“I didn’t come here for the other foreigners.”
I’ve said it. I’ve felt it. I’ve heard it said by others. It’s the kind of statement a cross-cultural missionary can say with a deep inner sense of fiery rightness. Yes, we did ultimately come here for the lost locals, and not for the other missionaries. Or did we? This statement alludes to the danger of getting sucked into the attractive expat bubble – where they speak my language, feel my culture, and let me be my own cultural self. This expat bubble – full of birthday parties, meetings, and game nights – has claimed many a victim, lured so deep in that there no longer exists any compelling inner response to the lurking question, What am I doing here? Not to mention what it does to actual culture and language acquisition. It’s wise to be aware of this danger of too many hours with other expats.
And yet it’s a statement that only acknowledges one deadly cliff off the side of a ridge. There’s another one, it’s evil twin as it were. This inverse danger has to do with the absence of biblical love toward the other missionaries. Like it or not, the other foreign Christians in our contexts are a part of our witness toward the locals we are trying to reach. In pioneer contexts, they may be the only other brothers and sisters in the faith around. So these teammates, partners, and fellow expats we awkwardly run into in the grocery store have an important part to play in what we communicate about the kingdom and household of God.
Like our own children, our local friends are always watching. They are wonderful observers. They are sometimes terrible interpreters, but they see far more than we might initially think. Do we really think that local believers won’t pick up on the inconsistency if we are exhorting them to outdo one another in showing honor (Rom 12:10) when we ourselves ignore and keep a distrustful posture toward the other missionaries, our siblings in the faith? Sure, we might not be actively working against them, but is respectful distance really enough to count as biblical love? Our actions, our modeling, must match the words we use in our evangelistic and discipleship relationships. When our words match our lives, that is when we are living a compelling witness. To model love, we must be open to healthy relationships with the other believing foreigners.
Jesus makes some pretty incredible promises related to these things. He says that the world will know we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). He prays that we would be one so that the world may believe that the Father has sent the Son (John 17:21). The love of believers for one another proves we are true followers of Jesus. Our unity proves the Incarnation – no small thing for those like us working among Muslims! Notice the absence of a qualification that says these dynamics are important only between missionaries and their local disciples. Sadly, many of us have drawn an arbitrary line where we justify our cold treatment of other foreigners because we are pouring ourselves out in love for the locals. Yet notice what’s happened here. Love for one group of people has become an excuse to not show love to another group. Is this OK? Maybe we should run that one by the Sunday School children and see what they have to say about it.
We will reap what we sow. God is not mocked (Gal 6:7). Geography and calling doesn’t nullify the one-anothers of the New Testament. If we conduct ourselves like pagans toward the other foreigners and only act like Christians toward the locals, this will catch up to us. It will undermine our work again and again, as countless missionary teams have learned over the years. The number one reason missionaries are said to leave the field is because of team conflict. I believe this is because we missionaries are so strongly tempted to live a double life of love toward the locals and pettiness toward our fellow expats.
It would not be so common if it were not so easy to justify. But oh, can we justify this double standard. Think of the number of lost going to hell every day! What is a birthday party compared to that? Think of the scandal of there being no witness in this huge language group! Why should I invest hours every week trying to get along with my teammates whose personalities are so different from mine? Can’t we just merely tolerate each other so I can get back to pouring into the ones I’m really here for?
But just as the body can’t ignore any of its physical members without experiencing eventual pain and harm, so missionaries who are part of the same body of Christ must not pretend they live in a vacuum separated from their fellow members of God’s household. We are intertwined by the blood of Christ. We need one another. Spiritually, we are already one with one another through the work that Christ has done. To live otherwise is to live out of touch with true reality.
If we missionaries live in a context where there are other foreign believers, then we must broaden our sense of calling. Have we been given a specific secondary call to reach a certain people group or city? Great! But we have first been given a deeper primary calling to love the bride of Christ, every part of her. We have to mature to the point where we can see that loving the other foreign believers well is an integral part of reaching the locals. Often, sacrificing some ministry time with locals for the sake of healthy team or partner relationships will be the right call. Pressing as the needs of the work are, we can’t afford to tourniquet these members of the same body merely because they are expats like us.
God sent us here for the locals – but yes, for the other foreigners too. The sooner we embrace this broadening of our calling, the healthier models we will be of a mature and compelling faith. There is danger in spending too much time with other expats, especially if we are doing this to retreat from the culture. But there is also great danger in failing to love the other foreigners in a manner worthy of Christ. Let us strive to walk that proverbial ridge without falling down the cliffs on either side.