My non-scientific estimate of the percentage of people who have no idea what a missionary does? Maybe 95%, +or- 3%. Missionaries are change agents, and we know that human beings are resistant to change. If we tell them that up front, we’d never get a single convert, so we begin with the culture.
Most religions are liturgical; even those churches which are informal have a standard practice in public meetings. The gathering together of like-minded people forms the whole basis of society – all societies – around location (geographical), religions- most of the original societies relied on a powerful god-person, or a soldier-leader who ruled by force, or most frequently by families, almost always language families. This is not high-sociology, just an observation. It is the link that Islam has with itself all over the world, a world mission to rule through Sharia law and a ruling class tolerating no other.
Christianity, based on Judaism follows much the same path, except that the God is not Allah but a person who identified Himself as “I Am.” Originally God set standards for his people – a set of rules and a common master, God Himself. But the manner in which this religion is walked out is based largely on local culture. The Eskimos (Inuits) gather around a fire, Catholics gather in formal grand churches, some African groups gather at the river with no formal structures in sight. Today there are large churches which meet only on the internet.
Within the context of culture missionaries examine the situation and pray for guidance on how God may be understood and known. In China, for example, all the assumptions about western religion are false such as the notion that Christianity is for white people – an Anglo God so to speak, based largely on English-speaking standards since most of their missionaries came from this part of the world.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is originally identified with the Semitic Peoples of the Middle East. Jesus, because he died for the whole world, does not and has not limited himself to one cultural standard. You find Menorah and 7 branch candlesticks (they are not identical) in Messianic churches, but only occasionally in other buildings. Some churches have dancing, and music – others not. Some have communion every Sunday, many only as the minister feels moved to do so, others once a month. That is because Jesus wants us recognize His world-wide persona.
2 Corinthians 5:16 (CJB) So from now on, we do not look at anyone from a worldly viewpoint. Even if we once regarded the Messiah from a worldly viewpoint, we do so no longer.
Knowing Jesus Christ only through one’s individual congregation is referred to in scripture as knowing Jesus “after the flesh” a term from the King James version. It is a sign of spiritual maturity to leave behind the notion of denominational practices that are limited to local churches. When this does not happen churches become repositories for the children of the original members who may or may not be believers, having never been presented the same powerful gospel their forebears heard. These churches waste away. Today 30% of Christians do not go to church, disinterested and unchallenged, depending unfortunately on TV which may not move them forward.
The missionary is first a Watchman on the Wall – see Ezekiel. This person or persons spy out the land for a shred of concern for eternal things. Occasionally there is a zealot (like Paul) who is already motivated and one needs to get him moving in a better direction. There may be desperately dissatisfied and unhappy people who do not appreciate what is happening around them. They can make good converts too.
The least available are those who are self-satisfied or content with the status quo. Ronald Reagan defined the status quo as “the mess we are in,” still many people are too inert to change.
The church is ultimately about reality – or looking at life through God’s eyes, using the Bible and the testimony of believers. It will always meet head-on culture and use it for its advantage to introduce Jesus as a person.
Jesus is not a movement, an idea, a system or a benevolent dictator; he is a person separate from the cultural assumptions which cloud people’s minds. Since repentance is about “changing one’s mind” the missionary must start there. Of course there is opposition.
For those who believe that unbelief is a valid position I can only say you cannot prove a negative. It is futile. If you must hold on to your position you must do it by faith – that is you must say “I have faith that God does not exist.” this is the same group that says a falling tree does not make noise in the forest simply because no one hears it. That defines the humanist’s position on reality.
However, what is real is real regardless of who knows, sees, hears, or understands. In fact, the whole notion of immutable standards needs resuscitation so people can deal with the real world; all else is illusion. Reality cannot be defined by what you think; that is the best definition of neurosis: ” my notion of what reality is, makes it real.” These people are not dangerous (usually) just dysfunctional.***
We do not need to push the demonic on people for them to get a whiff of evil; we must show them that evil does not go away simply because we wish it would. God allows evil to remain as part of our training. An athlete repeats over and over certain moves until, when he is under extreme pressure from a contender, he makes exactly the right moves to win.
After the missionary has done his job, he moves on and leaves the congregation to a pastor or a group of leaders. There are new fields to plow.
*** I had a friend years ago who was neurotic. She had three marriages but she honestly believed that both previous marriages did not exist and that her third husband was the true father of the two sets of children from her previous two marriages. You can call this nuts if you wish, but it is a good example of neurotic behavior.