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Embracing Cross-Cultural Incompetence

Embracing Cross-Cultural Incompetence

I have some bad news. It’s about your dreams of being an effective disciple-maker among the least-reached.

Before I get to the bad news, let me tell you why it’s important.

You’re about to embark on a wonderful journey. This most wonderful journey is also going to be a difficult, painful journey — one you’ll probably want to quit at multiple points. There are things no one tells you about missions before you go. Or if they tell you, those things don’t sink in until you’re in the middle of them.

The bad news is this: The messenger is the message, so you won’t be an effective translator of the gospel in a new culture until you translate yourself. And that process is painful.

Here’s what I mean.

“You won’t be an effective translator of the gospel in a new culture until you translate yourself.”

Many people who move overseas for missions take language classes and practice speaking right away so they can be understood. They talk when they should be listening, using language to gain control over their foreign environment, because it’s scary to feel helpless. They want to be as competent in their new home as they were in their last. A worthy goal, but a misguided process. 

No one wants to be humiliated. Take it from me. The week before I left the U.S., someone told me I was the best expositor of Scripture they’d ever heard. A full year later in Asia, kids were still making fun of how stupid I sounded when trying to tell them why they shouldn’t stand on my car.

Cross-cultural humiliation at its finest.

But this is exactly the kind of humiliation Jesus Himself endured. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we saw His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

For John, mission was about making God visible. To do that, the Word (Jesus) had to become flesh. Jesus embraced incompetence when He came into our world in a human body, as a baby. Jesus spent nearly 30 years being with us, before He ever began to “do ministry.” He didn’t come to first make Himself understood, but to live among us, to become like us (Hebrews 2:17), to be tempted in every way we are (Hebrews 4:15) — so that He could rescue us.

“As a cross-cultural disciple-maker, you are not working to be understood. You’re working to understand.”

You see, as a cross-cultural disciple-maker, you are not working to be understood. You’re working to understand.

A few years ago, I met some Americans who had recently arrived in Asia and were deciding how to serve. I offered to get them teaching jobs that would secure their visas and give them an integrated identity in the community. Their response? “We don’t want to work for a local boss because we like to control our own schedules.”

What they didn’t know is that submission to the local way of life, and all it entails, is precisely what translates the message of the gospel. It’s not enough to adapt to local customs. We must also willingly subject ourselves to the forces the local people are subject to, if we want to become a message they can understand.

The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some.”

It’s that becoming process that we, as cross-cultural disciple-makers, tend to hurry through or skip over because to become something we have to unbecome something else. Not only does it hurt, but the process is almost impossible to navigate on your own. We all need a guide or, better yet, a formative community to walk with us through the trial of becoming less in order to become more.

We must be willing to be people no one understands in order to become people who understand everyone. Only then can we truly convey the message of our incarnate Savior.

This is how Jesus served us, and it’s how we must serve the least-reached.

Virgil worked and made disciples in West Asia for eight years, and now serves in leadership with Crossworld in Spain. 

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