10 things missionaries should know
Living in a foreign country depends on your ability to improvise and adapt.
If you are a missionary who is going to live in a foreign country, you would be well advised to develop the ability to improvise and adapt. You are going to be in a culture that is not your own. In many cases, everything you have learned about general life, (things that you take for granted because they come natural to you), will be completely useless. Since you can never make that culture change to be like yours, you will be the one who has to adapt. The saying, “When you are in Rome, you must do as the Romans do” is the a way of life for a missionary. Paul said that he was, “all things to all men…” (1 Cor 9:22). This is the Biblical equivalent of that all important phrase. If you hope to live freely amongst the people, you must learn to improvise and adapt.
When I lived in China, we were quick to learn the extent of the phrase: “foreign country.” The Chinese do everything by squatting. We like to sit on chairs. So, there were no chairs in our house. We had to improvise and make some out of benches that they gave us. We had to boil water everyday to kill the bacteria. We stored it in cisterns that we made out of plastic garbage cans. The washing machine was so small that it would only hold 2 or 3 items of clothing at one time. There were no dryers, so everything had to be hung outside. This was a problem in the rainy season, so I made a pulley system in the stairwell so we could hang our clothes up in the house. There was no hot water so we had to take cold showers. Not a problem in the summer, but the winter was quite a different thing. I could go on and on about how we had to learn a new way of living, but more important than that is presenting the gospel had to be done differently as well.
Of course China is a “closed country” to the gospel. This means that it is illegal to spread the gospel; and the Chinese were very strict about this. However, they wanted their students to learn everything about the American culture that they could. So, when Christmas time came around, I decided to improvise. I made a big deal about getting a Christmas tree. It was quite the thing for the people to experience. They couldn’t understand why we put a tree in our house and decorated it. When we got it in our house, I asked my Chinese friends to help me decorate it. They had a blast and I had a way to preach the gospel.
Have you ever heard of the Wordless Book? It is a book that only contains different color pieces of blank paper. There are no words in it. Each color tells a story: black=sin; white=perfection; red=blood; etc. I turned my Christmas tree into the wordless Christmas tree and through decorating it with the different colors, was able to openly and boldly preach the gospel to the communist party leader without him even realizing I was doing so. He thought it was an explanation of our culture and in a certain sense it was, but it was innovative.
You can be innovative and still preach the gospel in a closed country. You can adapt to a new way of living. However, you must want to do it. I have seen missionaries who could not adapt. At times it was the wife who couldn’t adapt to buying food in an open air market. There were times when the children just couldn’t learn the language, so they lived their teenage years as an outsider: friendless and lonely. One time I saw a missionary boldly tell the communist officials that they couldn’t tell him what to do. He said, “I work for God and He is bigger than you.” Then next day they put him on a plane out of there, and he forfeited all of his belongings.
There are many things to adapt to when living if a foreign country. I would like to emphasis that word: “living.” Why? Because it is not the same thing as visiting. When you are visiting, you always have in the back of your mind that you will be leaving shortly, so you convince yourself that you can take it. When you are living there, there is no end in sight. You have to make the best of it for the long run. You have to adapt your entire life to a whole new way, and that is not easy. But if you look at it as your “great adventure,” you can see the blessing in it. You will be able to adapt and improvise with a much better attitude.