It was a contest I just had to enter. Mrs. Vera McKim, our Upstate New York District missions president, announced the children’s essay topic: “The work of a missionary.” My 11-year-old imagination kicked into gear, as I thought of stories I’d heard about missionary heroes like lifelong missionary to Swaziland Fairy Chism, Scottish surgeon David Hynd, and pioneer missionary to Peru Esther Carson Winans.
At the top of my paper, I carefully wrote: “S.A. on missionaries by Greg Crofford.”
“A missionary,” I began, “is a person God calls to leave the United States and go to the mission field. They are gone for many years, and preach about God. Sometimes they start schools or hospitals. When the church is strong, they say goodbye and go somewhere else to begin all over again.”
That was 1974. Much has changed in the intervening 37 years. The NWMS (Nazarene World Missions Society) is now Nazarene Missions International, but much more than a name change has occurred. Let us consider three shifts in thinking and methodology applied in carrying out Christ’s Great Commission to go and His Great Commandment to love.
The mission field: From “over there” to everywhere
Missionary work by definition is cross-cultural. In Acts 1:8, Jesus called his disciples to begin spreading the news about new life in Christ in Jerusalem, continuing to all Judea, going on to Samaria and to the rest of the world.
As Jews, the disciples first preached to fellow Jews in their own city and country. Next, they went to the Samaritans, distant cousins with some key cultural and historical differences. Finally, the disciples became apostles (“sent ones”), evangelizing cities with peoples radically different from themselves.
Though the Roman Empire had laid a thin veneer of Hellenistic (Greek) culture all around the Mediterranean basin, this masked divergent and enduring local cultures. The Church sent out Paul, Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Luke and the other Jews to proclaim Christ crucified, risen and coming again in places drastically different than their homeland.
The founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission Ralph Winter (Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: a Reader, 3rd edition, p. 341) has labeled these three gradations – from a shared culture between messenger and listener, to a somewhat different setting, to a radically different culture – as E-1, E-2 and E-3. The second and third levels usually involve learning the language of the host culture, and always include learning new customs and norms.
As a denomination born in the United States, the Church of the Nazarene began primarily with E-1 evangelism accomplished through revival services and camp meetings. Yet from the beginning, there was a concern for E-3 efforts.
The Church sent missionaries to far away places like Cape Verde, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Peru. The “mission field” in the popular imagination was “over there,” a place far from home where American Nazarenes – and sometimes Canadians and British – went to plant the church and spread the message of holiness.
But as the denomination matured around the world, the vision for cross-cultural ministry captured the imagination of Nazarenes globally. The “mission field” is now to everywhere, from everywhere. Missionary work happens everywhere E-2 and E-3 evangelism transpires. A Congolese pastor teaches theology at a Bible college in Malawi and learns the local language, Chechewa. He is engaging in E-3 cross-cultural ministry regardless of whether he bears the title “missionary.” Indeed, most missionary work on the African continent is carried out not by official Western missionaries but by Africans who cross cultural and linguistic barriers.
In the same way, the diaspora of South Korean Christians means the gospel can penetrate places off-limits to traditional missionaries from North America or Europe. Missionary endeavors are no longer unidirectional but multidirectional. In the words of Thomas Friedman, the “world is flat.”