By David Frazier
David is a veteran message bearer serving for more than 20 years in an unreached Muslim nation.
In light of what has been learned about missionary (from this point forth I will use the term message bearer instead of missionary) attrition (message bearers leaving the field) over the recent years, it would be beneficial to know what enables some message bearers to achieve long-term, effective cross-cultural ministries. Candidates must be grown, trained and proven in certain ministry and cross cultural skills prior to the field; however, are there certain qualities that form a foundation on which these skills can be laid?
From biblical examples and missiological (the study of Christian Cross-Cultural Mission) findings, what are the character qualities that must be developed, tested and proven in potential message bearers pre-field, mainly at the local church level, to sustain long term, effective cross-cultural ministry? In short, once they get people on the field, what makes them stick and be effective?
Christ Our Ultimate Example
Jesus Christ, the ultimate example for life and ministry, exemplified the key qualities for every effective message bearer: humility, servanthood and perseverance.
Jesus declared Himself to be “gentle and humble at heart” in Matthew 11:29, but more importantly, He exhibited it in His life
- by taking on human nature (Phil 2:7; Heb 2:16),
- by being born in a lowly stable (Lk 2:4-7),
- by living in subjection to His earthly parents (Lk 2:51),
- by living as a carpenter’s son from Nazareth (Mt 13:55; Jn 9:29),
- by submitting to the Law (Mt 3:13-15),
- by refusing honor from men (Jn 5:41; 6:15),
- by washing His disciples’ feet (Jn 13:5),
- by obeying His Father (Jn 6:38),
- by submitting to sufferings (Isa 50:6; Acts 8:32; Mt 26:37-39),
- by exposing Himself to reproach and contempt (Ro 15:3), and
- by laying down His life for others.
The Apostle Paul summarizes Christ’s humility in Philippians 2:5-8 and gives all disciples of Christ a clear model to follow. A message bearer who seeks to declare the Gospel with more than just words will live “with humility of mind” and “regard one another as more important than himself” (Phil 2:3).
While not denying their own cultural identity, message bearers who seek to be effective cross-culturally, must “think more of the interests of others” and the others’ culture (Phil. 2:4). “The church is not made up of spiritual giants; only broken men can lead others to the cross” (Bosch, 1979, 82).
Furthermore, Jesus exemplified servanthood. Though He could have clung to His own heavenly “culture,” He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant,” in order to show the mode of operation in His kingdom. Jesus could have come and completely dominated people with His personality and power, having had the right to do so.
As God, He knew everything and could have done anything He wanted by Himself; but instead, He humbled Himself to be helped by others, engaged them in His work, and served them that they may serve others (Jn 4; 6). His humble servant spirit gave its ultimate demonstration when He “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).
He didn’t come to simply impart principles, set up ministry programs or be served by others, “but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mat 20:28). The Cross is usually a truth to be proclaimed more than one to be appropriated in one’s lifestyle. Effective message bearers take up their crosses, deny their rights as servants and leave their ethnocentric attitudes at home. If they do not, “a strategy of the cross can become academic and the person forgets the fundamental posture of our Lord as He walked on this earth (Soltau 1998, 33).”
Jesus also exemplified perseverance. Message bearers who seek to be effective in the host culture must persevere long enough to be able to demonstrate the love of Christ in a way that can be understood by the locals in their language and cultural context. Today’s new message bearers mustn’t forget the importance of perseverance in faith and ministry.
Since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, .., and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:1-2).
Paul tells Timothy to “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1Tim 4:16). God chose the incarnation of Christ as the strategy to bring His people to Himself.
To say that God acted incarnationally is to say that God entered our history, enfleshed Himself in our nature so that men could comprehend in the clearest way the meaning of the gospel, and respond to Him. This truth, while generally understood and accepted by the Christian community has not been widely recognized for what it says about message bearer methodology (Soltau 1998, 30).
Incarnational witness is born out of a humble and servant spirit and preserves hardships to make the message known.
“Justification by grace is communicated through incarnational witness” (Guder 1985, 20). Incarnational witness is born out of a humble and servant spirit and preserves hardships to make the message known. “Paul’s greatness lay in the fact that through personal embodiment and message he was able to present a Jewish Jesus, the Messiah, as a live option for Greco-Roman culture” (Shenk, 1980, 176). Message bearers can learn from examples of incarnation and the Cross that humility, servanthood and perseverance are vital if they desire to be effective cross-culturally for many years.