Isn’t it amazing how they can reattach an arm severed at the shoulder? Gee, for most of the history of the world, severed parts just had to be thrown away. Now, we transplant and reconnect all kinds of body parts. Awesome. Oh…wait a minute…that’s not a photo of a reattached limb? It’s a tattoo? Sorry. It looked so real…
That reminds me that sometimes we think we know what is happening in a cross-cultural situation but we have actually missed it completely. A few years ago, I listened with interest as an American pastor gave a report on his ten day mission trip to Costa Rica. He explained how he had preached, through an interpreter, on several occasions and was blown away by the people’s enthusiastic response to his messages. He was particularly excited that he had presented the gospel to a tribal group that had no previous exposure to Christianity. On the surface it sounded like an amazing time of ministry with a meaningful harvest in a short time. But for those of us who have worked overseas, we understand that the surface meaning is often really different from the deeper and true meanings. Not to diminish the possibility of a great revival coming from this pastor’s preaching but there were few other things happening in the story.
For starters, an American delivering a lively public speech most anywhere in the world will probably generate some interest among the locals. Sadly, attracting a crowd doesn’t necessarily mean your message is having a desired effect. A juggling chimp will also attract an audience. The other issue is the language. What do you think when you hear someone delivering a live speech in a non-English language while relying on an interpreter? Maybe you think, “If this guy wants his message to be heard, he ought to try speaking English.” Even though someone uses an interpreter, one is always more credible if he/she respects the audience enough to learn their language especially when trying to sell a message in their country. Not knowing the local language might not be a total deal breaker but oh boy…it’s a big time deal hurter.
In Papua New Guinea, the people told us that if you’re white and in the country, you are either a missionary or a business person. Costa Rica is probably not terribly different in this way. An American preaching in English in the market probably signals the presence of a visiting mission team. And that means there is probably an after-the-sermon benefit in terms of medical care, clothing, or food. I’m sorry if this sounds cynical but after many years of Americans on a mission in a relatively safe democratic country like Costa Rica, the people kind of know the drill: Listen to the gospel message, then the more practical benefits will follow. I am not saying that people aren’t touched by a salvation message or that the Holy Spirit is not working in people’s hearts. I am saying that you gotta be careful on how you interpret people’s motivation when they’ve done this routine many times.
Along that same line, we all know that a positive response to an invitation to receive Christ doesn’t always mean actual conversions took place. We know that’s true in America but even more so in relational societies where people anticipate the “right” or desired answer and then give it. Nobody wants to lose face or cause you to lose face, so an agreeable response may not mean what we hope it means. Sometimes people have a pretty good idea what the American wants to hear and willingly offer it up.
And finally, the chances of this pastor sharing the gospel to an “unreached” ethnic group living on the outskirts of a Costa Rican resort isn’t likely. Even though such a claim would increase the validity of a short term mission trip, the likelihood of this man preaching to a pristine ethnic group is not great. If you look up Costa Rica on the Joshua Project* website http://www.joshuaproject.net/index.php you will notice that Costa Rica has only one indigenous group that is considered in the Formative / Nominal Churchcategory. The rest of the Costa Rican indigenous groups have Significant / Established Churches. Sorry. There are actually no “unreached” people groups in Costa Rica.
So, what Tim? You big party pooper. Well, the Lord said we need to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16). Discernment is an imperative in ministry. Working across cultures requires large doses of interpretive caution. It’s good to see the glass half full. But it’s more important to know what its half full of. Might be water. Might be arsenic. The Belt of Truth is still an important part of our spiritual amour (Ephesians 6:10-18). Don’t leave home without it. Keep making disciples of all nations as the Lord commanded us (Matthew 26:18-20) but also stay close to the Spirit of Truth. Otherwise you might miss what the Lord is really doing out in His harvest field. It’s even better than our misconceptions.
You all look for a nifty postcard from Denise and me next week. You’re gonna like it. Now go out there and have a meaningful fortnight.
*Joshua Project is a research group that provides numbers and demographics of ethnic people groups with the fewest Christians in ‘em.