By David Frazier
David is a message bearer and has been serving among the unreached for almost 20 years.
Studies in the last decade have shown that one of the key reasons for high message bearer attrition has been the lack of cultural adaptation. (Taylor 1997, 10) This simple model helps candidates become aware of the underlying aspects of their worldviews that are difficult to see in traditional message bearer assessment.
Often the focus is put on the message bearers’ theological and methodology training, assuming anyone in message bearer candidacy has achieved the needed level of intercultural sensitivity.
Local church leaders must emphasize these issues of self identity, cultural awareness and sensitivity when assessing candidates, as these important aspects are often lost in all the talk about spiritual calling and church planting techniques.
Message bearers who do not come to terms with their ethnocentrism and worldview of superiority struggle to acculturate and sustain long term effective service. Ethnocentrism is about pride and superiority; mission work is about humility and servanthood.
While most message bearers get some kind of formal biblical and cross-cultural training pre-field, the problem lies in the underlying worldview attitude towards other cultures. It is vital prospective message bearers become aware of their attitudes and understanding of their own culture and the new culture in order to be successful in cultural adaptation and effective ministry.
Attitudes toward others and their cultures are formed at home and from those around them. Learning the right attitude requires spiritual maturity and Christian character.
Once again, the most important stage for this preparation of message bearers is the local church. “The great problem of the mission field is and remains the message bearer and the sending congregation.” (Bavinck 1960, 112) One message bearer trainer comments on the ReMAP results by saying,
I’m more convinced than ever that we need a full 9-12 months to create self-awareness of problem areas in candidates and help move them through to dealing with issues and change. Non-formal, precandidate training that looks at character, interpersonal skills and initial cross-cultural entry attitudes and skills is the single most effective way to minimize attrition potential. Member care solutions look at the problem after it has been exacerbated and probably after the major damage has been done. (Taylor 2002, 79)
Local churches can often base their decisions for message bearer candidate approval upon the candidate’s spiritual calling, personal relationships and the people group to be reached. This puts the burden for testing and filtering the candidate upon the agency.
When things on the field go wrong later they may place the blame upon the agency, team leadership or difficulty of the field. This kind of planning is reactive instead of proactive (Van Rheenen 2000).
If Christian character, inter-relational skills, discipleship experience and cross-cultural understanding are crucial in making more resilient message bearers, the heavy responsibility for message bearer development and selection falls on the local church.
The essential qualities of humility, servanthood, and perseverance are best developed, tested, and proven in real life and ministry situations at home.
When the complex factors of attrition are reduced to their simplest components, the evidence undergirds the importance of a careful selection process guided by standards that are bound neither by culture nor by time (Platt 1998, 205).
As Biblical examples and missiological research suggest that key characteristics needed in message bearers to have long-term, effective cross-cultural ministry are humility, servanthood and perseverance, does this not
give all those in the mission taskforce some criteria to work with?
The burden for growing men and women with these qualities falls on local churches. It is for church leadership to equip their congregations and test those considering message bearer candidacy. They should give ample opportunities for candidates to prove themselves to have these important character qualities in family, personal relationships, evangelism, discipleship, and leadership.
Perhaps the matter is not so much a problem of the individual, as it is a problem with the system, which front loads all this development before really gaining the experiential understanding as to the giftedness and/or the ability of a person to be effective in a particular cultural setting. Would we not deal with our attrition problem if we were to institute a series of experiences in short and mid-length terms (whether in the home church or in cross-cultural contexts), which would give us and the individuals involved a clear understanding as to their giftedness and abilities? (McKaughan 1997, 21)
Learning what makes message bearers resilient and growing them at the local church level can reduce message bearer attrition. Unless message bearers become aware of their attitudes, learn to view others and their
cultures with humility and servanthood, the Gospel doesn’t cross into the culture, the labor becomes ineffective, and the term of service is cut short.
When in-house character and ministry development becomes a priority at the local church level, message bearer selection becomes easier and can save the message bearers and the agencies lots of heartache and trouble.
Few churches have analyzed their own message bearer attrition history or the realities they will face if they don’t change their way of doing things. Other churches carry a major portion of a message bearer’s financial support, but must invest more concern with attrition matters (Taylor 1997, 11).
Local churches must be pro-active and intentional in character development and testing as they consider their role in God’s mission to the world. There is no theological school, cross-cultural training institute,
expert screening system, ideal team environment, or well-staffed member-care group that can equip and sustain a message bearer whose character has not been developed, tested and proven over time prior to candidacy in the local church environment.
If a proper foundation has been laid throughout their local church experience, the needed ministry skills and cross-cultural training can be added upon it. The foundation of all message bearer training is genuine Christ-like character. Jesus, who was the greatest long-term, effective cross-cultural message bearer ever and best model of humility, servanthood and perseverance, said “A disciple is not above his teacher.” (Matt 10:24)