While the author’s reflections are based on observations she made in Russia, countries of the former Soviet Union and of East Central Europe, there are parallels for those serving in China. In the future, should China allow expatriates greater access to the country, her insights would be even more pertinent.—Editor
In three years of living in Russia, as well as traveling in East Central Europe, and the former Soviet Union, it has been easy to view Christian missionaries on a continuum, from “emotionals” on one end to “professionals” on the other. When the Soviet bloc was just opening up, the majority of missionaries I met tended more toward the emotional end. These I refer to as “Es”. Es were the first to arrive and make their home in the newly opened countries.
They were excited about the deep spiritual hunger and made the most of the unexpected opportunities. Desiring to follow the Lord’s call, they felt it was wrong to stay home when so many people longed for the gospel. At their large, well-advertised evangelistic events, thousands heard the gospel for the first time.
While God used these Es in mighty ways, patterns emerged over time causing trouble. Often Es had minimal theological training, little knowledge of language and culture, and few skills in cross-cultural adaptation. Often working alone, they lacked accountability and supervision. Some fell into unhealthy romantic relationships with recent converts. Observing their lives, nationals became disillusioned with, rather than drawn toward, the gospel.
Lack of theological training left new Christians confused while cultural insensitivity led to Western-style churches with little hope for long-term sustainability under national leadership. Es often burned out quickly or left their ministry for personal or financial reasons, leaving new Christians to fend for themselves.
While this was going on—especially during those first few years after the Soviet bloc opened up—respectable, traditional mission agencies were steadily preparing what I refer to as professional or “P” missionaries. These organizations had solid reputations in missiology and decades of experience sending missionaries worldwide. Their missionary candidates completed a rigorous training process with theological education, formal language school, training in cross-cultural adaptation and a lengthy period of deputation.
Specialists helped them prepare budgets allowing them to live comfortably, provide quality schooling for their children, rent or buy quality facilities and supplies for their ministry and travel to necessary conferences and training opportunities, as well as periodic visits to family and supporting churches. Their budgets included valuable training materials, such as the East-West Church & Ministry Report, allowing them access to the latest developments and resources available and helping them form strategic partnerships in crucial areas. Seldom were they allowed to leave for their destination without full financial support pledged or even received. They often were sent in teams, providing fellowship and accountability.
Once in country, “pastors to missionaries” visited caring for their emotional and spiritual needs. These missionaries were indeed professionals, and while it took longer for them to arrive and get settled, it appeared that they were the answer to the problems posed by Es.
Despite their training and knowledge, over time, problems have emerged in the lives and ministries of Ps as well. Often full agendas with strategic plans leave little time for relationships with neighbors or even church members. Language learning is put to the side or viewed as a necessary evil that takes time away from vital ministry.
Ps sometimes enroll in highly structured language courses taught by specialists from completely different cultural backgrounds which results in frustration. While Ps feel their classes are poorly taught, the teachers do not understand why their students dislike their well-prepared lessons. It is not uncommon for Ps to spend their first year in language learning, beginning “ministry” later.
After struggling through the language-learning process, or giving up and working through a translator, Ps face another obstacle: determining what and how to teach nationals. Common complaints are that national Christians are not honest about their own needs, refuse to provide constructive feedback and take little initiative in the ministry preferring foreigners to remain in positions of leadership. I remember my own frustration when told by a young Christian, “Why should I lead a Bible study? I am a fulltime student, hold a part-time job and on weekends travel five hours each way to the family dacha to plant potatoes for the winter. You get paid by Christians in America to lead Bible studies!”
Is there a solution to these legitimate concerns? While new problems will arise, and Satan will do everything in his power to disrupt ministries, every once in a while I observed foreign missionaries with a bond to the local people that many others lacked. I will call these relational or “R” missionaries. To be an R is not something that replaces E or P tendencies. Indeed, proper training can provide valuable insights and there are legitimate reasons to feel strong emotions.
The promises of Christ are exciting: forgiveness of sins and eternity in paradise, the Holy Spirit in our lives, victory over the Evil One! But neither emotion nor professionalism alone leads to success. Relationships over time bring about not only a change in beliefs, but also in values and priorities that spring from personal conviction rather than the expectations of others. It is in relationships, not lectures, sermons or literature, that people make the connections between head and heart— between what they learn and how they live. It is in relationships that issues surface and can be addressed: fear, insecurity, sin, guilt, family struggles, poverty, and addictions. It is in authentic relationships that lectures, sermons and literature can be applied gently to the very real—not theoretical—issues of everyday life. I do not mean at all to downgrade theological education, biblically based preaching or the production of culturally relevant, doctrinally sound literature. But these tasks must be based on relational knowledge of relevant issues rather than a theoretical knowledge about the people or situation addressed.
One way to build relationships is to come in not as teachers, but as learners. While teachers are respected and even obeyed in many Slavic and East European cultures, they are also viewed as unapproachable and distant. This is evident in the shock and discomfort many Russians feel, for example, when asked by unassuming American teachers to call them by their first names and to use the informal rather than formal form of “you.”
Learners, on the other hand, are vulnerable, are to be cared for, and may be approached without fear. The result is a sharing of problems and solutions rather than a one-sided, teacher-pupil relationship. Nationals are more willing to address hindrances to ministry if they are asked regularly for advice about language, culture and daily life. Their self-worth is reinforced when they are not simply recipients of Western expertise and charity, but contributors to the ministry with knowledge and experience that is valued. Depending on situation and personality, this approach can take many shapes and forms. While there is no one correct method—and my personal experiences are not applicable for all— I believe we should allow personal relationships to humanize and to energize our emotional and professional approaches to the Great Commission.
Reprinted with permission from EastWest Church & Ministry Report, Vol. 7, No. 4, Fall 1999.