Missionary Knowledge: What has our Missionary Culture Done to us?

Have missionaries allowed our theological education, training, and preparation to get in the way of the results we seek? Does our North American traditional worldview add so much baggage to our thinking that all our strategies are less effective?

In his book, Dangerous Calling, Paul David Tripp’s second common factor that causes pastors to struggle in their lives and ministries is: “I let Biblical literacy and theological knowledge define my maturity.” Here Tripp is talking about his spiritual maturity and not emotional, intellectual or physical maturity.

He explains that he misunderstood spiritual maturity and assumed that his advanced degrees in theology and ministry made him mature in spiritual matters. He pastored with a secure confidence in his authority over those he was shepherding.  But he overlooked the fact that while he was a pastor, he was also a sheep and part of Jesus’ flock. He needed to continue to grow in his spiritual journey too.

Missionary Knowledge: Thinking I Knew How to Teach Cross-Culturally

I taught Bible and Missions classes in the undergraduate department of a Southeast Asia seminary. My lessons were based on the way I had been taught, using many of the same reference books and my personal notes from my studies. My students culture demanded that they view me as their teacher who had all the answers. That didn’t help me at all! After teaching for about 4 years, as part of my ongoing graduate studies I took a class in Cross-Cultural Education and began to see disconnects in what I was doing.

Missionary Knowledge Ain't Enough

Missionary Knowledge is not Enough!

For a class project, I did a study on cheating. I noticed a lot of copying of homework and assignment papers. I also suspected a good bit of test-time sharing of information took place. The results of the survey of my students’ revealed over 80% participation in things that my knowledge told me were cheating. Wow!

I asked my students to define cheating in their own words. A nearly unanimous answer was, “Cheating is when I know the answer and I don’t tell my friends.” The worldview of their relational culture was not to withhold information from their friends, but to help one another. Certainly a case could be made that the Bible supports this relational worldview. Otherwise why share Good News with others?

This shocking insight into my own cultural blindness helped me begin to change my thinking and teaching methodology. Without meaning to allow my culture and knowledge to influence my classroom, I had blindly done just that. I assumed that my students knew my definition of cheating.  I had fallen victim to the curse of knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge: when we are given knowledge, it is impossible to imagine what it’s like to LACK that knowledge.  Chip Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

This curse causes a case of severe blindness to the way others think, make decisions, and live with one another. When a missionary assumes the answer to all the questions are based on their personal training and knowledge, they may unwittingly do great things yet see little or no results.  Often this triggers deep personal frustration and expense.

Knowledge is input, and wisdom is the correct application of knowledge or output. The need for knowledge is ongoing and necessary for all ministers.  Learning how to apply knowledge properly requires more than mere acquisition of knowledge.  We need help and wisdom beyond ourselves to apply knowledge well.

That’s where Christians should excel because we have a Helper. The Holy Spirit is with believers to give insight and direction beyond our limited input of information. But learning to work with this Helper is a process. Having experience in hearing and following the guidance of the Lord through the leading of The Holy Spirit is an essential element of successful ministry. He makes up the difference that our lack of experience and wisdom creates.

Rather than defining our spiritual maturity based upon knowledge, Tripp reminds his readers that, “…our ministries are not shaped just by knowledge, experience, and skill but by the true condition of our hearts.” (p.142) Good words to live by, eh?

This is only one way that our missionary knowledge can impact our ministries.

What are some ways you have experienced the curse of knowledge impacting your life and mission?

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