In this post I hope to offer a qualification to a good general principle. I have often heard it said that if you don’t share the gospel in your home culture, you won’t share it in a foreign culture either. There is no sanctification by aviation, it is said. I largely agree with this sentiment. Whether you live on mission at home is a very good indication of whether you will live on mission overseas or not.
However, I have also spent many years of my life living in places where it’s actually easier to share the gospel than it is in the secular West. Frankly, the Western church needs to know that it’s hard to share the gospel where they live compared to many other parts of the world. It’s not just that we all struggle with fear of man. Western culture itself has built-in societal mechanisms to shut down conversation with others about religious things. Many other cultures don’t do that to the same extent. Sure, the government won’t get you in trouble for sharing the gospel in the West. But believe it or not, it’s actually easier to share the gospel in a context where the people are hungry for it, but the government will arrest you. In the West, the government may be fine with it, but the people are prone to be offended.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Christians in the West should excuse themselves from sharing the gospel. But open admissions of difficulty are often helpful in and of themselves. They help us adequately prepare for the task at hand. Yes, it’s tough. So what do we need to do to account for the toughness?
But the fact that it is often harder in the West might also mean that some need to go overseas in order to get training in how to evangelize. Common experience dictates that trainees need to begin with tasks that are more attainable as they work their way up to more difficult tasks. This provides them an opportunity to gain experience and confidence as they progress toward greater challenges. In this vein we start kids off with pool noodles as they work their way toward swimming on their own and we train teenagers to drive in parking lots or country roads before they get on the highway.
For some in the category of trainee, newer disciple, or even veteran believer who has never shared the gospel regularly, dropping them into a foreign context just might be the most helpful thing for their growth in evangelism.
Some foreign cultures are very comfortable speaking openly about religious things. In our corner of Central Asia, the first things many want to know about are our views on Trump and our views on Islam. It’s as if the Western rule of “no politics or religion in small talk” has been flipped on its head. This makes our overseas context a wonderful place to practice and grow as an evangelist. When we or our visitors are spending time with locals, there tend to be many softballs thrown inviting a gospel presentation and lots of room to make mistakes. I know that our setting is not unique in this regard.
Foreign cultures can also be helpful training grounds for evangelism because we are often freer from the fear of man when speaking through linguistic and cultural barriers. In our home culture we feel how awkward a certain direct question about sin or death might be. In another culture, we initially don’t feel this. We instead feel greater freedom to be as blunt as we should be, blissfully ignorant as we are of how awkward that kind of a question was. This can be helpful as we come to see the good fruit that can come from direct gospel conversation, regardless of the awkwardness or strangeness of it. Greater gospel sharing leads to both greater willingness to do the awkward thing and a greater ability to make gospel conversations natural.
A particular intentionality toward spiritual things also tends to accompany us when we are in a foreign context. Whether it’s a one-week trip or a one-year term, the constant strangeness of our surroundings reminds us of the purpose of our presence in said foreign land. We are here to share the gospel. We have a limited time to do it. This kind of intentionality naturally leads towards more actual gospel proclamation. We think about it more. We pray about it more. So we share more. In our home cultures we can be in danger of a certain spiritual forgetfulness. Because everything feels so familiar we can forget that we ourselves are spiritual strangers and sojourners, placed here for a particular mission.
If you don’t share the gospel at home, you won’t share it overseas. This is a trustworthy statement. At the same time, some may need to go overseas in order to learn the confidence, craft, and intentionality required to share the gospel regularly back at home. This argues in favor of short term and mid term mission assignments to locations where this kind of growth can take place. Not sure how this kind of a trip can take place? Well, myself and hundreds of other missionaries would be overjoyed to help your church find the right kind of setting for a short-term trip that helps your people grow in evangelism (once the post-pandemic world returns to greater normalcy in travel, that is).
Helping timid evangelists grow in their craft and confidence may not seem to make a huge impact on the work of long term missionaries. But it would be a worthwhile investment in the saints of partner churches nonetheless. We can’t always trace the Spirit’s plans. It may be that a timid believer finds his evangelistic gifting while on a short term trip overseas. Coming back home, he is then helped to live a more faithful evangelistic lifestyle. A coworker he then leads to faith ends up overseas long-term himself, leading to breakthrough in an unreached people group. Stranger things have happened in the advance of the kingdom.
Let us strive to share the gospel faithfully no matter where we live. “Woe to me if I do not share the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). Yet let us also keep our eyes open to those places that can be strategic training grounds for Timothy-types who might need a season overseas as solid preparation for living faithfully back home.