Growing up, I never, ever imagined becoming a missionary. I always thought I would be in ministry, but serving somewhere outside the U.S.A. was the farthest thing from my mind. I specifically remember telling God that I'd go wherever he sent me, but added, "Just please don't make me a missionary."
When it seemed clear, though, that serving in Africa was the path that Rachel and I were to walk, all those great Bible stories I grew up with made it crystal clear who my role model would be - Paul the missionary.
But lately I've come to realize something... Paul isn't actually the best role model for cross-cultural mission work.
A few weeks ago, I came across a quote that has been wriggling around in my brain. I'll paste the full quote below, but the gist of it is this: The Apostle Paul was not really a cross-cultural missionary and therefore... ahem... he may not be the best role model for those serving as cross-cultural missionaries.
Paul was a Jew, certainly, but his background was much more cosmopolitan. He was intimately familiar with the Greco-Roman culture of the Ancient World. But his travel companion, Barnabas, was someone who seemed more at home in the more Jewish context. It is likely that their famous missionary journeys were a more cross-cultural experience for him. Barnabas played a key role in their ministry, but at a certain point he willingly took a backseat to the eventual author of most of the New Testament. That decision probably had a lot to do with Paul's gifting, but it may also have been because our famous apostle (Paul) was more familiar with the people they were seeking to reach than the guy history considers his sidekick (Barnabas).
So, I sat down separately with Cruz and Armindo, two of the younger Mozambicans I've been discipling. I talked about the two famous missionaries in the book of Acts. And I told them that from now on I'm going to think of them as the 'Pauls' and see myself in the 'Barnabas' role. I told them how proud I was of the way they love God. I told them I was encouraged and impressed by their efforts to plant new churches over the last few months. I reminded them that they understand this culture more deeply than I ever will. So, they're the 'Pauls' and I'll focus on being a 'Barnabas.'
The beautiful truth is that they and the other men and women we are discipling are much more equipped to take the good news of God's kingdom to their family and friends (the Makua-Metto people) and it is exciting to see them become more passionate and confident as they grow into that role.
May God raise up modern-day "Pauls" from among the Makua-Metto to reach the Makua-Metto. And may I serve as a "Barnabas" to encourage them along the way.
Grace and Peace,
P.S. Here's that quote I mentioned earlier - Enjoy!
"Historically, missionary movements have tended to look to Paul as the model missionary. Paul has been the inspiration for thousands to go boldly where no gospel was preached before. There is something natural about this. The New Testament is largely a Pauline set of texts. He is the central figure in the theology and ministry of the early church. His character is captivating and real. He is a towering personality, full of courage and yet somehow possessing sensitive emotions. His adventures spark the wanderlust of many readers. But is he really a model for missionaries in the sense of cultural outsiders who seek to get the gospel inside a culture to which they themselves are strangers? Was Paul really a cross-cultural missionary? We need to recall that he was born a Jew and so could with integrity truly be a Jew to the Jew. But he was also born into the Greek language and culture and worldview of the god-fearing Greek, the slice of Greek culture which seems to have formed the target for much of his direct ministry. He could thus with integrity also truly be a Greek to the Greek. There is another New Testament figure, closely related to Paul's ministry, who would seem to be a model for cross-cultural mission. This man was in the right place at the right time and recognized in Paul the gifts and calling needed to minister to Greeks. He served to link Paul with the suspicious leadership of the Jerusalem church and defended Paul to them. He stood alongside Paul in ministry at Antioch and accompanied Paul on itinerant ministry, though always taking an apparent back seat to Paul's leadership. And in the end, this man simply fades into oblivion so that the story of the people movement among the Greeks is largely a story of Paul's ministry, not his own (though without him it is doubtful that Paul would ever have been what we know). This man Barnabas seems to me to be the model, or at least a model, after which we need to pattern our ministries. If we do, we will find ways to come alongside others. We will have eyes to see whom God may be raising up as a new Paul, no matter how difficult the new Paul may be for other Christian leaders to accept. We will have the humility to stand in the background. And in the end we will have the grace to face the fact that our role is really to disappear. If Barnabas is our model, we can trust God to raise up messengers to voice his message in the contexts of the remaining cultures among which we long to see his kingdom come." - p. 115-6 - "Encountering Muslim Resistance" by Kevin Higgins in Reaching the Resistant: Barriers and Bridges for Mission - J. Dudley Woodberry, editor