Whenever I am around people talking about mission, my mind gets moving. This week I am at STAND, the North American Mission Leaders event sponsored by Missio Nexus in Dallas, Texas.
Yesterday I was listening to Paul Borthwick, long a strong advocate for Christian mission and engagement in the world, particularly short-term mission. One of the things he stressed was the need for missionaries, when we are working and serving in other countries to stop, listen to and accept the leadership of the national leaders. But he went further, challenging us to not only listen to leaders, but to hear the words of the poor and the least of these when we go.
Over the last week or so, the concept of American Exceptionalism has been in the news a lot. Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an Op-Ed peice in the New York Times saying Americans are not exceptional, people have been talking. His peice even stirred Senator John McCain to fire off a response extolling the virtues of both America and our exceptionalism.
Exceptionalism is this belief that America, and by extension our citizenry, are unusually “different” from others countries and peoples. In practice it gets interpreted as we are better than anyone else. It's as if because of our history, our formation, our struggles and our values, we have a leg up on everyone else in the world.
This belief is rooted in the American Revolution, our support of Europe, and the sacrifices we made in helping win World War II. It can perhaps best be expressed in what is known as our “can do” attitude. It is a badge of honor many Americans, my self included frequently wear with pride.
And therein may lie the problem.
How can missionaries from America, long steeped in the tradition of American Exceptionism, set aside that pride, be it for a week, or years in the case of long-term missionaries, and really listen to leaders from other countries?
How can we, when we intrinsically believe at our core that we are better or know more, set those beliefs aside and become learner servants, seeking to hear God’s voice from others?
If we believe that we have the best program, the best building methods, the best access to mission philosophy, the best evangelism methods and materials, isn’t it going to be hard to listen to nationals from another country?
It is almost as if Borthwick is asking us to do something that we cannot do. And you know what? Apart from God, maybe he is.
The Apostle Paul in his great letter to the church of Philippi shows us the way.
We read in one of the greatest calls to humility in the bible to be Christlike at an amazing level. We are called to obedience, the cross, humility and love of others at such an incredible level it is hard to comprehend.
It is summed up best when Paul says we are to consider others better than ourselves. Take that in for a moment. Paul is saying to consider that not only is the guy with more education better than you, but to consider the same for the farmer, or the immigrant, the man living in a shack or the shaman in the village half way around the world.
Paul, the jew of jews in the eyes of many...
“Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”
Faultless. Let that word sink in. Without fault. Perfect. Righteous. Justified. That’s exceptionalism.
And Paul was willing to set it all aside for the sake of the Gospel, counting it all as loss in comparison to the Gospel.
Borthwick was essentially challenging us, as North American Mission Leaders, and there are more than 1200 here in Dallas representing every facet of mission work, to set what we believe to be our exceptionalism aside and be like the Apostle when we go.
But you know what? He stopped short. I’ve seen Paul Borthwick speak many times and I admire him greatly, but he stopped short yesterday. He stopped short because he only challenged us to live that call when we go “over there.”
One of the most frequent criticisms I hear about Christians in the US is that we believe we are better and have it all figured out. What if we not only “considered others better than ourselves” when we are in another country, but here in our own country as well?
Would it be hard? Of course it would. But maybe that is why Paul in closing his Epistle chose this verse... “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
Imagine the offering that we would be to God if we as a people,in a country that sees itself as exceptional, set that belief aside for the sake of the Kingdom, became nothing, took the very nature of a servant, and nailed our exceptionalism and pride obediently on the cross.
That would indeed be a witness that just might say something about Jesus to the nations.