Updated: Feb 9, 2022
In his book on evangelism titled Living Proof, Jim Petersen recounts a story about a group of missionaries working among New Guinea highlanders. There were a number of professed converts who were baptized and for several years tithed, attended church and obeyed the important rules of Christian behavior. One day the village leader went to the missionaries and said, “We ought to have done enough by now to repay Jesus for his death.” Saving faith had not occurred at all. The villagers had gone along with the missionaries until they tired of it then went back to their old ways. Petersen concludes, “How easy it is to gloss over big issues with a few glib phrases, elicit a prayer, or some other action we interpret as ‘a decision,’ and move on, happy with our success. One of the challenges for the missionary is to discern whether those he is ministering to have actually put their faith in Jesus Christ, or are merely following the missionary himself. Sometimes an entire generation can go by before such a misplaced trust is discovered.”
Comparing missionaries and mission fields is like comparing apples to oranges – there are as many differences as things in common, including the challenges of cross-cultural ministry.
Often churches judge missionaries based upon “results” (professed salvations and church plants) but it is important to realize that not every people group is at the same point of preparedness or equally predisposed to respond to the gospel.
While on deputation I recall speaking with a veteran missionary to Africa during a mission conference. He said one of his biggest challenges was to ensure that the Africans to whom he ministered were not simply adding Jesus to their plethora of other gods to see if he would be the one to bring better luck to their crops or cure their baby of a disease. He said that it would be easy to get them to say a prayer but whether they had saving faith was another issue altogether. He then lamented that if a missionary was focused on getting “decisions” for the sake of numbers, he would not only be deceiving supporting churches but more importantly deceiving the Africans by giving them a false sense of salvation without genuine conversion.
Instead of sharing our beliefs immediately the missionary should ask probing questions until he can ascertain what the other person thinks and believes. Our words are often interpreted according to the listeners’ existing frame of reference.
Many Italians consider themselves “believers”. In fact, one of our greatest challenges in evangelism is that the Italian people (for the most part) already consider themselves to be Christians. Of course their definition of “Christian” is diametrically opposed to that which is revealed in the word of God. Whether I deal with a nominal or practicing Catholic (90% of the population falls in one of those two categories) their general thoughts regarding the basis of their salvation is always the same: Grace + Merit, Faith + Works, Jesus + Me. As I dig further into their unbiblical view of Christianity the vast majority confess that their culture shapes their view of God. They are Catholic (or “Christian”) because they were born in a Catholic country. Many have told me that God is far beyond man’s comprehension and all religions of the world reveal that particular culture’s idea of understanding him and so there is no “one way” to heaven. To Italians, God is impersonal and obscured by religion – if they live a good life (according to their standard of goodness) then all will be well. They trust their local priest, the bishops, and the Pope to work out the fine details. There is no impetus or motivation to examine what it means to be “saved” because not only do they believe in universal salvation but also that there is no eternal punishment for the unsaved, citing the Pope as their authority in which he said there is no literal hell. It is within this environment that we preach the gospel.
The “results” that some supporting churches often look for, or perhaps we as missionaries self-impose, can be slow in coming. Mission work is not a “level playing field” and it should not be the place of supporting churches or missionaries to “keep score.” Unfortunately, this does occur and missionaries can feel they are in competition with others in order to maintain their financial support and thus prayer letters are often used as the scorecards to determine the success of a ministry.
Whereas some mission fields are able to use the American model of establishing a new work – that is, start with a building and a church sign and begin to invite people to gather for weekly preaching services – that model does not seem to be effective here, at least in northern Italy. I’m sure there are exceptions but several veteran Italian missionaries have told me that generally starting with a building produces an international ministry comprised of expats from the Philippines, South America, Africa, etc., but few, if any, Italians. Rather than begin with a building we have opted to focus on reaching the people and then organize a local church with these new believers taking part from the very beginning. It is slow and labor intensive but I believe the long-term benefits will be a healthy and stable work that will be able to reproduce itself and live beyond the missionary.
We have been greatly encouraged by pastors who support the vision given to us by the Lord and who understand the approach the Lord has impressed upon us for ministry in Verona. For new missionaries heading to the field I would encourage you to prayerfully consider a few things as you seek the Lord’s direction for effective ministry:
Understanding the culture is as important as fluency in the foreign language in regards to reaching the lost.
Listen to your people group for clues as to what hinders them from receiving the gospel.
Your singular objective is to communicate Jesus Christ. He is the gospel. He is our message. In order to effectively preach, our own understanding of Christ – his identity and the implications of his resurrection – must ever grow and deepen.
Evangelism is not merely presenting the terms of a contract but rather taking the time to help another person know Christ – not merely an intellectual assent to the facts but helping them work through their own rebellion and obstacles.
Don’t isolate yourself from the culture. Obviously don’t engage in sinful practices but build meaningful relationships with nonbelievers.
Keep social occasions social and not use them as bait to open the Bible. Relationships are key. Be honest with your intentions. When we intend to open the Bible with people, we should communicate it upfront, always leaving room of course for the direction of the Holy Spirit.
Don’t try to make them American.
Learn from missionaries in your country, realizing, however, the response of people can vary greatly depending upon the region. In Italy, for instance, the people in the north are much more closed than those in the south and I’m sure there are challenges in the south that we don’t face here in the north.
Unity is not uniformity. There can be diversity in how missionaries minister from one another but unity of mind and purpose regarding the overall objectives: Christ glorified, souls saved and discipled, and churches established.
Traditional methods and activities that are meaningful to American Christians may not be effective on the foreign field.
Do not compare yourself to other missionaries. Praise the Lord for those who are seeing many souls saved and multiple works established! Don’t be discouraged if it takes you longer. Some missionaries start a work with expats, some report the results of veteran missionaries with whom they work as their own, some rent a building and report they have started a church, some report church growth in terms of percentages in order to sound better, e.g. “our service grew 50% this week” (two visitors joined the missionary husband and wife). I’m not intending to belittle or accuse anyone but this type of thing does occur and you should not add stress to your life and ministry by making comparisons.
Several months ago I met with a new friend for pizza and he began to discuss the spiritual climate of Verona and the Veneto region where we live. He is not a Christian, however he is interested in learning about and discussing others’ beliefs. Knowing that I am a missionary he began to discuss the challenges we face in Verona. He reiterated what we have been told by other missionaries and Italians, that Verona is a staunchly Catholic city in one of the most devout and difficult regions of Italy and a city in which the people tend to be very cold and closed-minded. He discussed how the secretive and manipulative Catholic group Opus Dei has saturated Verona and has made it one of its chief operating cities. He also discussed the strong cult presence of Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, Egyptian mysticism, and outright Satanism. In spite of the strong opposition to the gospel I am persuaded the Lord will give the increase to our labor for souls here in Verona and I am particularly encouraged by the number of people with whom we meet that are wrestling with biblical truth and moving a step at a time with us on the road to Christ and salvation.
Like our Verona, the world is in desperate need of the gospel. My prayer is that missionaries keep their eyes on Christ, seeking his approval as they communicate him to the people groups amongst whom they live. I pray also that supporting churches will not make unreasonable comparisons nor have unrealistic expectations but rather will wholeheartedly invest in and encourage those who are evangelizing the “uttermost part of the earth” on their behalf.