Short term missions trips have grown in popularity, but they cannot be compared to what it takes to live long term cross culturally.
In an age of microwave instant meals, instant communication, and instant access to all knowledge through the web, many could assume that “instant” applies to cross cultural missions work as well.
The truth is that the most effective long term cross cultural missionaries are those who have paid the price and sowed their very lives for the people they are seeking to reach for Jesus.
This takes time and patience, both for the missionary and for those who support them.
Veteran Missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen gives a more realistic view of what life and ministry is like for the long term cross cultural missionary as they are starting out.
“Approximately the first two years on the mission field are appropriately called the learning period or the adaptation stage. Missionaries are learning to live in new contexts and adapt to them.
During this period, four interrelated types of learning take place. Missionaries learn (1) to speak a new language, (2) to understand the culture of the people among whom they are working, (3) to form personal relationships within the culture, and (4) to develop models of ministry appropriate to the context.
Two extremes are common during this stage. On the one hand, some missionaries assume that they should not begin communicating the Gospel until the learning stage is completed–until language and culture learning are accomplished. Christianity, however, is the core of identity.
Missionaries cannot easily lay aside their identity even during the early stages of missionary work. They should learn languages and cultures as Christians and thus express and live out these distinct Christian perspectives! Christian proclamation must be incorporated rather than marginalized during the learning of language and culture.
When effective language and culture learning takes place, the first converts are frequently made and a church established, even during this preliminary learning stage. Missionaries must, however, understand their communicational limitations and work within these. They should teach using broad, general concepts and use indigenous illustrations only with the greatest of care.
On the opposite extreme, some missionaries naively bypass the learning stage. They conceive that “people are people all over the world and the Gospel can be presented in the same way in all contexts.” They, therefore, desire to be teachers without learning first. Without active language and culture learning during the first months on the field, the missionaries’ effectiveness in all other stages is reduced, and the resulting movement is typically anemic rather than a vibrant.
I think this a very realistic view.
The timing has to be adjusted for factors like harder languages, more remote people groups, missionary care support etc.
In some ways we have followed this pattern. In other ways we have chosen to be more heavily involved in ministry and have not had the intensive “language learning only” blocks of time that we would have needed.
This has caused us to have to pull back and focus on language again at certain times.
Because they belong to large organizations who have their own language schools, some of our colleagues working in the country have had the requirement of going to language school exclusively for their first year or two in the country.
This has not been the case with us and others we know.
The lesson from all of this is that although there are key concepts that determine apply to all missionaries in all places, each person is unique in their calling and what God is requiring them to do. Our goal has always been and will continue to be growing in the Thai language and culture as we continue to minister to the people.
More than language,we should adapt the posture of being students of the people and the culture. “All people are not the same”, as Van Rheenen points out. This misunderstanding causes us to go to what we are comfortable with rather than pushing ourselves to adapt to our new culture. When we feel the pressure mount, we will always return to whatever “default” we know rather than push through to new understanding and adaptation. This has to be a conscious decision we make…to be with the people and learn from them before we attempt to share. If we don’t do this, we may be saying something important, but the message is not getting through.
We are pioneering on our own without the support and direction of a large organization. This also has its advantages and disadvantages at times.
We are up for the challenges. We hope that you are too!
One thing that applies to all of us is that “sowing a life and family” into a people group takes sacrifice, discipline, and TIME. There is nothing microwave about it.