In 2011, my family and I moved into the heart of the Ozarks to serve at a church while we prepared to plant a church. Not knowing anyone, I made a decision that has since affected my life and ministry. I wore a Cardinals baseball hat a friend gave me. That cap started conversations, made friends and got me connected. It also landed me in a room with a bunch of people laughing, drinking, and celebrating when the Cardinals won the World Series. It was that night that a valuable ministry lesson was cemented in my life. A lesson that changed my tenure in Missouri and a lesson that is foundational to the church we would leave there to plant.
We are missionaries.
That may not sound profound to you, or maybe its overly obvious, but I’m learning that it is often a leadership principle not lived out, at least not in our local ministries. Oversees missions do this very well. They send candidates to schools for local language, history and culture training so that they may understand the people they are trying to reach. Just as they prepare to acclimate into a culture, so should we.
We have to study our cultures.
If you want to reach a people group you have to know a people group. When I wore my Cardinals hat, I quickly learned the players and history of “my” team. When we moved to Cookeville to plant Refuge Church, I got a map to memorize as many roads as I could and read the local newspaper. Currently, it’s why I watch SportsCenter, subscribe to Entertainment Weekly, and observe others every time we go into town. As missionaries, we have to intentionally learn about the people and place God has called us to reach.
However, as usual, knowledge without application is useless. You can know and understand people but that’s not enough to make a difference or to actually reach others. Like the foreign missionaries who have gone through training so that they can live abroad, we have to do more than just learn our culture.
We have to engage our culture.
Though SportsCenter’s Top 10 and the Entertainment Weekly’s Bullseye can be very entertaining, that is not why I expose myself to them. It is so I can have conversations. To the person who likes football I can talk about the Rams relocation. To the person who likes Batman I can discuss how Ben Affleck will never top Christian Bale’s performance. I can even discuss why 1989 may just be the greatest record ever produced, even though everyone knows it is Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. I emerge myself so I can engage others in conversation and build relationships.
Paul worded it this way, “I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22b-23 NLT)
If we really want to reach people, we must be willing to meet them where they are, in the shallow, broken and hurting places that they find themselves in. We must be willing to do what Jesus did.
We have to embrace our culture.
For too long we have trained foreign missionaries to embrace their culture yet we have looked down on others for doing that at home. Many of us have stood on a “holier than thou” platform claiming we are “not to be of the world” while completely forgetting that Jesus said to be “in the world”.
“Just as you (God) sent me (Jesus) into the world, I am sending them (his disciples) into the world”. (John 17:18 NLT)
Jesus sends us into a culture, with a specific mission; to go and make disciples. Not to make friends or acclimate for the sake of acclimation. We immerse ourselves in peoples lives so that when trials and tragedies occur they have a known, trusted place to go to. Just as Jesus did. He left a culture, to be sent into a culture, so that he could reach a culture. And thats what it’s all about; reaching people.
That Game 7 night in October I got to do that very thing. In a room with others, I was with them, like them, becoming them; so that Jesus could be seen in me. And many times since, in my city and the church we birthed, I have been blending in so that Jesus may stand out.
Dustin Thompson is a Tennessee native with a heart for God’s church. He has served at various roles in church plants in Tennessee and Missouri. Currently he is the lead and planting pastor of Refuge Church in Cookeville, TN. He also serves churches through freelance graphic design and with organizational consultations. Dustin is married to Melissa, has two kids, Avail and Archer, and is an avid Cardinals fan. For more information you can reach out to him via foundrefuge.org or find him on Facebook.