This is an article from the September-October 2012 issue: Simple Churches


The American Way... But is it the Best Path?


Every two years I am reminded just how easy it is to fall into nationalistic triumphalism. Blame the Olympics. Here in the U.S. we generally think of the Games as friendly but serious competition—may the best man or woman win! The rest of the world, however, often sees America and China, as unfairly fielding mostly professional athletes who are likely to win a medal in almost every event.

Followers of Christ sent into the world from more powerful nations face a bigger problem. Not only do others perceive in us an underlying mentality of conquest, their perceptions are largely true. Like it or not, perhaps without realizing it, we actually do think we are superior. As believers we try to combat such tendencies, but in the end we approach our global outreach both assured of the truth (which is good to a point) and expecting, if not demanding results. If we’re honest, we in the English-speaking world feel particularly proud of the massive biblical resources available in our language, some of which is actually helpful. Add to this our emphasis on (and experience in) explaining the Bible and it’s not surprising that people see us as teachers rather than learners. We have all the answers! The fact is that those we are going to “reach” and “serve” know full well that we haven’t lived our faith out in their cultural context.

Our mobilization efforts feed this mentality. We preach, pray, and encourage young people to “get out there and make a difference with their lives.” We tell them, “You can reach a group that has never had the gospel!” The truth behind this is lost if it reinforces our superiority complex instead of God’s purposes in redemptive history.

Global workers who persevere through the difficult “stuff” of cultural adjustment know that they often have no idea what to do to make an impact. They work in the frustration of little visible fruit. Blame it on the training they didn’t receive or the fact that they aren’t using some favorite strategy of ours, the reality is that in most places in the Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist worlds, we are neither prepared by our cultural or church background, nor are we perceived as particularly helpful (other than as a source for money!).

Recently I heard another story from workers who, after sending people for ten years to India have yet to see the “breakthroughs” they have seen back in the States and expected in India. By now, they know that they have no idea what to do. Not only does the lack of any progress cause avoidable attrition, but more importantly they are making no visible progress for the gospel.

Yet even as I write about “visible progress,” it sounds triumphalist. We don’t even have the words to describe what we are trying to say without reinforcing the problem. And many of these words or illustrations are from the Bible. We use OT illustrations, such as Joshua, and talk about conquering the enemies of the land. I’ve heard people fervently praying that the gospel would fall like bombs to the unreached peoples of the world!

I know what they mean, and I appreciate the heart that I hope is behind it. The scarier thing to me is what comes across to the non-believer: they see a “we know your problems…we have the answer! The trouble is that we often don’t even know how to shape the question the same way they would. 

I realize that all of this is not true of all of the workers we are mobilizing and sending out. While I am often discouraged by what I hear, I am often encouraged too. I see God sending out people who have a heart to serve, to learn, to grow in cultural understanding, and to trust Him for the impact. Despite the temptation of triumphalism, we should continue to pray big prayers and to prepare the next generation of workers with a big vision—one tempered by love, discipline, a servant’s heart, dove-like innocence and snake-like wisdom (Matthew 10:16).

Let me close with a question. A mission leader who works with younger leaders around the world asked me the other day about characteristics of new workers that lead to effectiveness. We can continue to contribute to “fruitful practices.” (See a great list to start with noted in several articles in the IJFM, issues 26 and 27. See:

What characteristics do you think are crucial? Share your perspective below.


praise Lord,
I say thank you for evry thing you have done about Lord’s work God bless you.
Now am Ugandan and am a pastor I saving God in Ephphatha church here in Kampala, so I like to saving God, to house churches network, I have 10 HOME CHURCHES, in kampala, uganda, I need you to be patanership
of me, is good because we can share about that ministries,
thank you very much am waiting your good answer from you, God bless you.

“Despite the temptation of triumphalism, we should continue to pray big prayers and to prepare the next generation of workers with a big vision—one tempered by love, discipline, a servant’s heart, dove-like innocence and snake-like wisdom” (Matthew 10:16).// Love this!

The primary shift is that we come in first and foremost as learners, not teachers.  Harder to say than do especially with the level of education many have obtained prior to becoming workers on the field.  Harder but not impossible as I have met some who have done both well.

I would add that we seek to learn from the people we are trying to reach, not just from already established “national” leaders.  Many times we could be perpetuating problems by simply going along with what is already being done. 

So, I think there needs to be a connection, honoring, and learning from what has already been done by the national leaders who have gone before us, but also a willingness to step beyond the establishment into the world that we are trying to reach so that we can pick up new things and allow creativity from the Holy Spirit to help us find new ways to open the locks of culture that are holding back the revelation of God among the people. 

Also we, as those coming from the outside, can be those who have “fresh eyes” to see what others may be taking for granted or can’t see because of local cultural bias.  Our observations must be seasoned with reflection and time as we keep the posture that we could be wrong in what we are observing.  This posture will take both courage and humility.


Thanks for this JL. I think I’ve written much of what you’ve said in other columns! We must keep the aspect of being sure we reflect INTO the cultures we go do serve. We, as outsiders, see things that others don’t see.
As you note, we do need to be sure we do that with a spirit of prayer, being careful along the way.

Hello Greg,
I appreciate what you have written about triumphalism and how we are perceived by the people we are trying to reach. Also, that our culture and church background and, I would add, training has little prepared us for the work among the least-reached peoples. Here,we pray for wisdom from God in how to present the gospel in culturally relevant ways, to be creative, to be available when God provides opportunities,and not to fear failure. We also pray for wisdom in helping new believers to grow in their faith, especially that they will be teachable. We are running the marathon and not the sprint. Thanks for your article and for all the articles of Mission Frontiers.

Good morning Greg,

I thought your article in the September/October issue of Missions Frontiers was particularly insightful.  May it fall on the ears of those who continue to view themselves both as experts and as conquerors.

My two cents worth on your final question: “What characteristics do you think are crucial?”
Have you heard the elephant story?  An African lady shared this with a missionary after a meeting.  “Do you know how elephants approach a water hole that is already occupied by another herd of elephants?  The matriarch will turn her back to the water hole and back toward it until her bottom makes contact with the bottom of another elephant.  Then she will wait.  When the elephant occupying the hole moves over to make room for her, it is an invitation to the entire herd to share the water hole.”  She concluded by saying, “You missionaries never backed in.”

So, based on her assessment, which by the way, I find compellingly accurate, my description of the characteristics that are crucial would be:

A community of believers that is willing to back in to their host culture and wait for an invitation to engage as learners, traders and story tellers.

For what little it is worth.

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