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Learning From the National Church: What Our Brothers and Sisters Can Teach Us

In the Nick of Time

Jeff Straub

I love encountering new cultures. The sounds, the smells, the tastes—pungent, bitter, sweet, loud, soft, ebullient, quiet. What a world we live in! Last week I spoke of the global ministry of teaching that the Lord has given me in the last twenty years. This ministry has carried me to four continents. I have had the joy of teaching in eight countries outside the United States to students from as many as twenty countries—a miniscule representation of the world—but still places with significant diversity. I have preached in still other countries. From the southern tip of India to eastern Europe, from Canada in the north to Africa in the south, God has given me the privilege of meeting Christians in diverse places. I’ve eaten raw seafood in China and fried caterpillars in Africa. But I have only scratched the surface of the world God has made. As a global traveler, I am a relative amateur.

In the course of my journeys, I have met Christians of many stripes living in varied places. While there are many differences—from the minor key music in India with a strange-looking instrument called a tabla keeping the tempo, to the joyfully rhythmic music of Africa with body motions, I have experienced worship in these places. Sometimes I have preached, but often I have simply observed, with and without a translator. I enjoy a church service where I am a stranger and the language is not English. I find that Christians, while significantly different around the globe, can be remarkably similar.

Sometimes the churches are segregated into men and women and sometimes not. In Romania, the men and women often sit on opposite sides of the auditorium, although that practice is gradually fading. The married women wear a headcovering. In some places men wear a tie to church; in others, they wear a colorful shirt, nicely pressed. In India, even the preacher goes without shoes as people ordinarily remove their street shoes when indoors!

As I have traveled globally, my life has been enriched by the diversity of believers I have met and the churches I have visited. Hospitality is a marvelous gift and one that my brothers and sisters abroad practice with joy and Christian grace. One lesson I have learned over the years is the value of time. In many places, time is marked less by the hands on a clock and more by the activity of the moment. Events begin when everyone arrives and end when things are finished. In Bible school, we were taught that if you aren’t five minutes early, then you are late. Who passed the rule that everything must be run by the minutes on a clock? For many in the world, time is for people: important people deserve important amounts of time. This takes some getting used to. When visiting in a home on an Indian reserve in Canada, the purpose of the visit is often the last thing to be discussed—immediately before the guest departs. The early part of the visit is the warm up to the end. You have to take your time. We regularly had people drop in for a visit after 9 PM. You get used to it—if you want to work with people. And our children, who we think need to be on such a fixed time schedule that a drill sergeant would blush, get over the inconveniences of life. A friend who is ministering in Spain is getting used to dinners that begin at 9 PM—with fellowship to follow!

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Christians who visit other cultures often think they have so much to teach, when in reality they have so much to learn. It is only by being a good student that they stand a chance of becoming a good teacher. It is hard to give the answers if you don’t know what the questions are. It’s a little bit like substitute teaching here in the seminary. Sure, I could fill in for a colleague and kill two hours with lecture. But to meet the students where they are and take them to where they need to be is something altogether different. This takes time to learn with students I generally know. Think about the difficulty of teaching people from another culture. You have to know them before you can truly teach them!

When I travel to another country, before I can teach them, they need to teach me. Simply knowing facts doesn’t mean that I have something they want to hear. I have to meet them and engage them. It has long been my practice to learn the names of my students on the first day of class. This is fairly easy if you have a half dozen students. But with thirty students, as I often have in Zambia, it’s a challenge. Well, let’s see: there’s John and John and John (1st, 2nd and 3rd John), and there’s Caleb from Uganda. I want to know where they are from and what the burdens of their hearts are. I like to hear them pray. I want to learn from them and assure them that they have as much to teach me as I have to teach them.

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Take the marriage customs from around the world. We in the western world think that all marriage needs to be first motivated by love. The thought of an arranged marriage such as is common in India and Africa is a completely foreign concept. Yet part of this custom stems from valuing the wisdom of parents. I am not arguing that we in the west should adopt these practices. But neither should they be dismissed without trying to understand them. I think there is something from their customs that we can learn if we would listen.

Short-term missionaries are particularly prone to one-sided thinking. They travel the world to do a particular job in a particular place—in and out—and back home again. Quite often there is little time to learn from local believers, only time to impart western views. Planning a trip this summer for your church? Leave time for conversation and instruction for your team from your hosts. You might be surprised what they can contribute to your Christian life. You might be the richer for the visit. The trip might actually be more about what God has to teach you than about what God wants you to teach others. Our national brothers and sisters have much that we can learn from. Let us make time to hear what they have to say.

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This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Thou, Whose Almighty Word
John Marriott (1780–1825)

Thou, whose almighty word
chaos and darkness heard,
and took their flight;
hear us, we humbly pray,
and, where the Gospel day
sheds not its glorious ray,
let there be light!

Thou who didst come to bring
on thy redeeming wing
healing and sight,
heal to the sick in mind,
sight to the inly blind,
now to all humankind,
let there be light!

Spirit of truth and love,
life-giving holy Dove,
speed forth thy flight!
Move on the waters’ face
bearing the gifts of grace,
and, in earth’s darkest place,
let there be light!

Holy and blessèd Three,
glorious Trinity,
Wisdom, Love, Might;
boundless as ocean’s tide,
rolling in fullest pride,
through the world far and wide,
let there be light!

About Guest Author

This guest article has been published because an editor has determined its contents to be supportive of the values of Religious Affections Ministries. Its publication does not imply full agreement between its author and RAM on other matters.

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