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Words Mean Things: A Warning for Missionaries

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As a training center, Radius International has been preparing missionaries for six years now and has hosted numerous missions’ speakers and agencies. Each has contributed to our students’ knowledge base. Having a healthy stream of visiting presenters in front of our students, coupled with our students’ required reading of a wide variety of books and articles with current missiological views, is critical as they enter the world of cross-cultural church planting today.

Some students speak of their time here at Radius as akin to having a four-inch hose put into their mouths. Some ideas are startling to read about, and it doesn’t take very long for students to see that undefined, or loosely defined, words and acronyms can be common in the missions’ world. Some of the more common words and terms that survive on vagueness are:

  •      Local church
  •      Western (used in the pejorative sense)
  •      Language and cultural fluency (What is fluency and the process to attain it?)
  •      Evangelism vs. Discipleship
  •      Church Planting (the process)
  •      Conversion vs. moving towards Jesus
  •      Unreached People Group/Diaspora
  •      Christ-Follower vs. Seeker
  •      Candidate School/Orientation as training

Let’s consider several of these terms and concepts in order to see how crucial it is that we define them rightly.

Local Church

Recently a presenter was asked by a student, “Does your organization have a definition of a church?” The reply was “Well, we let every team decide that on their own. And in some countries land for building a church is very expensive.”

Vagueness, or actual confusion, regarding the term ‘church’ continues to be the norm. Even by those calling themselves ‘Church Planters.’ Using words like ‘simple church’ or ‘house church’ can help to address some questions about an emphasis on buildings, stained glass windows, pipe organs, and pews . . . and to that degree these words are helpful.  But even those terms don’t tell us how those groups function as a body of Christ-followers. This leads one to ask, “Can spiritual newborns be brought to maturity within such a church? Can this group be left on its own and their survival be expected?”

In a cross-cultural context, the biblical norms the Apostle Paul lays out can’t be set aside or merely assumed without undermining the long-term health of such a church. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul lays out specific offices and giftings within the church. (The Universal Church is in view here, but some of those offices are seen to be within local churches, too.) Paul also lays out qualifications for elders and deacons in I Timothy 3:1–13. Then, in I Corinthians, ordinances of baptism and communion are seen as normal practices (1:13–17; 11:17–34; 12:13). To say “These are Western impositions on Christ followers,” leaves all of Scripture open to being similarly set aside if the reader decides to call its mandates “Western.”

Language and Cultural Fluency

Language and cultural fluency are other commonly endorsed words within missiology. Who would not ascribe to that? But fluency is something that goes undefined and too often set aside. The link between language fluency and gospel clarity is rarely spoken of. The standard concern of any teacher––“It’s not what I think I’m saying but what the listener hears that determines learning”––is replaced a kind of spiritualism that says, “God will straighten it out; He is doing miraculous things today.” There is a surprising amount of gospel workers who are speaking with little skill in the local language, using memorized phrases or stories, and then hoping that God will decode their words and turn them into a clear gospel message.

Culture and Language Aquisition (CLA) is a long and hard-fought battle, yet there is no alternative. In Scripture, God’s ambassadors and vehicles of communication are always speaking at a very clear, natural level of speech (fluent). That is all that we see. All of God’s messengers could speak with clarity. Even the burning bush on top of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 3:4–22) was able to have an intelligent conversation with Moses. (Yes, this was God Himself speaking to Moses but, the point is, when God uses any vessel, clear communication isn’t sacrificed.) When God used a donkey (Numbers 22:28–30), the donkey was not braying but speaking words that Balaam could clearly understand!

Hiding behind ‘God is doing miracles’ is quite short-sighted in many regards. That is not a strategy. Praise God that He is doing signs, miracles and wonders today . . . as He has always done. But that doesn’t lessen the mandate on us to make the gospel clear through our spoken words.

Evangelism and Discipleship

Historic norms of ‘evangelize the unsaved and disciple those who embrace the gospel of Christ’ are now confused. It is true that, in most situations, to evangelize without relationship can be limited in its benefit. But the answer isn’t to invite the unsaved to ‘belong to the church’ before they embrace the gospel. Such responses result in the non-believer not understanding his lostness before God. Syncretism (the mixing of Christianity with another religion) is still the most prevalent religion on the planet, and missionaries inviting non-believers to teach the Scriptures or join churches under the misguided new idea of ‘discipling non-believers’ only ensures that such syncretism will gain more adherents.

Conversion

Another word that has become vague is “conversion” (I Thess. 1:9), with some seeing conversion as an outdated concept. Certainly, the process that precedes conversion can take months or years, and, once again, it is critical that building relationships is taken seriously by those who would be pioneer church planters. Our six years among the Iteri people becoming fluent, learning their language and culture all before we could make the gospel clear to them, was critical. Those folks needed to know we loved them and that was achieved through time.

Process is important, but it is not a substitute for bringing folks to a point in time when their lostness before the God of heaven is understood. At that point, bringing them to understand and embrace the unique sufficiency of Christ to atone for their sin completes biblical conversion. And in that conversion, the movement from darkness to light, damned to redeemed, death to life happens. The scriptures are full of those concepts (Rom 6:13; Eph 5:8; Col 1:13, I Pet. 2:9). That point in time of conversion is real, even if not all of God’s people can put it on a calendar.

In the missions’ enterprise today, there are great sacrifices being made by many overseas workers. But confusion over the ideas mentioned above regarding the definition of a church, culture, language, conversion, and other areas, can oftentimes make such sacrifices, while meaningful to the Lord, of little benefit for the propagation of the gospel.

Brad Buser is the co-founder of Radius International. He and his wife spent twenty-three years church planting among the Iteri people. He teaches Church-Planting, Intro to Bible Translation, and Theology of Suffering at Radius.
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