Imagine you read this in a newsletter from a cross-cultural missionary:
We didn’t expect Hindu beliefs to be so strange. We were expecting the people to think more like us, and their differences are making us very uncomfortable, even angry.
We are especially worried about how Hindu beliefs are influencing us and our children. We don’t want to expose ourselves to these lies. We only let a few safe people, usually other missionaries, into our home. We want our children to have only good Christian influences in their lives.
Would you question whether these missionaries understood what they signed up for? Would you wonder if they are having any impact at all? This is not a true story, but there’s something to notice here: all Christians have been given the same Great Commission, yet sometimes we hold missionaries to a different standard than we hold ourselves. Can the missionary life illustrate God’s intention for all believers?
When a foreign country felt like home
I was a missionary kid in Africa for half of my childhood, and then my husband and I lived in Tanzania, East Africa, for 16 years. We adapted to driving on the left side of the road. We figured out how to combat millipedes and centipedes. We learned to snorkel; we knew where to buy the best roadside barbequed chicken; we hailed three-wheeled rickshaw taxis in Swahili. We formed tight bonds in the community. Life in Tanzania was not always easy, but we felt we belonged there. Visiting the States felt stressful; Tanzania felt like home.
In engaging a foreign culture, my job was to be a learner first.
Yet, no matter how much I wanted Tanzania to be my home, it never really could be. Tangible reminders of my status as a foreigner followed me everywhere. Every two years, I had to reapply for a residence permit. I was not permitted to own a home. I could not vote. No matter how hard I tried, I would never look the same, sound the same, think the same as the people around me. I was always an outsider.
Scripture often refers to Christians as strangers (Heb 11:13), foreigners (1 Pet 1:17) and exiles (1 Pet 2:11). Making my home in a foreign land gave me this perspective. It granted me a picture of what my life as a Christian should look like in my own home country.
Now that I’m living back in America, I discovered that living as a foreigner taught me much about living as a Christian.
What I learned as a foreigner
I was not entitled to freedom. Tanzania didn’t exist for my sake. If the government made decisions that violated my rights, I didn’t have the right to be angry. I would get sad at the injustice others were experiencing, but Tanzania didn’t owe me anything. When the authorities put unrealistic regulations on me, I got frustrated, but I recognized that putting up with it was part of the sacrifice of living there.
I was a political outsider. I was a long-term resident of Tanzania and cared about what happened during the elections. But since it was not my country, I expected to feel on the outside. I focused my election prayers on what was best for the gospel, even if that meant oppression. I followed the news and rejoiced with successes and hurt for losses, but I didn’t assume that my political opinion mattered much.
I expected to feel alienated from the surrounding culture. In engaging a foreign culture, my job was to be a learner first. I entered with the mentality that people act in a way that makes sense to them, so I needed to find out why. I didn’t agree with everything I saw in the culture, but I did everything possible to understand before criticizing. I discovered humility goes a long way when communicating with those who see life differently than me.
Safety was not my highest priority. Holing up in a community that believed everything I did wouldn’t make me an effective missionary. I needed to be strategic for the gospel when making decisions for schooling and neighborhood. I couldn’t sequester my children from people with different values or religions; I had to trust God’s sovereignty when they were exposed to things that distressed me. Non-Christians, even the ones that scared me, were not my enemies. They were my mission field.
The daily reminders that my home was in a foreign land were a spiritual gift.
The gospel was my purpose. My point in living in Tanzania was to look for what I could give, not for what I could gain. I didn’t expect businesses and government to value the same things I did. I was limited in the kind of work I could do there, but that was okay because my goal wasn’t to get rich, be safe or build my career. My goal was to further the gospel.
I assumed I would make sacrifices. I didn’t expect to be comfortable all the time. I realized that I needed to sacrifice convenience for the sake of God’s work. I’ve had to leave a foreign country three times with most of my possessions left behind. Knowing this was always a possibility helped me to loosen my grip on what I owned, knowing that my stay was temporary, no matter how many roots I put down.
What about a country that exists ‘by the people, for the people’?
Christians living under secular or oppressive governments may be nodding their heads at these concepts. But if we were born and live in a country where democracy is expected, and Christian principles formed the cultural air we breathe, this concept might feel, well, foreign. Are we meant to sit back passively while Christians are shoved out of influence? Do Christians have a responsibility to fight for a moral, just government?
Perhaps the answer isn’t black and white, but one of priorities. What’s more important: God’s kingdom on earth or in heaven? Does God call us to safety or sacrifice? Power or humility?
The daily reminders that my home was in a foreign land were a spiritual gift. My hold on things of earth was loosened; my hope focused on things above. Even a democratic government will never create a world free from injustice and oppression. If we find freedom for a time, that is a privilege to steward – but never an expectation to assume. Every Christian is ultimately a foreigner on this earth.
What does this look like now that I live in my home country?
Earlier this year, the EFCA released a document titled Where We Stand in the EFCA: Denials and Affirmations that sheds some light on this topic:
“We are not ‘Christian Nationalists’ who believe the federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation or who believe that Americans are ‘God’s chosen people,’ but we do believe that a patriotic love of one’s nation is appropriate and that Christians should be good citizens who may freely advocate for God-honoring public policies. We do not believe that political means can establish the kingdom of God, but we do believe that God has appointed governing authorities to do good and that, for citizens in Christ's kingdom, King Jesus’ rule and reign transcends all other citizenships and partisan ideologies and transforms how we live in the world.”
When the election goes my way, I remember to humbly steward my freedom, knowing it is likely temporary. When it doesn’t go my way, I call to mind that God promised me persecution, and He often chooses to build His kingdom in times of adversity. When I am disturbed by cultural trends, I seek to understand before trying to prompt change. When I fear the earthquake or hurricane, I remember that nothing I own will be mine forever. I prioritize strategic ministry when deciding where I live and how I spend my time.
This country, this city, this house, will never be my home. Together with the saints of old, I long for a better country.
“Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” Hebrews 11:16
The views represented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Evangelical Free Church of America.
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