Have you ever noticed how hard it is to communicate concepts or ideas without using traditional vocabulary long associated with those concepts? Or how hard it can be to wrap our minds around a vision or goal if it is not described in familiar terminology? Communities are often defined by their vocabulary. And those on opposites sides of the border will understand that particular vocabulary differently. But what about members within the same community? Is it possible to share a traditional vision clothed in new terminology?
Why are these questions even necessary or important?
As I’ve been raising funds and seeking partners for an upcoming move to North Africa, I’ve been forced to ask these questions. I’m a follower of Jesus hoping to demonstrate His love among small-scale farmers in North Africa using sustainable agriculture. A challenge for me will be learning two languages in order to help me do so. Unexpectedly, communicating in my own language with my own community regarding my vision for farmers overseas has proven its own challenge.
The descriptor of “Christian-hoping-to-work-abroad,” may bring to mind such community-acceptable concepts as “mission,” “missionary,” and “ministry.” These terms are so laden with baggage for the people with whom I hope to be sharing, that they are, in fact, harmful. “Christian” doesn’t mean Christ-follower to them, but something closer to “greedy-self-serving-power-hungry-liscensious-Capitalist-idolater-with-no-moral-identity.” And “missionary” conveys “lying-sneaking-converter.” So I ask myself, “Why should we Jesus-followers not seek to freshen our vocabulary?”
As it turns out, a problem for the present Christian community seems to be not so much that of finding an approachable fashion in which to address these farmers, but rather one of finding a way to discuss such an approach among ourselves.
I work for a non-profit organization that defines itself as a “global community of Christian professionals leveraging our skills to restore hope.” Our vision is “to see transformed lives in communities of contagious hope.” We describe our work in terms of “transformational change”, “revitalization,” “thriving communities,” “holism,” “compassion,” and “demonstrable love” in the context of business, education, health care, agriculture, and community development.* When I use these terms with Christians here at home in talking about my vision for farmers in North Africa, I often get puzzled stares. “So you’re a missionary,” is the inevitable rejoinder.
If I answer “yes,” I seem to separate myself and my work from the individual with whom I’m conversing. And yet, isn’t what I’ve described exactly what every Christian is called to be part of regardless of where we are, our job or situation? Answering in the affirmative also seems to moil again the waters of a vocabulary rife with associations. If I answer “no” in an attempt to throw off parlance fraught with misconception, fear, and abhorrence for the very people with whom I most want to communicate truth, freedom, and joy (and because the organization for which I work is not a missions agency), my fellow conversant is confused again. “So you’ll be helping farmers, but will you be sharing the Gospel?”
Is it possible that we’ve narrowed the Gospel to the limited perimeters of language?
*Kimberly Duncan is an NSCBC World Partner with IDEAS who is currently raising funds and seeking partners for her upcoming move to North Africa. On Saturday, September 24, 2016 at 6:30pm she will be sharing about her work at the home of Stephanie Duncan and Cindy Perreault in Beverly. Please come and continue the conversation.