Too many years ago to count, my husband and I took off on the adventure of our lives. Newly married graduates, we drove across the country, toting two fifty-gallon oil drums crammed full of everything we thought we might need for the next two years. Our immediate destination was Brooklyn, New York, where we boarded a freighter headed to Capetown, South Africa. From there we drove 1,500 miles north to our new home just outside the small town of Choma, Zambia.
We lived well in that home, enjoying a government-built, three-bedroom house with frequent electricity and an indoor bathroom. It was located two miles from town on a boarding-school campus run by a mission agency affiliated with the church we attended at that time.
I look at the pictures from those long-ago days and see, beyond our extreme youth—twenty-one and twenty-four—the wonderful buoyancy of excitement and optimism that carried us as we left behind everyone and everything we knew for those two years of missionary service. Imagine it—a brand-new life! A brand-new country! New friends! New foods! New work to do!
And it was good. Very good. Most of the time.
Within our first week, we learned that being a missionary there often meant taking a harsh and judgmental stance toward the traditions of the people among whom we had come to live and work. We also saw that more than a few Western traditions and beliefs having little to do with the gospel were being pasted on top of a culture that didn’t need or want them.
Too often, the beautiful, simple, and life-changing message of God’s inviting love got buried beneath a long list of dos and don’ts. The most obvious included no jewelry, no dancing, no drinking, no card playing, no swearing. But some of it was more subtle, and far more damaging to the truth of the good news and the souls of those kids. Perhaps we saw it most clearly in our semi-annual “revival” meetings. No matter who the guest preacher might be, there was always an invitation to stand up and publicly follow after Jesus at the end of each session.
Too often, the beautiful, simple, and life-changing message of God’s inviting love got buried beneath a long list of dos and don’ts.
We watched as the teachers kept track of who went forward and who did not. Some students got up every single time, and those were the ones to whom the most attention was paid, both in the classroom and at extracurricular activities.
And the students knew it.
Please hear me—there were no bad intentions here. The people we worked with were dear and loving disciples of Christ, following tried-and-true practices from Pennsylvania or Indiana.
Over the decades since that time, this particular denomination has made big changes in their approach to international missions. And when we joined the Covenant after our return home, we discovered in our new church home a more culturally sensitive approach to missions.
To this day, we know that those who work under the auspices of the ECC seek to keep the gospel fresh and culturally appropriate, always coupling our preaching of the word with the doing of it. We trust that the winsomeness of Jesus will translate well in any setting, as long as we are sensitive enough to tell and live the gospel in ways that honor and respect the culture in which we are working.
Following in the way of Jesus means being intentional about making all things new, and that means not only a willingness but a desire to open ourselves to learn from the people among whom we work. Through God’s grace, everyone—missionary and convert alike—becomes a new creation, reflecting the myriad colors and textures of the gospel good news.