With such a checkered history why should I get involved in overseas work?

I am going to take a bit of a detour here from my previous posts. Some people think that overseas work has been overly tarnished by colonialism. I was recently in a meeting when I was asked: “Why should our friend get involved overseas when the history of working overseas is replete with so many mistakes?”

This objection is a common one. In the view of many people overseas workers in the past were religious imperialists. With such a view of the work it is only natural to ask why anyone should get involved. Why get involved in a global movement that is so fundamentally flawed?

It is without a doubt that God’s global enterprise has always faced challenges. The reason is that God chose to partner with his people as he strives to reconcile the world to himself. Though this choice demonstrated consistency, as he previously chose to work through the children of Israel, this choice limited him to working through imperfect people.

We, the church, may be well intentioned, but we make mistakes. Even though God is with us, we are limited in our understanding. The beauty of this is God was well aware of what his choice entailed. He was apparently willing to make the adjustments along the way to accommodate and affirm those who love him and those he loves.

Nonetheless, we are limited in our understanding as we partner with God in his mission to the world. This is nothing new. The first apostles faced limitations in their understanding.

Jesus told them in Acts 1:8 that they were to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Acts shows us that the apostles and the church were slow and at times even reluctant to cross ethnic, social, and religious boundaries in order to obey Jesus’ command. After Pentecost the apostles stayed in Jerusalem.

The events in Acts 1 through 7 happen in Jerusalem. It was not until the church in Jerusalem experienced widespread persecution that believers moved out and took the Word to the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1, 4). However, the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. They did not branch out of Jerusalem until the incident in Samaria, where the Holy Spirit did not descend upon those who believed (8:14-16). When Peter and John prayed and saw the Spirit descend upon the Samaritans, they changed their perspective. They took their time on the way back to Jerusalem and preached the Word to many of the Samaritan villages (8:25).

We see Peter’s reluctance to cross ethnic and religious boundaries when he is told to go to Cornelius’ house. He goes; but, after arriving he reminds the Gentiles that it was unlawful for Jews to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation (10:28). This was not a polite way to start out a relationship, but Peter apparently needed to express how he felt. He was crossing a significant boundary. It was so significant a boundary that others in the church objected (11:2-3). So, a meeting is held to mollify the objections to what Peter had done (11:1-18).

Though God had worked through Peter and encouraged the Jewish believers to cross this ethnic-religious boundary, we discover that this was difficult for them. This boundary separating Jews from the Gentiles around them was deeply embedded within Jewish consciousness. In 11:19 we read that “those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except the Jews.” The church, even though it had Jesus’ command in 1:8, found it difficult to cross this boundary.

Those who were able were not Jews who had grown up in Jerusalem. It was those who had grown up outside of Jerusalem and Judea, the Hellenistic Jews. Not surprisingly, Stephen and Phillip were Hellenistic Jews. 11:20 shows that it was the Hellenistic Jews who helped erode this boundary. We read that Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene, Hellenistic Jews, on coming to Antioch spoke the Word to the Hellenists (Greek: Helenistas). These Hellenists were likely Gentiles who were in some way associated with the Jewish community, possibly on their way to becoming proselytes.

In response to this move of God through the Hellenistic Jewish believers the apostles do not go themselves; they send Barnabas, another Hellenistic Jew. Barnabas was from Cyprus (see 4:36).

Old ways of thinking and acting are hard to stop. Even though God used Peter to open the door to the Gentiles for the gospel, and even after Peter had to leave Jerusalem and spent a good amount of time in Caesarea (12:19), Peter still got it wrong. When some men came to Antioch, sent by James, Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-12). How did those Gentiles feel?

From the start God’s mission has faced challenges; and it will always face challenges. The perspective of the apostles and early believers was limited and it was somewhat flawed. It took time for the apostles and early believers to understand what God was doing and adapt to it.  Some never could. We are no different. Our perspective is limited as well. We are much more global in outreach than the early church was; and the contexts in which we find ourselves engaged are ever changing and ever expanding. Just because many of us have made mistakes, we also have done many things well. It is because of our desire to do well and God’s desire that we learn from our mistakes and do our mission work better that we are continually compelled to reflect on what we do and how we do it. From this desire to do well a whole field of study called missiology has developed to help us reflect well.

Our past mistakes, current weaknesses and limitations should not be a source of discouragement. Though we are limited, we are never alone. Jesus is actively directing us from heaven. He gives us the Holy Spirit to guide us as we seek to faithfully represent him in our world. The Spirit uses the Word and our ever-changing contexts to shape our responses.

Though it would be nice to say that there is one way to do our overseas work well, we cannot. The contexts in which the church works are continually changing. So, there has not been nor will there ever be one way of doing the work. There will always be many ways. This is why it is best if we maintain a position of being humble learners, being willing to continually challenge our assumptions and the ways that we do our work. The apostles demonstrated this, and so should we.

I am just like those in the early church. I am not perfect. Even though Paul was not perfect either, he challenged fundamental assumptions and values that the earliest believers held. So, in like manner- yet without any of his authority- I will challenge some of our assumptions and some of the ways we think about and do mission.

My intent is not to criticize; it is to highlight one way of doing overseas work that has been largely ignored by believers in the US. This way of doing the work is well geared for secular, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist contexts. The way is called Integral Engagement.

I will begin by identifying a number of contemporary approaches to working overseas. This will be in the next post. These approaches have been shaped by people’s tendency to compartmentalize life. You may have read about this in earlier posts. Compartmentalization leads to a bifurcated way of viewing faith and life which hinders many in their walk with God. I will proceed to present Integral Engagement as an appropriate alternative to these other approaches in doing overseas work. Fundamental to integral engagement is understanding how God is at work in his world. You have also read about this in an earlier post. The benefit of integral engagement is that it encourages each person to integrate one’s faith into one’s life. Integral engagement inherently stands in opposition to the common tendency to compartmentalize life and divide it into sacred and profane spheres. Hope you enjoy reading the future posts.