The last few days have been spent in North Africa with BMS colleagues in the company of Jonathan Edwards, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. One of the main purposes in coming was to do some filming for our forthcoming Assembly in Plymouth but its also been a very good opportunity to meet our team here and for a number of meaningful mission-orientated conversations to take place. So often, these conversations come alive in the company of our team members who tell of the challenges they face, and in the immediate context of a country where we’re trying to make an impact.
We have a small team of about 10 people plus children seeking to live and work for Christ in such a way that the seeds of transformation can be sown in people’s lives and in society’s structures. The team have a range of professional skills which are deployed in projects authorised by the Government. They work with some of the neediest people in this country, in areas of work where the Government acknowledges it needs help and insights from others. As in so many countries, our team are known to be believers and so there are clear restrictions on what they are allowed to do.
Even in the last few days these restrictions have been obvious. At times we were conscious of plain clothes security men tagging along behind us. For our team members who live here, there are websites they won’t access, including our own mission website, as these are monitored and could lead to unhelpful encounters with security services. Mail is often opened. Some telephone conversations are monitored.
And to get an idea of the scale of the challenge, one section of our team are in a town of 17,000 where they know of just three national believers. One person works in a town of 70,000 and knows of one other believer, and that person is a student from another part of the country attending the local university.
Into this mix comes the challenge of cultural adaptation and assimilation. Our team have a high level of fluency in French and Arabic, the fruit of much hard labour, first in Paris for a year then in situ to learn the local dialect of Arabic. Their cultural awareness is high, their knowledge of ‘how things are done around here’ enables them to live in such a way that though they are seen as ‘westerners’ they can avoid the stereotype of westerners that many local people gather from TV screens. Gaining the respect of local people is vital.
But when all is said and done, there remains the challenge of how to become accepted into society, and an Islamic society at that. I was reading Steve Bell’s book Grace for Muslims on this visit:
“The close-knit Muslim community is an entrenched cultural web that enmeshes people into deep loyalty to the system. The strong underlying adherence to family and community customs makes an individual decision for Christ almost impossible without fatally injuring these relational links. Therefore the cost of discipleship in a Muslim community is very high”. (Patrick Johnstone quoted in “Grace for Muslims” p141)
Muslim communities, like many non-western cultures, are very self-contained. We see that in the UK and elsewhere, and whilst this is often seen as a bad thing (“they keep themselves to themselves! Why don’t they integrate? They live in a ghetto”) this style of living is what comes naturally. It isn’t a lifestyle adopted as a way of not integrating into western society. Its just the way their society is.
All of which begs the question as to how easy is it for a foreigner to become a part of this society. Can a stranger ever be accepted? Can an outsider ever be truly at home?
If the answer is ever to be yes, then true friendship and a deep respect for cultural norms will always be necessary. These are skills we need to learn in the UK, not least in our churches, if we are to make an impact on other faith communities in our own nation.
But there is a another clue in scripture if we read carefully. In Luke 10:5,6 we read "When you enter a house, first say, 'Peace to this house.' If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you.”
The man or woman of peace is one who welcomes the stranger into the web of a particular community, in effect someone who issues the invitation to the stranger and vouches for them. Only when someone holds our hand do we have the tacit permission to enter into this complex cultural web. To be so invited is a privilege, and not one to be taken lightly.
Increasingly as we seek to share the gospel with those whose community life is so much stronger than our more nuclear western society, it is the man or woman of peace who provides the entrée. This applies in the UK as much as elsewhere.
Our experience from other countries tells us that the man or woman of peace is often not a believer and in fact may never become one. But in the economy of God, their graciousness and God’s grace make it possible for outsiders to gain entry.
And from that precious place, we pray we may have the words to tell of the One who is Saviour and Lord.