I’ve been working in international ministry at Cambray Baptist Church for just 20 months now.
But as I reflect on that time, I want to thank God for the way that he has enriched my life through those I have befriended from other countries and cultures.
As I have met to teach and study with a group of ladies each week, I have found great spiritual encouragement. God has particularly used them to show me some of my cultural blind spots – areas where my Christianity is really the outworking of my Britishness, rather than godliness!
More and more I begin to understand the beauty of the worldwide church, especially when this is seen in a local church community. Of course it takes more work and effort to communicate, when you come from such different backgrounds, but I think it brings more fun too!
Here are some of the things I have learnt from my Christian brothers and sisters- Philippino, Japanese, Argentine, Malaysian, Czech and more! (Thank you guys!)
Humility under God’s Word
James 1 (22-25) warns us to not be like the man that looks in the mirror (of God’s word) and then forgets what he sees, making no changes.
I have been challenged by the way the ladies respond to God’s word in our studies, hearing it and putting it into action.
Returning to the Bible study the following week having made big changes in line with what we learnt during the previous study, with little time spent in self-justification or pride. I hope and pray that I do the same, allowing scripture to be the sword that pierces to the thoughts and attitudes of my heart.
They show me a simple trust in Gods authority to tell them what to do! It’s not a dialogue between equals, but the rightful response of a trusting servant to a good master.
The value of time for people and not programmes.
I used to get frustrated about their time keeping. Sometimes they would arrive half an hour late – or on occasion early!
I’m a typical time keeping Brit, with a carefully worked out schedule. But I have come to understand that a big part of this is a greater value placed on people and quality of relationship. Often they were late because they didn’t want to rush a conversation with family, or they stopped in the street to talk to someone they knew. And they would come early to enjoy some quality time with me before the study!
Relationship is more important than a perfectly timed schedule! In fact I could communicate that I cared little about them, if I rushed off to my next appointment without taking the time to talk and invest in the present friendship! I think this is very biblical. Jesus took time even for the little children, and often ‘changed his plans’ to meet people’s needs and speak to their hearts and minds. He sacrificed his rest and peace to serve and love others. I need to value people over my schedule too!
Sharing all parts of my life
This is one that I’ve definitely not cracked yet! It’s related to my previous point. We often think of our lives as if they occupy different compartments – work, leisure, church etc. Some we label open to all, and others are firmly private – and some things need to be of course. But many of my friends from other cultures have willingly shared much of their lives with me. Good times, hard times, family celebrations, times of grieving. I know I can just drop round and be included in whatever is happening at the time. I want people to feel that they can do this with me too! It has also meant that these friendships grow deeper faster, because we share more, and see each other in a variety of situations. It feels more like the community I crave.
Which leads to another lesson…
A willingness to share spiritual joys and struggles instead of keeping them private. This has had the affect of binding us together as a group, and causing us to live out our Christian lives warts and all in the sight of one another, so that we all encourage, teach, rebuke and pray for one another because we are part of each others lives! Don’t worry, I know that sounds highly idealistic – we haven’t got it right yet, that’s for sure, we are still a bunch of sinners! And I have to admit that pride, and wanting to appear ‘spiritually mature’ has sometimes led me to seal off areas of my life from the eyes of others, yet I have found much greater blessing in openness and real sharing of lives.
It does mean that we are more vulnerable, but we are also more accountable. It means that sin can be exposed before it takes root, and encouragement from scripture given before despair takes hold.
Respect for those who teach
Lastly, I have also noticed that many of my international friends have a simple respect for those who teach them. They respect the authority of the Pastor as given by God. I guess that most Christians would say that they uphold this too, but in my own experience, it’s very easy to be cynical, and to criticise those in authority over us, picking apart the Sunday sermon, as if they are simply the speaker that we ‘pay for’ and their words are to be weighed according to our own likes and opinions. I have been reminded to cultivate a greater respect and an expectancy that God will use our pastors and teachers to speak by his Holy Spirit.
And I pray that I will also show the humility that they often do, to be rebuked or corrected by my leaders, when my understanding or behaviour fall short.
Of course I’m not saying that my friends have got everything right, we all learn from our respective cultures because God has imparted some wisdom to all, and I hope it’s obvious, that in listing these lessons, I am not knocking the British church!!
But I rejoice that God is using many of the people I teach and minister to, to minister powerfully to me too!
In our Bible studies we have a wider context in which to discuss how we apply the things we are learning. And we also come up with some great cultural illustrations to explain scripture to one another. (We’ve also had some hilarious misunderstandings, and some very blank looks from me as they forget to speak in English from time to time!)
Now as I read this post back to myself, I need to make another thing clear here… although I’m trying to learn from my friends, my intention is not to make you leave my blog guilt-tripped, or with a list of things to improve on! My tone is one of marvelling gratitude to God for the many nations he calls as his church, and for the things I’m in the process of learning!
And I guess all I’m really saying is, why not invest in some friendships with people from other countries and ask God to use it to your mutual blessing!
I’d also be interested to hear what you think us Brits contribute!