The relationship between the local church in the West and the missionary sent to a far-off land has always been unique. In one respect, the roles in this relationship may soon be reversed.
In some cases, the local church has revered missionaries and almost idolized them. When visiting their home country, they are honoured as they regale the congregation with tales of life in exotic far flung lands.
In other cases, the local church has felt awkward around missionaries and almost ignored them. When they visit they have a token opportunity to “show their slides” and they sometimes feel like fish out of water – trying to communicate in a culture that is no longer their own.
Whether the missionaries are somewhat celebrated or generally forgotten, they will speak to one another of the cultural awkwardness they feel when they return to their sending country. They arrive and hear passing questions like, “is it nice to be home?” But often missionaries feel far from home and uncertain of how to fit into the culture that has moved on from the one they left years ago.
In contrast, the local church in the West has typically felt very much at home. It has always been the missionary’s context that has seemed strange and hard to comprehend. The church in the West might wonder about the missionary: How do you live in a culture dominated by that strange and zealous religion? How do you communicate to people who see the world completely differently? How can the church exist and grow in a culture that considers Christians to be a danger and a threat to society?
Times are Changing!
In recent years, western cultures have been experiencing significant changes. The shift feels very rapid. Years of preparatory work in education, the media, and entertainment culture are now bearing fruit as a much more activist-driven cultural upheaval is quickly turning everything upside-down (or right-side up, depending on your perspective!). This is no superficial shift. The very foundations of Western society are being replaced so that we now face a totally different worldview and a whole new morality. Our culture is radically different than it was even at the turn of the century. Truths everybody knew until a few minutes ago are now dogmatically dismissed and everyone is increasingly required to agree with the new truths. No debate is permitted.
Times have changed and now the home church does not feel like it is at home. Increasingly, it feels like our culture is strange and hard to comprehend. In the next few years we will be asking ourselves, how are we supposed to live in a culture dominated by another ideology that feels almost religious and fundamentalist in its zeal? How can we communicate with people who are conditioned by their education and media to see the world very differently than we do? How can our church exist and grow in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic to its very existence and considers the church to be dangerous and a threat to the safety and unity of society?
Maybe if we are not already asking ourselves these questions, we will be asking them soon. Perhaps we should think about asking our missionaries how they would answer them. Their experience of life and ministry in some foreign countries may become more relevant to life in “the West” than it would have been forty, or even ten, years ago.
In the past, we may have asked the missionary about the dominant religion in their mission field because we saw families with that same religion moving in locally. This is still true. But maybe there is much more we can learn from them now that our culture is moving so far away from its Judeo-Christian roots and worldview. Our culture will increasingly feel like the ideologically dominated cultures we used to think of as foreign mission fields. Maybe we should be asking the missionaries how we can effectively reach people here.