Thursday, November 30, 2006

Being American and a Missionary at the Same Time

A few days ago, Spanish Minister of Interior, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, presented a study carried out by sociology professor José Juan Toharia on the attitudes of Muslim immigrants living in Spain. According to Rubalcaba’s evaluation of the study, the "Islamic community in Spain is tolerant, liberal, and westernized. It is well integrated and practices an open form of Islam." He also pointed out that Muslims in Spain have practically the same attitude as Spaniards in general related to the important issues of our day, and an even higher degree of trust in various institutions in society than other Spaniards.

The one thing that really stands out to me, as an evangelical missionary, and American citizen, living in Spain, is what this study has to say about anti-americanism, both among Muslims and other Spaniards in Spain. When asked "To what degree do each of the following people or institutions seem trustworthy to you?," the answers of the Muslim immigrants were as follows (on a scale of 1 to 10):

The Spanish King 7.2
Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) 6.8
The Spanish Parliament 6.5
Judges 6.2
The Police 6.2

The United States 2.4

The study also added that the attitude of Muslim immigrants towards the United States is essentially the same as the rest of Spaniards.

Having lived in Spain for the last 16 years, none of this really surprises me. But reading in print the results of this study and the comments of someone of such stature as the Minister of Interior, lead me to make several observations. I believe that as American Christians, trying to impact the world with the Gospel of Jesus, we cannot "stick our heads in the sand" as if this reality did not exist. Perhaps there are some areas of the world where, as Americans, we still have an open door, relatively speaking, to influence others with our ideas. But, at least in the areas of the world with which I am more familiar, this appears to be less and less the case.

How should we respond to this reality? I would offer several suggestions:

1. If we really take seriously the core value of making disciples among all nations, we cannot afford to "put all of our eggs in the basket" of our personal witness as American missionaries and American volunteer teams. Even though we, as individuals, do our best to overcome negative stereotypes, there are still significant barriers that our national identity puts in the way of many in regards to their open and objective consideration of the message we hope to proclaim. Because of this, I believe we need to seriously look for more and more ways to support the witness of believers of other backgrounds (both nationals and other foreigners), who do not carry with them so much negative cultural baggage, and content ourselves with having a more "behind the scenes" testimony and presence.

2. At the same time, we should not shirk our responsibility, as Christ’s disciples, to put the "talents" with which He has entrusted us to the best use possible towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission. If we are going to support others in their evangelistic efforts, we must first show them how. We must be faithful at setting a good example, in spite of the difficulties involved, as well as develop quality relationships of trust and camaraderie with those who will eventually "take the baton" from us. We should do this, however, to the best of our ability, in a way that minimizes as much as possible the potential "stumbling-block" of our national origin.

I am not suggesting being ashamed of who we are, or being unnaturally self-deprecatory. This, at times, requires a delicate balance. What we should not assume, however, is an attitude that communicates that others should pay attention to what we have to say, just because we are Americans. In the past, in some places in the world, we have used our American-ness as a "calling card," which has met with varying degrees of success. More and more, however, I sense that this approach, at least in the areas of the world with which I am familiar, is likely to "fall flat on its face."

In spite of all this, though, around the world, "people are still people." Most, in spite of the cultural prejudices they may harbor, still respond positively to sincere friendship and a humble, servant attitude that seeks to love them for who they are. We must give our best effort to do just this, while at the same time avoiding everything that might only serve to confirm their stereotypes of the "ugly American."

3. Believers and churches in the States should be more aware of the difficult situation in which this reality places the missionaries they send out around the world. Trying to communicate to love of Christ in such a setting can be a serious blow to your sense of self-esteem, if it is not firmly grounded in who you are in Christ alone, and not who you are as an American. Those who support missions back at home should also be aware of how political issues in the States can, at times, make the burden that the missionaries they send out have to bear, even heavier. Without compromising on our God-given responsibility to be salt and light in our society, and maintain a prophetic voice in the face of evil and injustice, we should be sensitive as to how our public image affects not only our witness on the home front, but also, more and more, on the international mission field, as well.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Because of this, I believe we need to seriously look for more and more ways to support the witness of believers of other backgrounds (both nationals and other foreigners), who do not carry with them so much negative cultural baggage, and content ourselves with having a more "behind the scenes" testimony and presence"

Yes, I agree. The difficulty is determining how we go about "supporting" these other believers. Do we just send money to indigenous ministries and stay out of their way? Do we try to partner in ministry with other GCC groups even though the scope of our partnerships may exceed the partnership guidelines of the IMB? Do we focus our efforts solely on leadership training of nationals?

You probably have many other options in mind, and many more than I can think of, but as an IMB worker I see the tightening interpretation of the Baptist/baptistic question as one that will greatly hamper us being involved in "supporting" national and "other-background" ministries. Let alone the Baptist pride that says we've got to do it our way ... regardless that there are 3 other agencies and 2 national groups already working in that area... we need to get somebody in there. Supporting the witness of people from other backgrounds means that we must accept them with their own cultural, denominational, and theological baggage. And it seems that currently, at least among IMB circles, this is unacceptable and maybe even heretical.

"At the same time, we should not shirk our responsibility, as Christ’s disciples, to put the "talents" with which He has entrusted us to the best use possible towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission."

Again, I agree. The problem is one of calling. In EA, where I serve, many workers are sent out. And they end up not being out for very long because they lack a calling to be there. This is the problem with only sending money to indigenous ministries - what about others that are called to go to those places? If a person is called by God to go and work in a particular place - even if they are an American - then that is where they need to go. Not that they will necessarily have a successful ministry there, but out of obedience.

It irks me to know end to hear that so-and-so can do the job much better than we ever can... usually in regards to a national worker in comparison to an American worker. It is not either/or, but both/and. And the purpose is not to get the job done to a particular degree, but to glorify God in our service and obedience. I think I hear you saying the same thing in your post - that even as we continue to go into the world as Americans, that we must recognize the limitations and baggage that we carry, and therefore be even more ready to support others.

"Most, in spite of the cultural prejudices they may harbor, still respond positively to sincere friendship and a humble, servant attitude that seeks to love them for who they are."

This is very true.

IAMANM

Bart Barber said...

By "The United States" I assume the poll means "The United States Government."

Hmmm...Run the same poll in the United States and see how much the average American trusts the United States Government. I'm guessing that the government might fare worse here than there!

Yet people here seem to be able to separate their feelings toward the government and their feelings toward individual Americans, many of whom they may trust implicitly. My international experience is not nearly as extensive as yours, but it seems to me that the "furriners" (I am from Arkansas, after all) I have met seem to me to be at least astute enough to make this distinction.

Is it your experience that people in Spain attack to David Rogers everything that our government does?

Bart Barber said...

"attach" rather than "attack"

Sorry.

Debbie said...

David and anonymous both raise good points and if they don't attach what our government does to David Rogers, my fear is that eventually they will. I agree with what anonymous has said and think we need to begin this now.

Todd Nelson said...

David, I agree that we American Christians must continue to transform our mindset about missions and rethink our on-going role in many places. While responding to God's call on our own lives, we must recognize and promote the training and sending of missionaries from other nations to do what we are not as welcome to do anymore in certain places.

Thank God for the Koreans, Brazilians, Chinese, and Indians and many others who are taking up the cause of cross-cultural missions and church planting.

Bart, here in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation, you might be surprised at the naive and hostile way that some Malaysians (esp. Malays) associate American citizens with US gov't policies and actions. During some tense times here, some of us have joked about wearing a maple leaf T-shirt or lapel pin and pretending to be Canadians instead of Americans -- to avoid unpleasant encounters with nationals.

As I've heard it pointed out, in a democracy, you get whatever gov't you deserve, 'cause it was elected by the people.

And then there is the "ugly American" stereotype that we have to counteract with our own humility and genuine caring. The stereotype has very little to do with the US gov't, except that our current president is often seen as exactly that kind of American.

We could wish for more educated and astute citizens of the world who can view Americans differently from the way they view our gov't, but my international experience tells me not to expect too much too soon in that regard. Meanwhile, the work of missions must go on. And the more nations involved, the better.

Todd

Strider said...

I certainly agree with what David has posted. Thanks, friend. But there is a positive side to this. First, humility is a good thing and living in a muslim country I get a good dose of that each day. As a result of this issue every American here I know is working hard to present a pure gospel and take as much of our culture out of it as possible. The Koreans, Chinese, and others do not do this. Many say things like, 'We Korean's NEVER have culture shock'. This is mostly because many of them do not realize they are in another culture. I have a Korean/American friend who considers the best part of his ministry to train Korean's to be aware of culture and be sensitive. So, being an American lowers our status in society? Yes. But that might be the one of the most important things the King uses to make us effective. It reminds us of our true citizenship which is no longer in the USA.

David Rogers said...

Anonymous,

I believe we need to be more creative in how we help "indigenous" ministries, not just "sending money" and "staying out of the way," but rather engaging in "strategic alliances" where each one comes to the table with the gifts and abilities the Lord has given them, and does their best to be responsible in their use of them. A good "strategic alliance" means everything but just "staying out of the way"; it means opening up our hearts and truly getting to know our partners, and being open and honest with each other.

Regarding other GCCs, there are some with whom we will be more compatible than others. I do think we need to be open-minded about this, and not let our denominational prejudices or pride get in the way, but that does not mean that we quit being discerning.

Regarding calling, I agree that God is sovereign, and calls each one to go where He pleases. However, I also believe He communicates that calling to us as much through the left side of the brain as the right side. Sometimes, cold, hard statistics, and good old-fashioned common sense come into play, alongside of more "mystical" or "intuitive" perceptions of God's direction, in helping us to understand His perfect will for our lives.

Also, I agree it is not either/or, but both/and. We must all be obedient in proclaiming the Gospel and making disciples among all nations. However, from a strategic point of view, I believe it is good to keep in mind that sometimes national and ethnic origin does influence potential effectiveness on the field.

David Rogers said...

Bart,

As I understand it, the poll simply listed "The United States" as an option within a list of other things. That may well be interpreted by many as referring to the government. I think it is curious, however, that, among the Muslims, Spanish government entities fared so much higher than "The United States," and that the Interior Minister says that their attitudes basically mirror those of Spaniards in general. I will concede, however, that the party the Interior Minister represents is no friend to the US (at least not, in comparison to the opposition), and that he probably does have somewhat of an axe to grind in publicizing this study. But, then again, his party is in the driver's seat in Spain right now, because they won the majority vote in a democratic election, indicating that their views reflect, to a large degree, those of the Spanish public, at large.

And, yes, I would agree that many people do distinguish between American government, and Americans as individuals. That was my point, when I said "people are still people." The fact remains, however, that in much of today's world, we as Americans have more barriers to overcome in gaining the trust of the people to whom we would want to bear witness than we did several years ago. In general, I would say that, in many cases, we start out with "two strikes against us." But, after that, it does depend on us ourselves, a lot of times whether we end up "striking out" or not. My experience in Spain has been that if, in addition to being American, you as an individual come across as supporting such things as the Iraq War, capital punishment, limited gun control, etc., your credibility as a "moral change agent" is pretty severely hampered.

9:08 AM

David Rogers said...

Debbie,

Thanks for the support (and your support for missions and missionaries in general that comes across in other comments and your own blog).

Todd and Strider,

Excellent observations! I am proud to have you as companions in the task of fulfilling the Great Commission.

Bryan Riley said...

it strikes me that the greatest witness we could have is showing transformed lives. When people see that we are more like Christ than we are like the culture in which we were raised, they will notice. This isn't a practiced or intellectual pursuit, however, it is something that must be done through the prescripture of Romans 12, for example, and is necessarily a work of the Spirit, not of ourselves.

Bart Barber said...

David,

Thanks for a good conversation, as always.

Bart Barber said...

David,

Mentioned you in my blog.

Bart

Grosey's Messages said...

David, I don't feel qualified to comment being an aussie, but will anyway. :) stoopidity is not my only fault, but its a major one. Thank you for letting me contribute to your blog.
In short, if you guys are not out in the field, the only impression of the USA people will have is that portrayed in the media.
I was completely surprised to discover a few years ago (my family and I were minding a house in Oklahoma for a few months) that not every one in the USA is from Southern California (with the morals of an alley cat) or NYC, and some of you are actually friendly! Some are even godly! And the sewer tv shows that we see here on tv you guys get a censored version of in your own country! AMAZING!
Sadly your media industry is actually your worstestest advertising (oh, and some empiricist tourists!).
Here in Australia we have a more difficult problem. Several close friends of mine are missionaries and mission recruiters for AIM, NTM, SIM, Sowers, Gospel Recordings, SIL / Wycliffe, WEC. In fact we have contributed missionaries from each church I have pastored to these organisations.
Australia has less than 1% evangelical! I struggle because the Lord has called out from every church I pastor my best people for the mission field. Each of my churches has been barely able to sustain the financial support of the senior pastor (I currently do 2 or 3 "celebrant funerals" a week to support our church's missions budget. Without this money going in we, as a church, would go out the back door). We currently support a family in Russia and one in New Briain in New Guinea, both members discipled in our church.
Now, after sitting down with a few key leaders of each of those above mentioned missions, they tell me they value our missionaries "because they are resilient and determined".
A close friend (Wycliffe State Director) and I discussed this for hours one afternoon. We came to the conclusion that, well the Lord has called them out, they are doing a wonderful job, we better be happy about what God has Sovereignly designed for these folk in ministry.
Could nationals do it better? I agree with anonymous... the partnership is necessary for the work to be done according to God's sovereign will.
Anonymous... I have tried to email you about 8 times last week.. check my blog Oct 27. Might have to maintain contact there.
Steve

canawedding said...

Jn 15:19. "If ye were of the world, the world would love its own. But because ye are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you." [Does the "world" hate you?]

Ro 2:28. For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh.
29. But he is a Jew, who is one inwardly and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit not in the letter, whose praise is not of men but of God. [Whose praise do you seek? It cannot be from both God and men!]

Gal 1:10. For am I now seeking the favor of men or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ!

Haven't you ever read such Scriptures? Who have you been trying to please?

In Mt 6:31-33, Jesus Christ commanded all of us to seek first God's Kingdom and God's Righteousness. The other NT writers often expounded this very critical command, especially Paul in Romans and Galatians. Read his summary in Ro 1:16-21. What did you find? Unless you find and then believe, repent and obey, you will never be able to teach anyone how to be saved because you aren't saved yourself. Are you familiar with God's warnings against false teachers?

Replies welcome to canawedding at aol dot com

Jonathan said...

I've noticed this same attitued elsewhere in the world. It's not just directed toward the US government. They simply don't trust Americans. That includes all North Americans, although I think being informed that a person is actually from Canada might make the prejudice a little less extreme.