This summer I had the privilege of travelling to Eastern Europe to attend my brother’s wedding. His wife, Annette, is a native of Krakow, Poland. After the wedding, I continued on to Slovakia to visit missionaries we support near Bratislavia. Jason and Adele Rice and their three young boys have just got to the field and are busy learning the language and culture of Slovakia.
There is something about the mindset of an overseas missionary that would be good for us American Christians to learn. It struck me that missionaries don’t go into a country and try to change the entire governmental structure all at once. That’s not even on their agenda. Over time, their work may lead to positive changes in the country’s culture (See Hudson Taylor, William Carey, Adoniram Judson). But missionaries don’t complain about a country’s culture, but seek to minister in it as it is.
I wonder if American Christians need to start thinking of themselves as missionaries in their own cultures. We’ve had the privilege of growing up in a country that at least acknowledged Christianity even if it was in a national, generalist, fuzzy form. In other words, in America, we generally have gotten back pats and attaboy’s for being Christians. We are accustomed to that so much that when the greeter at Walmart doesn’t automatically belt out a rendition of “Silent Night” after scanning our items, we throw up our hands in horror at the new “War on Christmas.” Most of the Right’s “War on Christmas” meme is hyperbole. But it acknowledges a reality we must get used to if we are going to take the Great Commission seriously: we are missionaries in a culture that is less supportive of biblical Christianity.
We can respond to this reality in two ways: a) We can operate out of fear and continue to try to “take our country back” or b) we can recognize what the Bible recognizes: followers of Christ will always be a misunderstood minority. We’re missionaries. And missionaries don’t complain about the culture they are called to serve. They simply learn the culture and get busy faithfully sharing the good news of the gospel.
What kills our witness is nostalgia. Nostalgia, I’m afraid, is against the gospel. Nostalgia says that there was once a time, maybe it’s the 1950′s, where we got everything right and America was golden. Nostalgia says, “This is the worst time ever. Sin has never been more rampant.” I can’t tell you how many books I read that appeal to this. There are statistics about how many marriages failed in the early 20th century compared to now, as if adultery and sexual sin are a new invention. But then I open my Bible and find that the same sins that plague us in the 21st century plagued the very first generation of humanity. There was brother-on-brother murder in the second generation. And the pages of Genesis, pre-Flood, read like a transcript of the Jerry Springer show. And consider the book of Judges. Consider the sins the book of Romans describes. Consider Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthian church.
The point is this: sin has always been rampant among humans. There was never a golden age where life was all beautiful. Why do we think this way? Personally I think there is a part of us that longs for utopia–and tries in vain to create it here on earth. Perhaps its our sorrow at being kicked out of Eden and our longing for the eternal home of Heaven.
Here’s how the gospel differs from nostalgia. The gospel instructs us to look back, but not to the Eden we’re missing or to some mythical golden era, but to the cross, where sin and death were defeated, where the enemy of our souls was crushed once and for all. The gospel is always pointing us, not backward, but forward. Hebrews reminds us that we are a people who are not looking backward, but forward to a “city whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10 ).”
We can learn from other eras, we should drink deeply from history, we should imbibe the best of the Reformers, the Puritans, the ancient church fathers. But we must always seek to bring the gospel to today’s world, to live missionally in the culture that is not lamenting a culture gone by.
Because real missionaries don’t complain about the country that isn’t, but serve the country that is.