A missionary in a foreign country learns a new language and adapts to the cultural conventions of those whom he’s trying to reach. Proponents of being missional often cite Hudson Taylor, the famous missionary to China who adopted their form of dress in order not to cause unnecessary offense. In the same way, the argument goes, whether they cross oceans or not, all Christians are missionaries who navigate across various subcultures different from their own. Thus, they should learn a new “language” (a sub-dialect) and adapt to the cultural conventions of the subculture they’re trying to reach.
Is Every Christian a Missionary?
A fundamental assumption that lies at the heart of the missional philosophy is that missions is not something that happens across the ocean, but across the street; in other words, every Christian is a missionary.
Spurgeon notably once said, “Every Christian is a missionary or an imposter,” but he meant something very different. Spurgeon was simply speaking of the absolute necessity of every Christian to engage regularly in evangelism. The missional philosophy, on the other hand, looks to the example of cultural contextualization in cross-cultural missionaries, and concludes, “Well, 21st-century American Evangelicals cross subcultures all the time right here in America!” Consequently, they send Christians as “missionaries” to “contextualize the gospel” to every subculture in their region.
The reasoning is subtle, but nevertheless flawed. It is certainly true that missionaries are not an elite class of Christians. They are indeed normal Christians whom God has called to leave their own cultural setting and enter a foreign culture for the purpose of gospel proclamation.
We must insist, however, that, by definition, missions is something that happens across cultures
Not every Christian in the early church was called to follow Paul as a culture-crossing frontier missionary; otherwise, he would have had no one to visit as he came back through the cities in which he planted churches (cf., Acts 14:21–22; 15:36; 18:23). Rather, while God calls only certain men and women to serve him as missionaries, every Christian is designated as a witness who testifies to what Christ has accomplished in the gospel (John 1:6–8; Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8).
Overestimating Barriers between Subcultures
A key flaw in the reasoning of the missional philosophy of ministry is the overestimation of the cultural barriers that exist between subcultures which nevertheless share a common culture (or “supra-culture” or “macro-culture”). Two Americans who participate in even radically diverse subcultures (e.g., inner city hip-hop vs. rural country music) are not, to use a popular example, as culturally different as a Western Evangelical and an Indian villager. This simply does not give enough credit to the sharing of a language, a country, a uniform political system, a definitive socio-political and national history, and a shared social consciousness, among other things.
I’m all for speaking the gospel in ways that people can understand (obviously). Yet proponents of a missional philosophy of ministry seem to believe that much less of the gospel transcends subcultural differences than Scripture warrants us to believe. Because all unbelievers are made in the image of God (cf. Jas 3:9), are fallen in Adam (Rom 5:12–21), share a common knowledge of God and a common suppression of that truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18–23), because they face the common punishment for those who die without having their sins forgiven (John 3:18; 8:24), and because repentance and faith in Jesus is the only way they can be saved from that punishment (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), Scripture teaches that, whatever subcultural differences exist, they are not so great as to render the gospel unintelligible without significant adaptation or contextualization. John Piper makes this point helpfully in this video.
Besides, this sort of reasoning contrasts secular American subcultures with Western evangelical Christianity. Yet this overlooks the fact that Western evangelical Christians in America don’t exist in a cultural vacuum.
We do not live in communes sequestered from the rest of the country. We are also Americans ourselves who participate in American culture and the various subcultures in which others—both believers and unbelievers—participate. Christians do not need to study the culture to achieve a status of relevance. We are already participants in that culture.
Besides all of these concerns, the comparison between (a) a missionary’s learning a new language and adapting new cultural conventions and (b) a Christian’s doing the same in their own culture overlooks a key issue. Namely, a missionary learns a new language when he crosses cultures, not because he seeks heightened cultural relevance, but because he simply will not be able to communicate unless he does. His adapting to the dress of that culture is less about showing the nationals that they are alike than it is the reality that national clothing is what is available to purchase. It would take more intentional effort to maintain one’s own foreign style of dress, and it would accomplish nothing but to set him apart from the people on a superficial level.
The point is this: these adaptations are simply incidentals for a missionary who crosses linguistic and cultural boundaries.
They are not intentional strategies to garner interest, as if the “bait” of our ministry is our
cultural relevance rather than Christ Himself
When we prescribe the altering of language, dress, and other cultural conventions for the purpose of appearing more relevant to non-Christians, we major on the minors, and we begin preaching ourselves rather than Christ (2 Cor 4:5).
The Example of Jesus
Proponents of a missional approach to ministry cite the incarnation of the Son of God as the premier example of missional living. They point to him as the premier engager of culture, positing that he left the culture of heaven and fully immersed Himself into the Jewish culture in order to win the lost.
This sounds very pious, and so it is very persuasive. After all, what Christian thinks it a bad idea to imitate Jesus? But the application is illegitimate. Purveyors of this argument seem to suggest that the coming of Jesus as a man in first-century Jewish culture was the missionary strategy of God to win as many people as possible by convincing them that He was just like them.
However, God did not become man because sinners needed to have a Savior who could, on a socio-cultural level, relate to them. The answer to Anselm’s famous question, Cur Deus Homo?, is that the Savior needed to share the weakness of flesh and blood in order to atone for the sin of man as man. Otherwise, He would not have been a fitting Substitute for sinners (Heb 2:14–18). Since the Son’s incarnation was necessary on the grounds of providing sufficient atonement, it simply becomes unavoidable, not missiologically strategic, for Him to come to earth in a particular culture at a particular time. When we further consider that prophecy required that He be a Jewish (Gen 12:3) male (Gen 3:15) in the line of David (2 Sam 7:12), it becomes only clearer that the incarnation was a theological necessity, not a missiological strategy, having little if anything to do with being culturally relevant.
Aside from this, we must also consider the fact that the church is not called to do everything that Jesus did. There was a uniqueness to His ministry as the only begotten Son of God who fulfilled all righteousness on behalf of sinners, and who accomplished their salvation by bearing the wrath of God against the sins of His people.
Aside from this non-repeatable atoning work, much of the ministry of Jesus was a manifestation of the Kingdom of God as a testimony to the presence of the King. Because the Kingdom is not present in the church in the same way it was present in the King, we should expect many acts of the ministry of Jesus to be non-repeatable in the contemporary church (e.g., healing the sick, raising the dead, multiplying loaves and fish, etc.).
Instead, the church is called to be a witness to the unique work accomplished by the unique Messiah
In his excellent article, “Transforming Culture with a Messiah Complex,” Michael Horton makes this very point:
‘Incarnational’ is becoming a dominant adjective in evangelical circles, often depriving Christ’s person and work of its specificity and uniqueness. Christ’s person and work easily becomes a ‘model’ or ‘vision’ for ecclesial action (imitatio Christi), rather than a completed event to which the church offers its witness.
We increasingly hear about ‘incarnational ministry,’ as if Christ’s unique personal history could be repeated or imitated. The church…rushes in to fill the void, as the substitute for its ascended Lord. … As Christ and his work is assimilated to the church and its work, similar conflations emerge between the gospel and culture; between the word of God and the experience of our particular group; and between the church’s commission and the transformation of the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ.
In sum, we, as believers, are witnesses—not to ourselves, not to our ability to conform to a culture or pattern of living, but to the person and atoning work of Christ. May He increase, and we decrease, in every tribe and tongue and nation.
For more, see my article on How to Handle Rejection in evangelism.
[Editor's note: This post was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated.]