The only active ministry role I’ve ever formally filled is one of missionary. Readers should not infer that I’m necessarily any good at it, of course. My vocational ministry limitations simply mean I see many things through a missional filter to the exclusion of all other possible perspectives.
While the overwhelmingly vast majority of my work has been in international settings, I think some of the lessons I’ve learned and techniques I’ve picked up can apply to the larger Christian community. I tried to categorize my tips and lessons for your benefit, but in the end, they all fit under a single heading:
Live where you live.
Among our many missionary postings, we’ve always had colleagues who lived in the same country. Sometimes, though, that was simply their place of residence. In their hearts, they lived in the South. Every chance they got, they went back to the South. If a child grew ill, they worked to convince organizational leaders that a US-based treatment plan was needed. They vacationed exclusively in North America. They cooked southern fare for their table. Their recipes depended heavily on items found everywhere but where they lived. They surrounded themselves with a buffer-zone of fellow American expats, spending time with local residents only when called up on to work.
They resided locally, but truly lived in rural southern United States.
It doesn’t only come up internationally, though. My wife recently met a northern-born American who moved out west. She couldn’t stand the weather, the local love of NASCAR and rejection of lacrosse, the spicy food, the traffic patterns, etc. She was angry at having to live there, unhappy with her daily life, and couldn’t wait to get back home. She viewed the people as small-minded xenophobes whose insular world was far too small. She may have resided there, but that’s not where her life was.
A few problems spring to mind as we examine this.
1. Didn’t Paul have something to say about being content where we are and with what we have? We cannot claim peace and contentment if we cannot accept where we’ve been planted. We are happier, more content, more fulfilled when we stop looking over our shoulders at what we gave up in order to obey.
2. If we move to a new place in accordance with God’s calling, failing to live, truly, where He has planted us seems a bit disrespectful. Learning to live where you live shows an acceptance of where God has placed you. I would contend that we’ll never be effective in keeping to His will as long as we refuse to live where His will has placed us.
3. People will eventually figure out that our hearts and minds are not with them. How effective do you think we’ll be once they realize that?
How then shall we live where we live? How do we make ourselves part of a community that is not the one we’ve always called home?
– Eat and enjoy local cuisine. Every time I move, people want to know my opinion of their local specialties. Eastern North Carolina wants to know if I like their barbecue and their sauce. Ecuador loves the fact that I love encebollado and locro de papa. Venezuela likes watching me inhale hallacas and arepas. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with importing something from back home, whether it is across the country or across seven time zones. Even so, if you spend all your time looking over your shoulder at the foods you don’t have, people in your life will notice the rejection of the things they hold dear.
– Vacation locally. If you move to the Dakotas, vacation there. Don’t always spend your money heading “back home.” Get to know the terrain, the local flavors and flairs. The more you know the area where you live, the more you’ll know the locals. They’ll get to know you, too. As Stacy and I have moved around, we have accidentally applied this notion. We vacation in the same country in which we live. Now, when locals mention their hometown, a small village buried in the mountain 3 hours away, I can say, “I know that town. They’ve got a beautiful plaza bordered on one side by an old bullfighting ring…” It connects us to the people, and lets them know that we care about where they are from and who they are.
– Be involved locally. That means shopping locally. Rooting for local sports. Knowing the area’s history. Knowing local politicos. Reading the local paper. Attending local festivals; not as folks “tasting local culture,” but as celebrants and participants. Set up a booth at the flea market.
– Make yourself indispensable. Whatever skill you have, find a way to use it in the community. Make yourself such a part of local life that someday, someone will say, “Wait, we can’t start yet. Bill isn’t here yet…” Do you own and use a chainsaw? Make sure people know it, especially around storm season.
– Be interdependent. This means relying on them as much as you want them to rely on you. Don’t just offer help – ask for it. Weave your life into theirs, forming an interdependent mesh of needs and desires.
Why am I pounding this drum?
Too many transplanted folks spend their time lamenting what they lost during their last move. Their constant dirge of loss makes it impossible to feel as though they are connecting with their new friends and neighbors. They know, months in advance, the exact date they’ll be heading “home” for a visit. Their mental calendars are filled with faraway events and seasons that they cannot attend, leading them to be absent for the parties and celebrations happening in their communities. “Oh, the leaves are changing back home in Virginia…Oh, this is the weekend of the Strawberry Festival in Dickinson, and we’ll not be there…Don’t you know, the Ramp Celebrations in West Virginia began yesterday, first one I’ve missed in years….”
International missionaries are famous for having to apply this principle. They have to figure out how to eat local foods, dress in line with local standards, vacation in-country, and root for a local sport. If they do not, they risk residing locally but living, in their hearts, in the U.S.A. Unsurprisingly, the work suffers.
In the end, how can a recent transplant say, “I love you but I love my real home more!” and hope to share the Gospel? How can we say to people, “I care about where you spend your future” while remaining ambivalent about where they spend their present?
Live where you live, folks, and love the people with whom you live. I think it is something Jesus did, and look at the impact he had.