The difference between a missionary church-plant and a missionary cult-plant: adequate cross-cultural training.

Our meager little corner of the internet was suddenly crammed to capacity with visitors, and is still occupied by thousands of visitors a day — some thankful, some concerned, some sort of curmudgeonly — as we discussed the bare minimums of cross-cultural ministry. When I suggested that there were at the very least five qualities missionaries should demonstrate before churches began supporting them, the most common objection was, “Whoa, wait a minute dawg, that’s a high standard to impose on missionaries. Where’s the room for God’s sovereignty and the Holy Spirit in all of this?” 

There’s plenty of room, I promise. For simple old me to suggest that in order to join the great dance of cross-cultural ministry one must meet certain qualifications isn’t ridiculous, it’s actually practical and Biblical; it fosters great dependence on the Holy Spirit and trust in the sovereignty and omniscience of God.

40-years of preparation for Moses before he delivered Israel from slavery to the Egyptians wasn’t a speed bump in the economy of God, it was ordained and crucial to his ministry. Moses would contend with exactly who God wanted him to contend with, at exactly the right time. Paul’s 3 years in the desert with Jesus as his personal trainer in revealing the Gospel of Grace to the Gentiles for the first time wasn’t crowding out the work of the Spirit either. So what I’m really getting at is that your local church isn’t sinning when it asks difficult questions and has standards for the missionaries they support — they should expect their missionaries to be tested both by life circumstances and the organization they are teamed up with.

Here was my first “test,”

1. Have they been trained for cross-cultural ministry?

Individualistic Societies vs. Community, Time-Oriented vs. Event-Oriented, Modern vs. Animistic — if a missionary hasn’t done the work to deconstruct the way he’s sees the world versus a man in a hut in a 3rd world country, he will make all kinds of false assumptions. How do you learn culture to appear more natural? How do you learn a new language to sound less foreign? How do you introduce and teach an entirely new Biblical worldview in order to replace the old, faulty one?  Does he know how to translate the Bible in a way that communicates truth?

Every missionary will make mistakes, but to avoid the long-term, destructive ones, they need to be trained well, and meet some people along the way who have done it.

Now, think about this Proverb in light of what I wrote above,

Desire without knowledge is not good– how much more will hasty feet miss the way! –Prov. 19:2. This, I fear, is where Christian millennials are most likely to get tripped up in their pursuit of doing God’s will. We love causes, and want our lives to count for something huge… but what about the cost, do we account for that? Maybe, but probably not long enough, as the current rate of missionary drop-outs is 50%. 50%. 50%. Andddddd one more time. 50%.

Why is intense, multi-year training an essential? Because it forces missionaries to really stew on the fact that we are going to live out in the middle of nowhere and die as a nobody, and sometimes not see any results for a long time. That is the opposite of the American Dream. Yeah, there was a sense of duty during WW2 to join the military and die for the country, but that is all but lost on my generation now — missionary tests and training is more necessary now that ever before in this post-post-modern culture. Are you sure you really want to do this?” The missionary you are considering supporting better be able to demonstrate how they themselves know they are in this for the long haul, Lord willing of course.

We expect our pastors to go through seminary, don’t we? Why don’t we expect our missionaries to go through specialized training?

Finally, as I wrote above, without knowledge about the host-culture, your missionary will fall into all kinds of traps. You can count on the fact that, as a 3rd-world country, they will be knee-deep in a folk-religion. Folk-religions are different than what we call “high religions” like Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. High Religions answer questions like, “Why are we here?” “What is the purpose of life?” “Where do I go after I die?” Most of the world lives under the bondage of Folk Religion, a syncretized version of the High Religions that asks a totally different set of questions, because the “High Religion” questions are already answered in their ancestor stories. For example, the Kuman already know where they go when they die, because their ancestors have told them they will become spirits that roam the village and make sure everyone is doing things the Kuman way.

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” 2 Cor. 10:5

How does a missionary destroy “every opinion raised against the knowledge of God” in their host-culture? Adequate training that prepares them for the opinions they’ll face later.

Okay, so what does that mean for the untrained missionary? If they haven’t done the work to understand Folk Religion, they will be moving in and answering questions about life that Americans are deeply concerned about, but their host isn’t, resulting in syncretism: the addition of Christian practice-forms and vocabulary to what they already believe. The people you are ministering to will take the answers you are providing and will apply them to the questions they care about, like where they’ll get their next meal from, or how do they keep their kids from getting sick? Instead of only burning leaves and using magic words to manipulate the spirits to make their gardens grow, they’ll be following some Commandments (if that works), but burning leaves and using magic words when you’re not around. Animism is, by nature, pragmatic in function. See what I mean? If a missionary is communicating one thing, and the people are hearing something else, they are not doing the work of an evangelist. Rather than planting a church, your missionary inadvertently planted a cult. You don’t want to finance that.

This is just ONE aspect of cross-cultural training you should expect your missionaries to undergo. We haven’t even discussed why they need to learn how to learn a language, how to learn culture, what questions to ask, and how to avoid paternalism. A good missionary training program however *cough* New Tribes Mission *cough* will deal with all of those things. So, dear local church, make sure your prospective missionary has gotten proper cross-cultural training from missionaries that’ve been there and done that. Don’t be shy, get educated. Ask them questions like,

  1. “What do you know about animism?”
  2. “In what ways does your Western worldview differ from your host country’s?”
  3. “How will you learn their language and culture.”
  4. “What types of folk-religions will you experience.”
  5. “How will you avoid paternalism?”
  6. “What steps will you take to avoid syncretism?”

Missionaries who’ve taken time to learn how to answer those questions will be so happy their faces might fall off.

Alright, now let me have it in the comment section.


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