In the summer of 2010 my girlfriend (now my wife) and I were presented with an incredible opportunity. We were both invited to participate in a mission’s class that came along with a summer internship. While the class was like most others, the internships were anything but. The 15 or so students in our class traveled to four of the world’s seven continents that summer. I went to India; Anna went to Zambia (which can be found in the southern region of Africa). We both had incredible summers, experiencing a beautiful, yet broken, mixture of wonder, disgust, and humility. As we tried to understand other cultures and our own faith we discovered how often those things collide, and not necessarily in a good way. That summer, under the Indian sun and African skies, we learned how little we knew, and as a result our hearts, minds, and souls were opened to the fact that God was not done with us yet. Our old ways of thinking about faith were challenged most by how difficult it can be to understand faith once you have seen in practiced in a different way. Why? Because the things we make a big deal about here in the United States are not usually of any real concern “there”, and the things that are a concern to them, haven’t been considered here. It was enough to make me question what Christianity was all about, so much so that I haven’t stopped questioning that since my return four years ago.
About a hundred years ago, the Colonial Era was coming to an end. Colonialism was the idea that the entire world needed the specific type of civilization that could be found in Western Europe. The belief behind that movement was founded upon selfishness, pride, and the worst kind of Nationalism. Sadly, in the world of Christianity, not much was different. Missionary societies believed that the rest of the world needed a European style faith. Rather than simply presenting the beliefs of Christianity, European Missionaries would infiltrate these other societies and cultures with the practices of European Christianity. Ordained African ministers were expected to learn and teach in English to a people that didn’t understand the language. South Asian Islanders were expected to wear traditional “modest” clothing which could literally kill them in the heat of the South Pacific. These focuses on the western customs of Christianity confused what the core vales of Faith were for people, and we do this same thing to other societies and cultures today when we place our expectations on them about the way we think their faith should be expressed. We are effectively asking them to look like us and be like us. When we do this, we miss the beauty that is found in a multicultural world-wide church.
Are their values that transcend cultures? Of course! Church history and tradition is a constant source of wisdom and direction when making decisions for how a Church should function. However, if our goal is to make others look like us, we are missing something serious. The beauty of the Church’s differences around the world is that our faith, which is both the same and different in India, Africa, and the United States, reveals to us the nature and character of Christ, a man/God who defies all of our wildest dreams and most creative imaginations. Our posture, when exploring the complexities of the worldwide church, should be to learn rather than conquer, to absorb rather than fix, to understand, not be understood, and to aid rather than teach.
These values are essential parts of the Medici vision as well. We talk a lot about these things for our Alternative Breaks and Urban Missions students. When we come into an outside context, even in our own country or city, we are remiss if we do not seek to learn before we serve. Why? Because the lesson of our multi-faceted church shows us at Medici Project that we can go a lot farther in our service to others if we come alongside them and ask what they and their community need. This also poses us to see the reality of all service projects: that we are just as “in need” as those we seek to serve. A posture of listening is something we all need, especially as technology and business continue to separate us from one another. So the next time you have an opportunity to get out of your day-to-day context and experience the deeper, wider, church, I encourage you to step out and listen. I think you’ll find that you will learn something deeper about the nature of our faith, and your place in this world.
Image used under the creative commons license courtesy of Börkur Sigurbjörnsson: http://bit.ly/1tezmUF