Missions is often the term used for going overseas for the cause of Christ—hence the word missionary. Sadly, it has led some to feel that missions is something that happens “over there,” creating a dulled sense of the needs on our doorstep.
When the church is at its best, mission is not something we do; it is something we are. Every day we are on mission to our unchurched friends; every weekend we are on the front lines of bringing Christ to individual lives; every year we expand our influence as we reach out to those who are poor, hungry, or homeless.
The point is that we are missionaries right in our own backyard, but we often don’t think to employ basic transcultural missionary practices—only here, we are not crossing between, say, East or West, but between the Christian subculture and the culture of the nones.
But if we were to employ basic missiological strategy, what “tasks” would missions entail? Most missiologists would argue that there are three central tasks that are important for any true missionary to do.
The first task for any missionary is to learn the language of the people you are trying to reach and then use it. A language barrier is the most elementary and primary obstacle to overcome. Learning the language means educating yourself on how to talk in a way that people can understand and to which they can relate and eventually respond. America has a distinctive and specific language, and it isn’t simply English. It is the communication of thoughts and feelings through an understood set of words, sounds, and symbols. It is highly tribal and in constant flux.
The second task of a missionary is to become a student of the culture and then become so sensitized to that culture that you can operate effectively within it.
Culture is the world in which we live and the world that lives in us, which means we are talking about everything. Culture is the comprehensive, penetrating context that encompasses our life and thought, art and speech, entertainment and sensibility, values and faith. It serves as the context through which and in which we reach out. While never capitulated to, it must be accommodated.
The third task of the missionary is to translate the gospel so that it can be heard, understood, and appropriated. Notice I didn’t simply say “translate the Scriptures”—though that is a given. Theologian Millard Erickson, building on the insights of William E. Hordern, offers a helpful distinction in the use of the terms translation versus transformation. The presentation of the gospel itself must be translated—but never transformed. Every generation must translate the gospel into its own cultural context. This is very different from transforming the message of the gospel into something that was never intended by the biblical witness. Transformation of the message must be avoided at all costs; translation, however, is essential for a winsome and compelling presentation of the gospel of Christ.1
James Emery White, Rise of the Nones, the: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014).