When Their Culture Becomes Your Idol

It starts off innocently enough. In your months or years leading up to your move overseas, you pick up a few books at the library and start reading to learn a little bit more about the place you are going to live. You watch videos on YouTube about the culture and food and the language you are about to enter in to.

You attend cross-cultural missionary trainings where you learn how important it is to seek to understand the culture in which you are about to go live. They teach you practical things like how to dress and what to cook, how to shake hands and how to drive, but they also help you to better think about the perspective of others and how they might view the world and the gospel.

You move abroad and at first, these adjustments are “easy” to make. Easy in the sense that you’ve been expecting them, so they don’t feel like a huge shock or burden. You gladly pull on the baggy skirt and head out the door and you stop and say hello to each person that you pass no matter how long it takes. It doesn’t feel like an inconvenience, because this is what you’ve been waiting for, preparing for…a chance to move here and demonstrate the love of God.

Soon though, the honeymoon phase with this new culture wears off a little bit. No matter how much you study, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many sacrifices you’ve made, you will make mistakes. You’ll offend someone by reaching out to greet them with the wrong hand, you’ll use a seemingly harmless phrase that’s common in your passport country only to watch in bewilderment as your colleague explodes in rage at your insensitivity. You’ll be criticized for the way you planned an event out of order, or you’ll be shamed for accidentally letting your knee show as you knelt down to help a small child. Often times, it’s in these moments of “failure,” pain, or confusion where our hearts start looking elsewhere for solutions that seem, on the surface, more attainable, more logical.

For many of us, the answer our flesh immediately offers to us is to just “work harder.” For some, they’ll dive deeper into trying to understand every single intricacy of the culture, believing that that’s a feat they can actually achieve in one lifetime. They’ll pride themselves on what they are learning, and they might even start to shame other foreigners for their ignorance. Somewhere deep within them is a fear of messing up and a desire to be seen as the expert, the one who “gets it.” At times, though, they may be tempted to elevate the role that culture plays in evangelism, so much so that it keeps them paralyzed from sharing the good news because they aren’t quite sure how to present it perfectly yet. They see understanding culture wholly as the magical key to unlocking the heart of man, as if the Holy Spirit himself no longer has any role to play.

What started out as genuine desire to learn or to be “all things for all men for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor 9:22), has perhaps started to become idolatry.

Martin Lloyd-Jones describes an idol as “anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone. Anything that is central in my life, anything that seems to me essential. An idol is anything by which I live and on which I depend, anything that holds such a controlling position in my life that it moves, rouses and attracts too much of my time, attention, energy and money.”

How exactly does one person’s culture become another person’s idol?

It happens just the same way anything else becomes an idol in our hearts–by weaseling its way in, often masquerading itself as something good and harmless, meanwhile taking our attention away from our one true love, master, and purpose.

Understanding and adapting to culture in and of itself is not wrong– it is a good thing. It is something we are called to do, a tool for showing the love, kindness, and compassion of our Savior in deep and unique ways to those who need it most. But sometimes it’s not an issue of what you are doing, but why you are doing it. What are your motivations? Why are you doing what you are doing?

Is it a _________________:

  • Desire to be liked by everyone that you meet and interact with?
  • Desire to have it (or force it to) be reciprocated to the same level?
  • Desire to accomplish or “win” the expat integration game with your outward appearances?
  • Desire to learn/understand, to solve the cultural puzzle or web, so to speak, and to have all the answers?
  • Desire to avoid messing up (cultural taboos) and having to live in that shame temporarily?
  • Desire to protect oneself from being called out or surprised with a new rule?
  • Desire to meet obligations that others have put on you, whether that’s supporters back home or people in your host community?

It’s a delicate line to walk: being in this world and yet not of it, honoring and respecting culture, whether theirs or your own, while not allowing it to consume you or control you.

Culture — either theirs or mine — was never meant to be an idol, and yet we idolize it when we give it such control in our lives and space in our hearts.

What started out harmlessly enough became an all-encompassing obsession. Whether it’s the hollow pride of proving that I’ve mastered this and am better than everyone else, or whether it’s the internal battle that is raging within me and shackling me down with chains of bitterness and resentment, their culture has taken a hold of me, and the next thing I know I’m bowing down before it. Bowing down and asking for approval, acceptance, protection, praise, acknowledgement, security–you name it. All those things that God has already given me through adoption into his royal family, I’m seeking after elsewhere.

When we worship anything or anyone over the living God, we will be disappointed…over and over and over again. When we attach our self-worth to other people’s acceptance of us, we become controlled by people-pleasing behavior, and our peace, joy, and contentment are dependent on the ever-changing waves and nuances of culture and human whim rather than the solid rock of Christ himself.

What happens, then, when even after all your strivings, they still don’t accept you, or you still fail? If your self-worth and ability to share the good news of salvation is tied up in their culture’s approval of you, how then will you respond when those efforts go unnoticed, unappreciated, criticized, or unreciprocated? Maybe you will just dig in and try harder, mustering up more of your own strength as you strive to please a false god with impossible expectations. Or perhaps you will start to resent every little thing about that other culture, elevating your own passport country’s culture as The Way, The Truth, The Light? When this is our relationship with culture and the people of that culture, how then will we be the salt and light of the earth? How can we love like Jesus did when our very purpose and identity is washed away and extinguished by even the subtlest breezes of opposition?

It may not be as obvious as the golden calf, but it sure does have the same effect. So how then are we to interact with our host culture? What then is the Christian’s relationship with culture? How do we balance becoming all things for all men and being in the world but not of it? Where exactly do we draw the line?

Again, in the end, it’s not so much about what we do…whether we eat or drink or wear long baggy skirts or don’t…it’s more about why we do it. What is the heart behind it? Are we doing it to earn love from man? Are we doing it out of fear of man or his obligations? Are we doing it to prove we are right and they are wrong? Or are we doing it for the sake of the gospel, out of freedom, for love of lost souls so that they might truly know salvation to its fullest extent and experience the same grace that we ourselves have received?

Paul was not compelled to adapt to the culture and give up his rights by a desire for the approval of man, pride, or perishable rewards (Gal 1:10; 1 Cor 9:15-16, 25-26) nor by the obligation of any law (1 Cor 9:19). Rather, he was compelled by the unbreakable, unconditional, never-ending, overflowing, powerful love the Father had given him for the lost “so that I may by every possible means save some…. because of the gospel, so that I might share in the blessings” (1 Cor 9:22-23).

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 says, “If I speak human or angelic tongues, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophesy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith so that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give away all my possessions and if I give my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

I might add this twist: “Even if I speak the language perfectly, carry out all the cultural customs according to what’s expected of me, have cultural and/or biblical wisdom greater than all the other expats here, and outwardly play by all the rules, but don’t have love…I am nothing, I gain nothing.”

 

Beware the Idols of an Overseas Life

When we first move overseas, all we feel is the sacrifice. 

Homesickness punches us in the stomach; we experience a physical ache for left-behind loved ones. Our new country feels strange and overwhelming. We lose our sense of self-respect as we bumble along in communication. We mourn the loss of our identity and productivity as we try to figure out how to drive, eat, and parent in this new universe. There are times when we even hate it, and wonder what on earth brought us here.

But then, something changes.

It will likely take (many) years, but one day it dawns on us that we feel more at home in our host country than our home country. We tell jokes in a different language. We navigate the bus system with ease. We crave the local food. We no longer look forward to our furloughs or home assignments, and might even dread them. 

We’ve found a new community, and it’s possible that those relationships are stronger and deeper than anything we had back at home. The view outside our kitchen window has become familiar. Grocery shopping is mundane. We’ve figured out how to make this new life work. And we are comfortable.

And that’s exactly when we must be on our guard.

Think about it this way: when our life overseas is a sacrifice, we continually contemplate our calling. Why am I here? Is this worth it? Am I doing any good? We dig deep into dependence on God. We evaluate our motives. When life is a slog, our vision is clear: we know why we are doing this. 

But what about when life becomes comfortable? Once we’ve adapted to a new culture, we come face-to-face with the reality that this overseas life has perks. Sometimes, lots of them. 

Our lives are interesting. Fulfilling. Living as an expat means we get the benefits of two worlds: the richness, beauty, and adventure of our host country, but with all the safety nets from our home country. We get to travel to exotic places. We become exotic people.

We get to stand out–not only in our host country, but back at home too. We are respected, set apart, even put on a pedestal. 

We don’t like to admit this. We would rather stick with the “sacrifice” narrative, because it feels better. And of course, some sacrifices never disappear. But often, with enough time, the perks outweigh the sacrifices. 

Comfort is sinister because it can lull us into lying to ourselves. This new identity can be intoxicating. We laugh and say, “Living overseas is addicting!” which is kind of funny, but kind of dangerous. This fulfilling life can blind us to the truths we need to see.

Being venerated by others can steal our cultural humility–both overseas and back at home. Feeling comfortable can poke holes in our dependence on God. Our sense of calling can be overshadowed by the fact that we just really like our life. 

We might stop evaluating our effectiveness. Stop questioning our motives. We may even ignore that little voice that tells us it’s time to turn the ministry over to locals, that it’s time to move on. 

It’s very easy for the perks of living overseas to become idols. What is especially disturbing is that these idols are disguised as sacrifices–both to us and to those back at home. The missions narrative can allow us to live for ourselves while pretending that we are only about God’s kingdom. This should terrify us. 

Does this mean that it’s automatically time to leave when life overseas becomes comfortable? Does this mean that we aren’t allowed to enjoy the gifts of an overseas life? Of course not. If you are in that place, rejoice, for it took a lot of grit to get there. But also, be on your guard. Don’t lose your commitment to humility, to self-evaluation, to asking the hard questions of yourself and your ministry. Recognize the danger of comfort, look it straight in the eye, and confront it head on. If you find yourself defensive, pay attention. What’s really going on in your heart?

John Calvin famously said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” We should not be stunned to discover how quickly our hearts will take something godly and beautiful–even in missions–and turn it into our own personal idol. Let us beware.

The Idolatry of Missions

Missionaries are like the church’s Special Forces, right? They go into enemy territory, sometimes covertly, tearing down walls for Jesus. They have special training, preparing them to serve in the darkest places around the globe. Missionaries are on the front lines of the Kingdom of Heaven, right? I’m sorry, but no.

Wherever the Gospel is advancing, there is the front line. Wherever lives are being transformed by the love of Jesus, there is the leading edge of the Kingdom.

But aren’t missionaries the crème of the crop? Um, yeah, no. Turns out, we’re just people. We may travel more than most, and maybe we speak more languages than some, but the idea that missionaries are somehow “set apart” is dangerous. I’d like to begin a discussion about this. Care to join?

Whether these false ideas come from the missionaries themselves or those who send them, the consequence is the same: damage. Damage to the missionaries and damage to the churches who send them.

 

How These Lies Damage Missionaries

If a missionary believes these lies (crème of the crop, special forces, etc.), and if churches reinforce them, one of two things will happen.

Option 1. When the missionary realizes he isn’t superman (or supermissionary), confusion, discouragement, and maybe even depression will set in. He may be forced into secrecy, covering up and hiding the fact that he is, in fact, human. He may feel like a failure because he now realizes he’s not the best of the best, like all the “real” missionaries. He may create a thin veneer of perfection and hide behind it for a Very.Long.Time. Obviously, this is not healthy, but it does make sense to the missionary who’s comparing himself to the false perfect. And when a whole community of missionaries builds walls and covers up, the fallacy is reinforced; everyone looks super on the outside, and no one can see the inside. And the damage continues.

Option 2. If a missionary believes these lies, and continues to believe them, she may become extremely arrogant, judgmental, and condemning. The judgment and condemnation will be aimed at other missionaries who “just can’t hack it,” as well as all the lesser people back home who never even tried. After all, she’s the top of the class, the one called and equipped for greater works. Again, these attitudes make sense if she starts with the basic assumption that missionaries are better. Now, it’s true, most people will never talk like this. But I bet you’ve met people who act like it.

 

How These Lies Damage Sending Churches

We’ll address this more in a bit, but for now, let me just say that when a church believes these lies, it effectively keeps missions OUT THERE. Missions becomes something missionaries do somewhere over there. The great call of God becomes disconnected from the church of God. And that’s really, really sad.

Furthermore, it minimizes and marginalizes the godly saints in the local body. The old lady who just put her last few dollars in the plate may have sacrificed more than the family who moved abroad. The arithmetic of the Almighty includes variables we can’t see.

One of the kindest, godliest men I’ve ever known worked on an assembly line for most of his life. You know what he did during his shifts? He talked with God and he memorized the Word. And so, when this blue-collar, shift-worker of an old man looked you in the eye and shook your hand, you felt like you knew Jesus a little better. He was faithful to his Lord for decades longer than I’ve been alive. And whatever reward I get in heaven, I’m pretty sure it won’t be any grander than this faithful, Spirit-filled saint’s.

When the church idolizes young missionaries, it runs the great risk of forgetting the faith-filled old people. The plodders who’ve loved well and remained faithful for a lifetime. And when the church neglects those people, the church misses out big time.

It’s not just the faithful old that tend to get marginalized. What about the faithful young? Is the work I do abroad more important than the local pastor in my home country who loves God with all his heart, and loves his people with sacrificial and compassionate love?

Is my job more important or more holy than my friend who’s a doctor in an inner-city emergency room? He loves and treats folks most people wouldn’t even touch. And he does it with kindness, giving strong witness to the Spirit of Christ who lives in him.

My job, loving and serving people across cultures, is what I’m called to do. I really believe that. But as I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, I sure hope some people are called and equipped to do work other than this. And I sure hope they realize their work isn’t second-class.

idolatry of missions

The Risk of Idolatry

Why do churches put missionaries on a pedestal? Why do missionaries put themselves there? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that they, and we, do. And it’s dangerous.

I grew up in a culture that idolized missionaries. By the time I was a teenager, I had read the biographies of Adoniram Judson, Gladys Aylward, Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Elisabeth Elliot, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Brother Andrew, David Livingston, and others. We revered these people. My parents even made sure I got to meet Elisabeth Elliot when she came to town, and we had a hand written note from her on our fridge!

These people were great and faithful and followed God in amazing ways, and I’m so grateful I was exposed to their stories; I in no way want to dishonor them. The error was mine, not theirs, because somewhere in all those stories I got the idea that really good Christians became overseas missionaries. If I wanted to sort-of serve God, I could become a pastor, but if I really wanted to serve God, I’d become a missionary. And if I didn’t care about serving God at all, I could become a lawyer (which I did, by the way, but that’s a story for another time).

The truly faithful, the truly holy, the ones most loved by God and most in love with God, would obviously serve him overseas. No one said it out loud, but I internalized the message nonetheless. I doubt you’ve heard these things spoken out loud, but have you ever felt them?

For too long, we have idolized overseas missions. We need to stop now.

I’m afraid that in our desire to be good followers of God, we’ve lost intimacy with him. Intimacy is personalized and requires time and a willingness to pay attention to subtle cues; we’ve preferred the one-size-fits-all, task-driven, widget-producing faith that measures success not by love, but by product.

Have we cared more about the work our hands do than the love our heart does?

Have we challenged people to obey “the call” instead of the Christ?

Have we sent and honored missionaries who are filled more with ambition than adoration?

Again, these things make sense if overseas missions is the end-all. But it’s not. Serving cross-culturally is definitely a valid response to the Gospel, but it is not the only valid response to the Gospel.

In fact, if traveling a long ways is how we serve God, then Jonah was doing a great job even BEFORE the whole fish incident. Remember, serving Jesus isn’t about traveling the right distance as much as it’s about traveling the right direction.

We’ve called “moving to a foreign land” the pinnacle of obedience, but in some cases, moving to a foreign land might be more like running away — disobedience, in its most spiritual form.

 

A Caveat

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying cross-cultural missions is bad. I am a missionary serving outside of my passport country, and I love it. I really do. I hope to stay here for a long time. I’ve recruited people to serve overseas, I’ve preached to teenagers about serving overseas, I’ve passionately extolled service abroad. And I plan to continue! In fact, our personal website even has an extensive resource page for folks interested in serving overseas.

But here’s the problem. Early on, I internalized the idea that this job, this ministry, was in fact the best. It’s what the best Christians do. It’s what the holiest Christians do. It’s what people who don’t have problems do. But you know what, that’s crazy talk. I’m not setting out to discourage folks from cross-cultural missions. I am trying to say, if you’re going to follow God across cultures, do it because he called you. Do it because you love people. Don’t do it because you think it’s what good Christians do.

 

Conclusion

Before we moved overseas, I wrote a song that had these lyrics, “To the ends of the earth, or down the street, where you send I will go, I will go.” I sang it with gusto and enthusiasm. I now realize it’s ridiculous; it’s based on the false dichotomy that some are called to go to cool places (the “ends of the earth”), and others are just called down the street.

We are ALL called down the street, it’s just that some of us have to travel a bit to find our street.

God didn’t want to send me to the ends of the earth OR down the street. He wanted to send me to Cambodia AND down the street. Why? Because the call of God is local. It’s right here, with the people in front of me.

He may call you to change streets (and that’s totally his prerogative), but once you get to your new street, you still have to love and serve the person in front of you. He may send you to a street that looks (and smells) nothing like the streets you’re used to. Great! But you know what, once you get there and learn their language, you still have to love and serve the person in front of you. It’s not rocket science.

So, whether your street is paved and filled with luxury cars, or it’s a collection of muddy ruts and filled with wildebeests, the call of God is the same. Love well. Serve well. Live your life in such a way, that…

   When people look at your eyes, they see our Father’s compassion.

       When they see you create, they marvel at our King’s genius.

             When they watch you sacrifice, they know our Savior’s kindness.

No matter what street you live on, may you truly experience life on the front lines of the Kingdom; not because you live on a special or super-holy street, but because on your street, “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

 

*photo credit