By David Frazier
David is a veteran message bearer serving more than 20 years in an unreached Muslim nation.
Message bearers desiring to minister effectively must come in as servants, following the example of their leader, Jesus Christ. Message bearers who hope to bring lasting change will display servanthood by entering with a mindset that they are guests to this new culture.
Just as Christ came, they must come to serve the locals, laying aside any superior attitude of leadership. When locals in many countries are asked what message bearers can do to more effectively minister the gospel, they often suggest that the message bearers not think they are superior to the locals.
Why are some people, who say they intend to serve, perceived as having attitudes of superiority, paternalism or neoculturalism—all opposites of servanthood? The reality is that many of us want to serve from our own cultural context. That is, we believe that servanthood everywhere else probably looks like it does in our own culture (Elmer 2006, 16).
A true servant spirit requires “a conscious effort to choose one direction over another and one set of values over another,” gained by humbling oneself to learn the other’s language and culture (Elmer 2006, 20). “Others can’t see our motives, only our actions” (Elmer 2006, 28).
Effective message bearers live out servanthood by making the goal to empower the nationals to reach their own people with the Gospel. Message bearers serve by leaving models and tools that benefit the local culture best.
“Field and ministry strategy should not be developed on this side of the ocean; rather it should emerge from the social context. Any strategy development done here should be held loosely and tentatively” (Shultz 2005).
Message bearers with humble, teachable attitudes who enter new places to serve and empower do not come with preconceived strategies, unrealistic goals or rigid time-tables. Does much stress and attrition stem from poor strategies and false expectations put on themselves and the peoples being served?
Servant message bearers who are equipped for effective cross-cultural ministry must have already grasped the power and influence of their own culture on their worldview, their behavior, their ministry approaches and even their interpretations of Scripture.
Effective message bearers have come to grips with their earthly and heavenly identities because “at the very core of Christian identity lies an all-encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures” (Volf 1996, 24).
They know that a true message bearer calling involves a call from God that “entails rearrangement of a whole network of allegiances” (Volf 1996, 25). Only then can message bearers truly operate with servanthood, unencumbered and free to embrace a new culture enough to impart the gospel.
Message bearers desiring to sustain long-term ministry on the field must have perseverance. This perseverance is displayed by preparing for long-term presence on that field through diligent language and culture study. It is difficult for message bearers and their families to establish a long-term attitude of perseverance if they or their mission do not put a priority on these foundational tasks during the early years on the field.
Short-term goals produce little language acquisition; poor language skills bring shallow adaptation; superficial acculturation inhibits relationships; surface involvement with the people and culture leads to detachment from the community; disengagement can end in early departure from that field. When message bearers do not learn the language and thus the culture, they can experience culture shock or “become worn down by the constant adjustments to different ways of doing, thinking, and speaking” (Allen 1986, 120).
The only real cure for culture shock is a forced-drafted, purposeful pushing on ahead. The way to get over it is to work at making new persons and new ways familiar and known; to return to them again and again until all the strangeness is gone.
Brooding about the situation certainly will not improve it. The real danger is that, at this early stage, the change agent will reject the local culture as inexplicable, then turn to his fellow countrymen and to familiar activities, as being the only sensible ones (Arensberg and Niehoff 1964, 189).
Message bearers who exhibit perseverance minister with a strategy that does not expect quick results. Working to renew worldviews, which have completely different assumptions about God, man and sin, takes time and rarely comes quickly in cross-cultural work. Deep lasting work is done also by leaning on God in faith and prayer as He brings the fruit of the labor in His timing (1 Cor 3:8-9; Lk 8:15).
Some must labor for many years “until Christ is formed” in the locals (Gal 4:19). For message bearers to be able to persevere for a long term of service, they must put loved ones and home comforts on the altar and accept that the normal family life most have back home will not be their own.
While keeping in touch with family, church and friends is important, learning to endure without a lot of communication, acclimating to their new home and building new relationships help message bearers to persevere in long term service.
Often the most common problems among message bearers and the ones that can cause early departure from the field involve relationship conflicts (Taylor 1997, 14). Message bearers who desire to avoid frustration and failure will learn to live with humility, servanthood, and perseverance.
Message bearers who depart for a field without strong marriages built on mutual humility, a servant spirit, and deep commitment to persevere in the tough times usually find the mission field a pressure cooker that only exasperates unresolved emotional and psychological issues.
Satan can often put message bearers out of service when they neglect their families and fail to humbly lead and lovingly serve them. Message bearers who lack the humble servant attitude toward co-workers will not persevere to see agency and team problems resolved.
A proud worker is counter-productive and ineffective, but reconciliation and cooperation can be established when message bearers, “with humility of mind” consider co-workers above themselves and the others’ perspectives more important than their own (Phil 2:2-3).