by Jonathan Lamb
Jonathan is a writer, teacher and minister-at-large for Keswick Ministries, and he has served in over 60 countries in support of Christian mission.
I am grateful for a happy cross-cultural marriage! Though we are both white Brits, Margaret is from Cumbria and I am from London. Early on in our relationship I realised that, despite our undoubted compatibility, there was the potential for significant cultural dissonance. As students we worked together at a youth camp in Cumbria and one morning Margaret said she had been ‘pickled’ during the night. To a Londoner this implied more than a little inebriation – too much Cumbrian rum butter, I thought, but somewhat surprising for a child of the gospel hall. However, to a Keswick girl, ‘pickled’ referred to being freezing cold in the tent overnight.
In all human relationships and activity we need to take culture seriously. Christians do so in mission because God himself took culture seriously. When He spoke His Word, it was in a specific cultural context. When He stepped into our world as the Word made flesh, it was to a specific time, place and culture. So in our task of mission – and I refer not just to those who serve as missionaries but to all true disciples of Jesus – we need to remember that there are three cultures involved.
Understanding Three Cultures
First, there is the culture in which I have been brought up, which has shaped me deeply in terms of language, thought forms and world view. And as a Christian, much of my own culture is related to my Christian upbringing, moulded by my local church experience. Second, as a believer – and therefore a missionary – I am committed to read, understand, obey and communicate God’s Word in Scripture. However, as we have said, this is another world: throughout Scripture we encounter different cultures, languages and settings, which need to be understood if we are to hear the Word of the Lord. But the challenge is not yet complete, because any commitment to share the good news with another person will involve a third culture – the culture of that individual or that society. In our increasingly plural context, this need not involve travelling to a different country since, for most of us, crossing the street can be a new cultural experience, whether befriending our pagan neighbour, welcoming a refugee or interacting with our Gen Z1 family members.
These three cultures are significant areas for learning: to understand myself, a white Brit, in a secular culture, brought up in a particular ecclesiological setting; to understand God’s Word, the important task of entering the world of the Bible to truly understand what God said to people then, so that we rightly understand what God says to us now; and to understand the culture to which I am sent. I need to give time and energy to these considerations: personal, doctrinal and contextual.
Following Biblical Examples
We know that this kind of equipping and training is part of the biblical story. Most obviously, Jesus spent three years with the disciples and one can imagine the depth of integrated training they received. It was a day-by-day life-transforming experience, as their own mission became shaped by His teaching and ministry example. Our Latin American friends often refer to training as formación, a word which captures the importance not just of receiving information but of life transformation, the shaping of a disciple who becomes like their Master. So we rightly say that missionaries are not trained, they are grown. Echoes International is celebrating its 150th anniversary with the theme of ‘Footsteps Worth Following’ and for sure we must follow in the steps of those first disciples in devoting some years to such preparation, training and formación for mission.
This is echoed in Acts and the Epistles. Barnabas spent time in the Jerusalem church, learning the Scriptures and ministering alongside fellow workers, before then being sent to other congregations and missionary frontiers. We know how the Lord was at work over many years in preparing Paul for his extraordinary cross-cultural mission, whether in his early days as a devout Jew and tentmaker, or his learning from fellow believers in Tarsus, his time in the desert and his work alongside teams in places like Antioch. Most obviously, Timothy was prepared, trained and shaped from his earliest days by his mother and grandmother, studying the Scriptures as a child, mentored and encouraged by Paul, and growing in responsibility in the early church.
Jesus spent three years with the disciples and one can imagine the depth of integrated training they received.
Being Equipped for Every Good Work
What kind of training is needed? Thinking about the three cultures we have mentioned, training and preparation will be needed in each area.
Personal or Pastoral – I need to understand my culture. Most fundamentally, I need to understand myself. By that I mean my own spiritual life – my gifts, my weaknesses and strengths, my prayer life, my maturity, my biblical understanding, my capacity to work with others and my servant posture. All of these things matter and need to be understood, changed for the better and nurtured positively through Scripture, teamwork, accountability and ministry experience. Similarly, I need to understand how my culture has influenced me, for good or ill, and how my Christian background and church tradition have done the same. We must ensure that all vestiges of superiority, imperialism, paternalism and arrogance are drained from our attitudes, and replaced with a genuine servant spirit. Thinking about the personal and pastoral preparation will, for some of us, involve a spouse and children who will also need to be prepared and whose personal circumstances will need to be carefully factored in.
Doctrinal – I need to understand the whole biblical story and develop a truly Christian mindset that influences my world view and lifestyle, to be equipped to know how best to express its timeless truth in new cultural settings. The Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, Thomas Schirrmacher, said that, ‘The biggest crisis facing evangelical churches worldwide is the growing lack of biblical literacy…Beyond all theological differences, financial problems and political questions…our biggest problem is that Bible knowledge is fading away.’ Many of us share his concern and so all of those called to serve in mission, in whatever role, need a rich understanding of Scripture and a commitment to encourage others to understand, imbibe and obey the truth of God’s Word.
Contextual – the culture to which I am being sent is one which I must come to know deeply: whether its language, the predominant world views that shape the people, the content and influence of religious systems or cultural practices, or the nature of the indigenous Christian community where I am to serve. Again, we will look carefully at how spouse and family can become truly integrated.
Working in Partnership
Where is training best undertaken? Much depends on the gifts and calling of each person but whatever the nature or context of our missionary service, we must begin by underlining that the local church is formative and always significant. Training in this context is vital as we grow in our understanding and experience of ministry. It is increasingly the case that such training in the local church is provided in a more structured way with in-service training through apprentice schemes, as well as a more focused commitment to equip one another for mission and ministry. The local church is like a midwife, it is engaged as a partner in our missionary life and it cares for us at each stage of the journey.
Of course, we recognise our need of help from the wider fellowship of believers and, in partnership with the local church, many are equipped through specific training that is needed in relation to the missionary task. This might involve formal theological training, language learning, linguistics, specific cross-cultural training for a pioneer setting and much else. How wonderful that, by God’s grace, there is a growing provision through excellent evangelical agencies in many of these areas. Others, who are entering mission work on a platform of professional expertise, whether in medicine or education or construction, will come with skills that have been nurtured through years of formal training as well as practical experience.
Reading the Echoes International 150th anniversary book2 has been a moving experience. I recognised many missionaries whom I have met or prayed for, who have devoted their lives to sacrificial mission, whether in church planting, teaching, Bible translation or tent-making ministries, all in faithful humble service. Through formal or non-formal means, all of these servants have been equipped, trained, supported, prayed for and encouraged by a host of fellow believers with whom they, and we, are true partners in the joyful task of proclaiming the gospel of the Lord Jesus across the globe.