer we are there, the longer we can see into the culture, the church issues, and understand what is going on…when others can’t.
Let me illustrate for you: when there is an argument in a marriage, or an athletic competition, or a trial in court…who is the one that those people listen to? Well, the psychologist or counselor usually helps folks with marital issues, a referee of some sort presides over the athletic competition, as does a judge in a court case, correct? What do all three have in common? They are outsiders. They all have a perspective that the ones deeply involved in the issue do not see. Of course, this is the way it should be, right?
Well, take the above illustration and put it into missions. The missionary can often see into a culture in a way that the nationals cannot. When the Apostle Paul was in Athens, he saw that the Athenian thinkers and worshipers had an unknown god they worshipped. Paul saw from the outside their hunger for spiritual reality, for truth, and pointed them to Jesus. So, sure, the missionary is involved in the context, hopefully very involved. However, being in Brazil, as missionaries, we can often see into the culture things that from the inside most people don’t recognize. We call them “blind-spots”. But here’s something that I’ve noticed being back in the US for this time of medical leave: the missionary, due to the nature of his work, is often an outsider in his own culture when he returns from his assignment overseas. Being gone even for only a year, a missionary will quickly notice the major changes in culture. What is more, the longer one is removed from the host/home culture, the more the changes that this outsider will recognize. And often times, those observations are at the core of our cultural identities in the home-culture… They are not always “good” criticisms, they are things that should probably be submitted to Scriptural correction…and we don’t receive criticism well on our “home-turf”, do we? However, I think we would do quite well as the Church of Christ to seek the input of our foreign missionaries in helping us see our blind-spots, to help us grow and mature as the Body of Christ. Our missionaries have so much to offer us here in the US, as well as in their areas of service overseas. So, next time a missionary talks a bit about blind-spots…you might want to listen. All to help us as a Body in growing into maturity in the Lord.
Talk back to the missionary: what do you think? Have you had a blind-spot pointed out to you from an “outsider”? How did you feel? What was the end result? I welcome comments and/or questions.