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Relations with nationals

Maybe the most important aspect of our work as missionaries, outside of the strictly spiritual realm, is that of our relationship with nationals. So many good men and women go to the field and do not accomplish what they could, even though they are very well trained and prepared for the work. It is not enough to have a good education or to be a spiritual man of God. You must also know how to relate to people. You are the visitor to their country. You must learn to think in terms of how they view things and not what you like or want. We must learn to identify ourselves with them.

A. Identification:

In order to have an effective cross cultural ministry, missionaries must first of all be students of culture–in other words, the way a particular people organize their world.

Culture is an integrated system of beliefs (about God or reality or ultimate meaning) of values (about what is true, good, beautiful, normative), of customs (how to behave, relate to others, talk, pray, dress, work, play, trade, farm, eat, etc.), and of institutions which express these beliefs, values, and customs (government, law courts, temples, or churches, family, schools, hospitals, factories, shops, unions, clubs, etc.), which binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security, and continuity.

Effective missionaries identify with the culture. Through intimate knowledge of the people, missionaries see the world as the people see it, and experience life as they do. We have no better example of this identification than Jesus Christ himself. He left his home in glory to become a vulnerable, dependent, human infant. He knew hunger and thirst, poverty and oppression. He experienced rejection, anger, and loss. He wept. His experience of human nature gave him a tremendous insight that he manifested in his earthly sojourn and provided a relational platform for a powerful ministry.

Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. Hebrew 2:17

1. The example of Jesus2!

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John 1:14

Notice how Jesus in His incarnation identified with the people He wanted to reach. He became like those He had come to reach but without sin.

A. Jesus came as a helpless infant. He did not come as a leader, teacher, expert or even as a visitor from a superior or dominant culture. If we desire to reach them we must not come in as the big shot.

B. Jesus was a learner. He learned the language from his parents. He learned how to play with his peers. He, the very Son of God, was sitting in the temple “asking questions.” What a profound lesson for us. Will you be willing to approach your new people as a learner? Will you humble yourself enough to allow them to correct you?

And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. Luke 2:46

God himself studied the language, the culture, and the lifestyles of his people for thirty years before he began his ministry. He knew about their family life and problems. He stood at their side as a learner and as a coworker. He earned their respect. He identified himself totally with those to whom he was sent, calling himself the Son of man.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. Luke 2:52

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Philippians 2:5-8

C. Jesus was completely and legitimately a Jew.

Jesus was so ordinary in this regard that people in his hometown refused to accept the power of his teaching and ministry. He was just a regular “jew”. Matthew 13:54-58. It is our goal to live among them to the point that they know that we are one of them. We want them to say– “He is one of us!”

D. Jesus’ Instruction: We are here as servants and not to lord it over our people.

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. Matthew 20:26-28 also John 13:14-17

2. The example of Paul

A. He took on their culture to be able to win them. Notice the words he uses here: I made myself–I became. He would do and be whatever he needed to get a hearing and thereby reach them with the gospel.

For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you. I Corinthians 9:19-23

Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. I Corinthians 10:33

B. He ate their food without questioning them. There is no higher insult to a people than the refusal to eat their food. Consider what your mother feels when folks turn up their nose at her cooking.

If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake. I Corinthians 10:27

And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house. Luke 10:7

C. He gave himself, and all that he had, totally to them. He expected to be mistreated but that didn’t stop him from loving them. You must decide that you are going to the field to give, be taken, mistreated, laughed at or whatever to be able to reach the folks that God is sending you to.

And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved. II Corinthians 12:15

D. Paul called Peter’s hand because he mistreated the “nationals” by showing preference to the other missionaries or people of his own race. He had been willing to eat with them and mix with them until other “missionaries” came and changed his mind. Be careful not to let disgruntled, unbonded missionaries affect how you feel about the people. Peruvians have told me of new missionaries that arrived on the field loving them but once the veteran missionaries got a hold of them they regressed into the same “better than you”, selfish attitude. Many times the missionaries spend all of their free time with each other and do not develop a relationship with the nationals.

But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? Galatians 2:11-14

E. Paul’s Instructions:

Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification. Romans 15:2

Therefore I endure all things for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. II Timothy 2:10

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, (for the national people)3 I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, (for the national people) I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity (for the national people) , it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. I Corinthians 13:1-8

3. The example of Hudson Taylor

When we think of identification, images of Hudson Taylor in native Chinese dress and a braided pigtail come to mind. Heart to heart identification however is much more than adopting dress and customs. It is the result of a sequence of actions based on attitudes. Entering a culture with an open, trusting, and accepting outlook is the first step.

4. The goal of identification is to be an effective communicator. The reason that I want to identify myself with my people is to understand them. I want to know how they live. How they see things. What goes on in their house. What fears they have. If I live with them enough to really understand them then I will be able to preach to them. My messages will ring true. Honestly, many times a message that is tremendous in America will fall flat on its face in Peru. Our people are the same, but they are different. I need to get inside their heads, hearts, and families by going to their funerals, weddings, and playing their sports with them etc.

Books I mentioned in the podcast

Jonathan Lewis, editor. World Missions, An Analysis of the World Christian Movement, Part 3, Cross-cultural considerations (William Carey Library, Pasadena, California, 1994 This one is not available but you can be looking for it and contact William Carey Library for books like it!

Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1986

Have we no rights? A frank discussion of the rights of missionaries!

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Please take the time to comment. Ask a question. Discuss in the comment section!

  • Posted December 5, 2012 7:39 pm
    by Steve McVey

    Great outline. I may steal it 🙂

    • Posted December 5, 2012 7:41 pm
      by wagardner

      of course. You can fix it and make something of it!!! 🙂 Just like the old days!

  • Posted December 6, 2012 7:42 pm
    by Jonathan Anderson

    Great thoughts again! A big help to me in the area of relationships with nationals. Thanks for your insight once again. I’m putting my thoughts together and will be back to ask about some other thoughts that are in my head. May we truly love the nationals and see them as a blessing and a friend more then a project!

    • Posted December 6, 2012 9:52 pm
      by wagardner

      Thank you for listening and responding. It is a great blessing.

  • Posted December 10, 2012 6:38 pm
    by Jonathon Stammen

    Thanks Bro Gardner! Your material has been a huge blessing to us as a young missionary family to Honduras I truly believe without your guidance and the help of the Lord we could not have made it this far on our deputation. Thanks for your spiritual investment in my life and the lives of a ton of missionaries!

    • Posted December 10, 2012 6:44 pm
      by wagardner

      Thank you so much for listening. Thanks for thinking through these things! God bless you!

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  • Posted January 11, 2013 8:42 am
    by David Gross

    Dear Bro. Gardner,

    Thanks for taking the time to put these podcasts out there. On the field, we as missionaries need to be challenged and continue to grow and learn.

    I appreciated your podcast in this area of building that connection with the people through their culture and shedding the Americanism. I feel that one of the greatest struggles is finding the balance of what “conveniences” are needed in order for us to have time for the Lord’s work and what are extravagances that would hinder the work.

    For example, we struggled over the idea of getting a dryer in our country of service. Few people have them here. For a year and a half, we went through life without one. Most people here only have one or two children. Though for us, with three small children, two trying to potty-train and the clothes taking 1 to 2 weeks to dry outside during the rainy season and during the winter, our children at times had to sleep on the plastic mattress protector. Our home church wanted to do something special for us and gave us money for a dryer for one Christmas. It has been a huge blessing to my wife during those cold/wet times of the year. At the same time, though, we have found that we have to be very careful in what we buy or own as to not create a stumbling block as we seek to minister to others. I have seen how what a missionary has can be a hindrance to the work. May God give us discernment.

    Thanks again, and I look forward to listening to the further podcasts.

    May He find us faithful.

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