When I became president of a global missions organization five years ago, I admittedly suffered from a bit of what is known these days as imposter syndrome.
Having served on the mission board’s finance committee, I understood the logistical side of making a ministry run. But my overseas experience was more modest. Who was I, an ordinary pastor from the Midwest, to lead an organization of missionaries doing things I’d never done?
To compensate, I read loads of missiological material—some of it helpful, but much of it not. A common theme was the pursuit of effective contextualization. Overall, the mainstream missions community has by now discarded anything resembling the at-times culturally imperialist ways of bygone movements. Yet I rarely found in these discussions an awareness of the riches of the church’s theological heritage—only a suspicion of anything “Western.”
Many of the viewpoints I read seemed disconnected from the way I understood contextualization as a pastor doing ministry each week. Did I really need to rethink and contextualize everything about the gospel to “decolonize” and communicate it cross-culturally? I wanted something more solid but felt as though I might not have what it takes to enter this complex and convoluted new world.
Maybe you have had similar experiences, whether you’re a pastor engaging in short-term missions or making long-term decisions about the missions personnel and programs your congregation supports. If this describes you, there is good news. What I had not yet realized was that I had a special “missions” tool in my standard-issue pastoral toolbox all along.
A False Assumption
But before I could appreciate this hidden resource, I had to address one of my own assumptions. That assumption was that what I did as a pastor was fundamentally different from the work of a missionary. Missionaries, after all, attend specialized trainings in addition to Bible college or seminary. They learn language, culture, and the customs of their field. Their ministry oftentimes has no foundation to build upon other than their own attempts to establish common ground with locals, and even the most faithful missionaries may never see their labor result in the kind of established church many pastors take for granted.
The more one considers the differences between pastoral ministry and cross-cultural missions, the more one realizes that they are differences of degree, not kind. They are incidental differences, not essential differences. Both ministries are gospel work, which is to say that they are ministries of the Word. Both tasks are direct consequences of the command to make disciples, baptize, and teach what Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:19). Both demand faithfulness to the full counsel of God’s Word (Acts 20:27). Both involve spending and being spent for souls (2 Corinthians 12:15). And both activities are discharged to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).
But are both forms of ministry cross-cultural?
The Open Secret of Exposition
It may surprise you to learn that, if you are a pastor, or are handling the Word regularly in public in some capacity, you are already doing cross-cultural work every week—regardless of how diverse or homogenous your church may be. This is because, each time a man of God opens Scripture, he is transported not only to a different culture but to a different world. Exegesis always involves carrying the biblical author’s ideas across the cultural and linguistic barriers of time and distance, and exposition necessarily entails bringing spiritual realities into a new context.
As I think back to my preparation for ministry, few men impacted me more deeply than Haddon W. Robinson in his Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (1980). In one of many quotable lines from this memorable volume, Robinson touches on the contextualizing work involved in biblical exposition:
“‘Be clear! Be clear! Be clear!’ Clarity does not come easily. When we train to be expositors, we probably spend three or four years in seminary. While that training prepares us to be theologians, it sometimes gets in our way as communicators. Theological jargon, abstract thinking, or scholars’ questions become part of the intellectual baggage that hinders preachers from speaking clearly to ordinary men and women.”
In other words, the deck is stacked against expositors seeking to bridge the biblical cultural divide. Yet faithful pastors press through for gospel clarity, mining the biblical context for gems to bring before their people. Missionaries likewise plunge the biblical depths, taking the process a step further as they surface its riches not for their native locale, but for yet another context.
Once I realized I could draw upon my exegetical toolkit in my approach to missions, the way I engaged missions as a pastor underwent a revolution, and a host of practical applications came into focus.
Trust the Process
Sound hermeneutical method gives due time and attention to careful reading, observation, linguistic and grammatical study, and redemptive-historical reflection. Each of these steps too, it turns out, have bearing on the missionary task.
- Study. Just as we as pastors humbly study each text’s cultural background, exploring customs and languages from ancient Israel to imperial Rome, so too must we humbly exegete our own culture or the cultures our sent workers intend to reach. (Consider Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Acts 17 the prime example of such cultural exegesis.)
- Respect. Just as pastors must handle inspired Scripture with care, respecting its context rather than engaging in eisegesis, so too must we respect the cultures into which we enter and refuse to cunningly tamper with the message (2 Corinthians 4:2). Many popular cross-cultural evangelistic methods amount to clever bait-and-switch tactics (consider the “Camel Method” sometimes used in the Islamic world), but the faithful ambassador shuns these tactics.
- Focus. Just as pastors must whittle down weeks of study into a succinct, easily grasped product, so too must we contextualize in such a way as to tighten the focus of our gospel speaking. What is essential to communicate? What information should be foregrounded and what information should be backgrounded? What doctrines are “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3), and what biblical data exist mainly to add color?
- Apply. Just as pastors cannot merely regurgitate historical background facts to their congregations but must use contextual information in making relevant application, so too must we apply our knowledge of a culture in the interest of making the gospel more readily understood. The goal of application is not to avoid the offense of the gospel, but is, if anything, to increase it. (The goal of contextualized ministry itself, by analogy, is indigenization—which only happens when the application of biblical truth takes root and grows organically among a national body of believers.)
Lifetimes of faithful Bible teaching are built on practicing each of these interrelated steps, in and out of sequence—which leads to a point of warning.
Perhaps, as you read this article, you are still feeling inadequate. Take heart: faithful pastors and missionaries achieve greatness not because of anything they bring to the biblical text but because of what it brings to them and their hearers.
For many of us, the feeling of inadequacy, or missions imposter syndrome I described in the introduction, is a false humility that fails to recognize God’s provision for his ministers. We already have what we need in Scripture for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). It is true that none of us are sufficient for the task (2 Corinthians 2:16). But “our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant” (3:5-6). God has already equipped you as a teacher of his Word to help disciple all the nations, carrying his unchanging truths from one culture to another. Do not bury your talent.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Focus on the Family on February 8, 2023. Used with permission.