Certain words overtime become less and less useful. There has been a great deal of discussion around the word “Evangelical” in Ireland and in the US as many think of it referring a certain brand of politics than a certain type of Jesus follower.

Missions is another of those words. For many, missions is about people who move overseas, or into a specific people group to share the good news. There is often a “romanticised” notion of the the word that proves unhelpful. For those not in the church, missions often conjures up the idea of one civilisation imposing its culture on another. 

Thankfully many parts of the church have begun recapturing the idea that God is a God of mission, and if we are followers of his…regardless of where we reside, we are part of that mission. Missions and missionary seem like words it might be time to retire.

When Elizabeth and I first moved Ireland, we made a conscious decision to take at least two years to learn Irish/Dublin culture, explore the city, and simply become part of the neighbourhood. We could have tried to start a church like the one we planted in Ithaca, but we knew it would be something that would likely never connect to the larger culture in Dublin. It would always be ‘foreign’. 

In the recent Christianity Today article on Netflix and missions, the author argues that things like Netflix and Facebook (among other technologies) were new challenges for those who want to connect to a new culture. (I agree).

But, that desire to connect to a new culture has been one of the biggest, and most positive shifts over the past few decades. The simple desire to connect with and become part of a new country and culture hasn’t always been a priority.

Let me share two stories.

In 1990, we were part of a short term missions team in The Philippines. At one point the pastor who was hosting us took us to visit a church led an American pastor. He pastored a poor church in the Cebu area. He himself lived in a gated community some distance from the people in his church. And while most of his congregation spoke no English, that was all he spoke. The host pastor wanted us to learn something from that experience. 

Flash forward twenty years. 

Shortly after moving here we met an American family who lived near us. They were part of a of team trying to church plant in the same area we were. One night Liz and I went to dinner with their team and while we enjoyed our time, we left with a few concerns about the team leaders. 

The wife told Elizabeth that everyday she has to tell herself, “TINA”. This Is Not America. She explained that nearly every encounter she had in Ireland made her wish she was back in the States. As you probably guessed, they moved back to America within a couple years. On the one hand, she was clearly correct. Not only is Ireland a small island in Europe, they do many things differently they are done in the States. Having just gone through getting a mortgage and buying a house, I would much prefer the American system. And don’t even get me started on Irish banks. But when it comes to the medical system…specifically when you have a kid with special needs…I’m picking the Irish system just about every time…And our kids will graduate from Iris universities with no student loans. 

There is so much to love and enjoy about Irish culture. But imagine moving to a place and every day your focus is on how much better you think the old place was rather than looking for the places of beauty in your new home…simply practising gratitude. You’ll simply be miserable…until you leave.

That is one of the ways things like Facebook or FaceTime can make enculturation difficult…it allows us to stay connected…although tangentially to our home culture…which can make it less necessary to fully live in your new home.

The organisation that Liz and I are part of, Communitas, is a good example of the transition that has taken place. When Communitas began 50 years ago, their vision was to plant international churches (English speaking) in major European cities. They did and many of them grew. Not a bad thing, but if you are an American, think about it in reverse. A group of Germans move to your town and plant a German speaking congregation. How do you see that going? Who is drawn to them?

Currently, while Communitas still plants churches, they place now place a much larger emphasis on embedding in culture. Learning to listen and engage with culture, and become a part of it. It was actually that idea of embedding that drew Liz and me to Communitas…We often struggled to explain to people why we wanted to take a couple years to learn the city and the culture. This gave us language for that.

Embedding in a culture is an ongoing process. You always have more to learn…and culture is always shifting. At times it is a challenge, but it is rarely boring!