Are you listening?
30 Nov 2017
‘Cross-cultural workers could more effectively minister the gospel of Christ if they did not think they were so superior to us.’ This was the surprising and disturbing answer that Duane Elmer received when asking various international people: ‘What could cross cultural workers do to more effectively minister the gospel of Christ in your culture?1 I can also identify feelings of superiority in my own journey, especially in the early days, and am sure that my gracious national brothers and sisters in Papua New Guinea saw this more clearly than I did at the time – although I am now acutely aware of this failure.
Paul describes cross-cultural mission as a call to enter into a relationship of love and commitment with our co-workers and the people we serve, – ‘We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the Gospel of God but our lives as well’ (1 Thess. 2:8). New cross-cultural workers have gifts and skills they have developed in ministry. But, often, they are not so well prepared for the relationships (with both their team members and national people), and the cultural learning and adjustments that they face entering a quite different cultural context.
And so, herein lies the challenge for all missionaries: to be humble and teachable, willing to learn from others (national and expatriate), and to be honest about their own shortcomings.
The biblical writers speak about God who humbles himself (Psalm 113:5-6), and the Lord Jesus who humbled himself in coming as a servant and dying for our sins. Believers face the staggering challenge that their ‘attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ’. In this passage humility involves – not being motivated by selfish ambition or vain conceit, considering others better than ourselves, and caring for their interests as well as our own (Philippians 2:1-11). Pride divides, while humility unites. It means we will intentionally seek the welfare of others in priority to our own, and acknowledge and confess our own shortcomings. This is a great challenge as we become like children again – learning a new language and culture, and adjusting to multicultural teams, new climate and food etc.
People who are teachable have two important qualities vital to cross cultural ministry. First, they are good listeners – ‘quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (James 1:19). They will give careful attention to local patterns of communication, showing respect, listening carefully before making a response, open to adjusting their perspectives where this does not place them in conflict with Scripture. Second, they will always be open and hungry to learn – more about God and his Word, more about those they work with, more about the nation where they are guests, more about the pains and problems of the people, more about how the Gospel engages with the indigenous culture.
Of course, none of us are perfectly humble or teachable – but the Spirit of God works to transform us, and build these qualities in our service for his glory (Galatians 5:22-23).
1 Duane Elmer, Cross Cultural Servanthood, Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2006. 15. I have changed the term ‘missionaries’ for the more usual title today of ‘cross-cultural workers’.