Missionaries to us
North Americans have naturally thought of Christian mission as what takes place from here to there — to some other country in the world. It’s an assumption that makes sense historically.
In recent years, however, that notion has been rightly challenged by a double awareness that we live in a post-Christian society and that North American culture is not homogeneous.
These two challenges are fundamentally re-shaping North American perspectives on mission. They subtly and solidly re-frame the use of a good old word, “mission.” They are necessary.
In this mix, though, there is also a third challenge, not yet quite as well received and embraced in North America as the first two, I suspect. It is the mission to North America by brothers and sisters from other nations.
Intellectually, we recognize and receive this new reality easily enough. Yes, in a world in which there are strong Christian communities in many, many nations, some of them will be called to North America as missionaries. We know that. If not, we should.
But are we really ready to receive them? That is a different matter.
This week I met a Pakistani missionary to the United States. We had become acquainted almost a decade ago in a mission meeting in Central America and had stayed in touch intermittently ever since. He attended an Eastern Mennonite Missions School for Apostles at my invitation and made some deep friendships.
Time flew, and we met again.
As I listened to the story of his life and current ministry, I was amazed. A young lad grows up in a Muslim village in Pakistan and is deeply immersed in understanding and teaching the Quran. He speaks in many mosques, certain in his enlightenment that there are two equally valid paths to God, one Muslim and the other Christian.
Then he meets Jesus. Many of the intellectual arguments he had designed for so many years collapse in the face of personal knowledge. Yet they were a profound preparation for what was next. He sees that his Muslim friends can come to Jesus, beginning right where they are with the Quran open before them, pointing to Jesus.
He sees, too, the way of Christ — a way of suffering love, not of violence. The way of salvation.
God leads him to the United States, where he now lives and teaches this truth, patiently and persistently, wherever he can. In churches, fellowship halls, large convocations, living rooms one-on-one, and on the job he walks with Jesus. By occupation, he is a taxi driver. By vocation, he is a missionary.
Yet he remains a foreigner, a “foreign missionary,” a “tentmaker,” if you please. Every day he faces issues like those faced by the first Mennonite missionaries we sent to China, India or Africa.
He is one among hundreds, thousands, who have come, called by God, to our shores.
I recalled the other missionaries from abroad who have shaped my life — Asian, Middle Eastern and East African student friends in college who called me to Jesus in ways that my American friends could not; East African Revival speakers; Central Americans who settled in the U.S. and showed me things about church planting and evangelism that changed my ways of thinking.
How can we “native Christians” of North America receive, embrace, honor and empower them?
If we can answer this question creatively, it may be the most important contribution we ever make to mission to North America in our time.
Richard Showalter lives and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.
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