Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Word of Advice for Missionaries

This past Friday I was invited to give a lecture at the Eszterházy Károly Főiskola - the local college here in Eger - on the topic of how I, as a foreigner, see Hungary, Hungarians and Hungarian culture.

It was a really great experience; the lecture went well, and the reaction I got from the students was a pleasant surprise. I got to tell them about the Lord quite a bit and tell them why I came to Hungary: because, above all, I believe that the ultimate need of the Hungarian people is that they would be born again and come into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. After I said this, 3 people thanked me out loud for coming to Hungary and serving them and their nation. All I could do was give glory to God.

There were 100 or more people who attended the lecture, some of whom I had met before at the college and in town. One woman said that she has multiple friends who attend our church, and that she thinks very highly of us.

Another comment I got at the end of the lecture was from an older woman who thanked me with tears in her eyes, and said that she had never heard a foreigner say so many positive things about Hungary.
Actually, not everything I said in the lecture about Hungary was positive, but I made sure to make it balanced and make my critiques respectfully.

One thing I have learned over the 10 years that I have been here - and something I would say as advice for anyone who wants to be a missionary in another country is this: If you often talk negatively about the culture or the country you are serving in, you are shooting yourself in the foot (magad alatt vágod a fát). If you are always deriding the culture or the country you are serving in, you will limit yourself from being heard. If you offend people by sharing your opinions about their home country without discretion, you will end up alienated and alone - with other ex-patriots as your main companions.

I have seen this happen before. Someone comes from abroad, assuming that the way things are done in their country is the right way - and when they encounter something different in the foreign culture they automatically judge it as inferior to the way things work where they are from.
If it would stop there it might not be such a big problem - but when they start talking about it, even if they don't realize it, they wind up offending local people - who understandably think to themselves (and often say amongst themselves): "We didn't ask you to come here. YOU chose to come here. If you don't like it, no one is making you stay. Go ahead and leave!"

The thing in Hungary - and I'm sure it is true elsewhere - is that Hungarian people themselves say a lot of negative things about their own culture and nation; but foreigners should understand that this doesn't mean that they too are entitled to criticize the country and its culture. Kind of like in a family - I can say whatever negative things I want about my family, because they are MY family - but YOU better not say anything bad about them, or else!

And for someone who comes to serve as a missionary, this should be emphasized all the more. Because our calling is to become all things to all people, so that some might be saved (1.Cor 9:19-23)

I know that I made this mistake at times during my time in Hungary - and that is all the more reason why I think this is advice that people who feel called to foreign missions need to hear: if you are not careful to use discretion in what you say about their nation or culture, you will offend people and you will limit yourself from being heard when it comes to talking about the Gospel.

Missionaries should be people who cross cultures for the sake of the Gospel and engage cultures with the Gospel. Culture is central to what we do. We should be sensitive to the people we go to serve - becoming all things to all people, so that by all means possible some might be saved.

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