By Frank Decker
My home airport is the world’s busiest, and when traveling, I often come across groups of work teams headed to some foreign place to serve for a week or two. They are not difficult to spot, and they sometimes even have matching t-shirts. I often ask them about their plans. “We’re going to build a church,” “We are conducting a Vacation Bible School,” etc. A colleague recently told me of a mission work team whose matching t-shirts displayed a map of their home state with an arrow pointing from home to their Latin American destination. The caption proclaimed, “Bringing Jesus from Texas to Costa Rica.”
I cringed when I heard that story. And if you have served on a work team, lived overseas, or as a Wesleyan simply have a basic understanding of prevenient grace, perhaps you bristled with a vicarious sense of embarrassment on hearing it, too.
We need to pay attention to how others perceive us as we come in the name of Jesus. Perhaps we assume that our identity as Americans is an advantage to our witness. However, this is not the case. Eugene Peterson has written about what people who come from other cultures into ours see and hear. He says, “In my experience, they don’t see a Christian land. …They see something almost the reverse of a Christian land.” “They see a lot of greed and arrogance. And they see a Christian community that has almost none of the virtues of the biblical Christian community, which have to do with a sacrificial life and conspicuous love. Rather, they see indulgence in feelings and emotions, and an avaricious quest for gratification.”
Author and educator Bill McKibbin chimes in on the disconnect between our self-identity as a Christian people and the reality that our collective cultural behavior indicates something quite to the contrary. For example, the United States is the most violent rich nation on earth with a murder rate over four times that of Europe. American prisons house six or seven times the population percentage of other developed countries. And, “Despite Jesus’ strong declarations against divorce, our marriages break up at a rate—just over half—that compares poorly with the European Union’s average of about four in ten. …Teenage pregnancy? We’re at the top of the charts. Personal self-discipline—like, say, keeping your weight under control? Buying on credit? Running government deficits? Do you need to ask?”
America is attractive to outsiders, in Peterson’s words, because of our materialism, not our spirituality. “What they want are cars and televisions. They’re not coming after our gospel, unless they’re translating the gospel into a promise of riches and comfort.”
Therein lies a huge missiological challenge. Let’s say that I feel compelled to serve cross-culturally, and I get it that my cultural identity is not an advantage but sometimes a handicap. I am like a baseball player beginning my appearance at the plate with two strikes against me. The necessary process to avoid striking out is doable, but not easy. And it cannot be accomplished alone.
The Mission Society has a group of workers-in-training who are currently living among mostly Muslim refugees here in the Atlanta area, and one of the books we are studying is Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Prior to his martyrdom in a Nazi prison camp, Bonhoeffer wrote that the essential element of authentic Christian life and work is the very presence of Jesus in our midst. Anything we seek to do that is void of his presence is of no value to the Kingdom. Each and every step along the way must necessarily involve a collaborative process of prayer, meditation, and Scripture study in which Christ is invited to reveal himself.
So, as I relate to the hundreds of missionaries with whom I work, I realize that there is a lot at stake as Americans go out to minister in Jesus’ name. And I always go back to Bonhoeffer’s question: Is Jesus himself evident in this work? If one’s doing ministry involves serving AIDS orphans in Kenya, or children at risk through human trafficking in Bangkok, or forgotten villagers in the Peruvian Andes, or struggling adolescents in the Ukraine, or Dalit (“untouchable”) women in India, or the training of pastors, the question must perpetually be asked: Is the presence of Christ himself evident in this?
When Jesus’ presence is experienced as a reality, we might not need a t-shirt to advertize it.