Hi Lara, thank you for taking the time to dialogue with us. I was wondering if you could share with us some of the most difficult encounters you have had in your missions to the different countries and what you have found to be the best approaches to respond in these situations. At the same time, what are some of the experiences which have inspired you and spoken most to your heart to encourage as you continue in your leadership role in your church and ministry?
Thank you for your question! I have enjoyed the opportunity to think back over past few years and reflect on various trips I’ve been on.
I have been so grateful to God for the opportunity to meet people from different cultures, whether that be someone who has travelled from their country to mine, or someone I have met on my travels. Either way, these cross-cultural interactions have been among my most treasured experiences in life.
I wasn’t always able to enjoy different cultures. Despite being brought up in an actively anti-apartheid home, the cultural homogeneity of white South Africa during my childhood years meant that I really struggled to value and feel at home with cultural difference. However, through a variety of different experiences I have seen God do a miracle in my heart; changing me from someone who was out of place with difference, to someone who now craves the richness of a multicultural church family! I believe that enabling me to travel the world has been one of God’s greatest kindnesses to me as He has shown me more of who he is through allowing me to encounter so many different people groups.
One example was a missions trip that I went on to a very rural village in the northern part of Lesotho (a small land-locked country in the heart of South Africa). There wasn’t enough accommodation for the whole team, and so a local family had reached out and offered me accommodation for the night. It turned out that in this small hut 5 women shared one small double bed. I was invited to join them! To say that this was a new experience would be an understatement! And to top it off, once we were all piled in for the night one of the women made a suggestion (in Sesotho) which I soon found out was that we all have a little bit of chicken! (To keep the breakfast wolf from the door I suppose!) And soon enough we were all lying there in the dark (cuddled up very close) enjoying a few bites of a chicken drumstick! I remember thinking, ‘I never expected I’d ever spend a night like this!’. But as I lay there slightly amazed at where I had landed I reflected on how incredibly generous it was of these women to welcome me, a stranger, into their home; to share with me the little space that they had to sleep, and the little food that they had to eat, and do it with so many smiles and general expressions of welcome. This level of hospitality is unknown to my own culture and I was deeply moved. I remember feeling changed, feeling that I had glimpsed something new about God through these women. Incidentally I had a very good night’s sleep! While I might have viewed the accommodation mishap as a challenge initially, I now recall that very unexpected night with great fondness and gratitude. I was greatly enriched.
It is a bit of a strange example perhaps, but I share it because it sticks out as quite a profound experience of being ministered to by another culture
Other moments of real joy have been worshipping with hundreds of young Singaporean teenagers and seeing rows and rows of them weeping in response to the gospel. Being able to share with a room of disillusioned black South African women that the God of the bible is not a sexist, bigoted, dominating patriarchal person, and having them all break into spontaneous applause as I showed them from the bible how Jesus reveals God’s heart for women: his explicit valuing and esteeming of them as equally important to men. Watching hundreds of students across nine different university campuses in Uganda seem to respond with amazement when we spoke about the fact that we believe that faith in God does not need to be blind, but rather that the God of the bible welcomes our questions, struggles and even doubts; that it is not a sin to question and inquire! It has been such a joy to be part of these conversations, opening up the bible with people all over the world and seeing how relevant its message is, how it transcends culture and speaks timelessly to every human heart.
But my trips have not been without their struggles. I was reflecting on what I would say I have found hardest, and while each context has brought different and unique challenges, one thing comes to mind as a constant struggle. I have often felt the difficulty of my ‘blind spots’; mainly because (as the name suggests) I am blind to my own blind spots! I sometimes feel afraid that I am offending someone, making a massive cultural mistake, and that somehow I could seriously upset someone without knowing it. While I like to think that humility and friendliness cover over a multitude of cultural mistakes, I am aware that despite my efforts it’s possible that I have been careless, unfeeling, rude or disrespectful in a multitude of ways. Sometimes this has made me feel so anxious that I would rather stay safely in the culture that I understand. But recently I have been thinking how it seems that God’s ways always involve relational risk and vulnerability. He seems to always be sending his people to other people groups, encouraging them to face possible cultural mishaps and potential offences. I’ve wondered if perhaps he does this because it is in truly learning to love and appreciate ‘the other’ (and equally learning to open up and receive love as ‘the other’), that we understand what God’s trinitarian, incarnational love is like.
Two verses that have encouraged me in this are:
Ephesians 3:10 ‘His purpose was that now, through the church, the manifold (multi-faceted / multi-coloured) wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms…’
2 Corinthians 4:7 ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.’
Hi Lara, thanks for sharing your experiences. I had a big smile on my face trying to imagine what it was like to have 6 women in a double bed sharing a chicken drumstick before going to sleep. That’s a really unusual sleep-over! I grew up in multi-cultural Singapore (so happy to hear that Singaporean teenagers are being drawn to the Lord) and during those early years did not have any skills to speak to people from different races and religions. In the process, I kept my faith private, afraid of offending anyone or getting into a ‘lively’ discussion which I was bound to lose. I was very young then. I was wondering whether you could share on what topics/approaches have been successful in bringing the Gospel message across the cultures you have encountered. I know that there is no set formula but are there some things that are more appealing or successful?
Thank you for your response, it’s really lovely to have the chance to meet and interact on these important topics.
As you mentioned, I have definitely found it to be the case that each nation or city has its unique areas of openness to the gospel which provide a doorway / entry point. But similarly in each place there are particular beliefs, hopes, practices that are in opposition to the gospel, things which make it harder to share. Whenever I travel I try to ask God to show me both the doorways / entry points for the gospel, but also to help me to be aware of the particular barriers. I have noticed that the quicker I am to pick up on those things, the more effective I can be. I have regretted not being attentive enough in certain places in the past. Increasingly I try to read the news linked to the place I’m travelling to, talk to local people there and ask questions, pray and ask the Holy Spirit to help me to understand the people and culture etc. Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 is an example to me of how important (and effective) it is to really grapple with the cultural context of your audience and tailor your talk / interactions with people accordingly.
Having said that, in answer to your question about whether I have found any approaches to be useful generally, I one thing I will say is that I am often struck by how the simple idea that ‘the God of the Bible welcomes our questions’ is so revolutionary for so many people. Whether I have overtly said it, or simply shown it through my approach to sharing the gospel with someone, I have noticed that wherever I go people have found that to be unexpected, intriguing, and freeing. Perhaps it is because religion is so often associated with brain washing, manipulation or pressure.
One practical way of doing this is by asking people to fill out a worldview survey which RZIM frequently uses. I have found that people are often very interested to answer (anonymous) questions about their beliefs, and it is often a great entry-point to a conversation! While certain variations are needed in different cultures I have found that this approach works very well all over the world.
It might sound very obvious but another thing that has truly amazed me, wherever I have gone in the world, is how open people are to receiving prayer. I few months ago I offered to pray for someone who had never experienced prayer before. After I had finished praying, this person was just staring at me and told me that they had never experienced such peace and kept thanking me. Even if it is just a short, general prayer, I find people are often so thankful.
Thank you for the question. I would love to hear your own reflections on this.
I love the wisdom in your very practical advice. Being prepared is going to tell the audience that we are interested in them, that we have spent time trying to understand them. It’s listening to what really matters, tailoring our speech to meet their needs and interests, and showing that we care.
I’ve never told anyone that God loves it when we ask questions and I should start. I think that’s really cool - that God is interested in our questions and not offended by them. The other thing is prayer. A good friend of mine has this practice of praying as she leaves a conversation even if the other party does not want prayer. She would start by saying “I just want to bless you to…” and then proceeds to pray anyway. Personally, I have found that even the most hardened hearts will call me to pray when they hit a crisis. It looks like the human heart knows instinctively that there is help in prayer and would even seek out the Christian whom they had called ‘crazy’ before that.
It’s lovely chatting with you and I appreciate how practical you are in your approaches in missions across different nations.