I have a lot of conversations with church leaders in radically different places. Each one seems to think their context is the hardest to minister in. Some places are stuck in religious tradition, some are ridden with the occult, some are wealthy, some wear crime on their sleeve, some have a struggling economy and some have a constant influx of liberal thought. Everyone seems to want to wear the “Hardest Context” badge.
When people began to list their reasons for their context being the hardest it used to annoy me. Now I believe them ‒ all of them. What’s the hardest context to be a missionary in? The one you are in. Here are three reasons why.
- We have skewed vision when we look at a place from the outside. When we are outsiders things are not as they appear. A vacation perspective on a new place gives us new ideas and fresh eyes, but we don’t take into account the history and hidden challenges of that context.
- When we’ve lived in one place long enough we will identify the idols that those around us are bowing the knee to. The focus of peoples’ affections in different areas varies. Within one city there are a plethora of subcultures espousing worship to little gods that block worship of the True God. Every missionary needs to identify the idols in their own context and confront them, even assault them, with the Gospel. This is ALWAYS hard work.
- The longer we are in a place the more normal its rhythms seem. The customs that once seemed strange to us are now part of us. In fact, the very idols we identified and spoke out against at one time can become our own barriers. Foreign missionaries often experience the shift toward familiarity from year-one to year-five. While one task of missionaries is to become familiar with our context, this can also lull us to sleep and breed lukewarmness.
One of the most dangerous products of these three areas is cynicism. I feel it in myself when I meet with a wide-eyed church planter who just came to town with another massive vision. It’s easy to spot naiveté, and try to give them “a dose of reality.” That dose of reality feels strangely like the cold shoulder. Resist the urge. Listen to them instead, pray for them and try to figure out how you can partner with them. We can start to believe that we live in the only hard place to plant the Gospel and that moving to another place would have been much easier.
Let’s not forget that the Kingdom of God is not countercultural to one culture; it’s countercultural to the kingdom of this world. As long as we are on this earth we live in the most countercultural place to plant the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s right ‒ all of us.