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Being one of them – not just pretending to be or trying to be

Posted by on Feb 23, 2012 in community, missional | 16 comments

Being one of them – not just pretending to be or trying to be

A friend of ours lives in Milan, Italy. She moved there a few years ago with a missions organization. They paid for her to stay in Milan for two years. When her “term” was completed, she could not continue in the same city with the same missions organization. But, instead of returning to the United States or moving to another place with the missions organization, she decided to get a job and stay in Milan.

Recently, she was interviewed about her experiences. She shared the interview with us via email, and she allowed me to post parts of the interview here.

In this first part, she explains the struggles she originally had with “contextualization”:

For the first six months of my term, I mostly just observed and learned from them. One of my observations was the ease they had in building relationships. Even though I was on a “platform” I still found some difficulty in that I didn’t live life exactly as they did. I did not have to leave my house and get onto a crowded metro at 7:30 in the morning. I didn’t feel the same level of stress and work fatigue they felt. I wasn’t on their rhythm. As a result, even though I loved them and was all about “contextualization,” it only went so far as I did not completely and authentically live like them. I also saw that they were able to express a deeper incarnational testimony and model what a normal life “on mission” looks like.

In the next part of the interview, she explains how this all changed once she got a job and begin working to support herself:

I have loved my life as a “normal person.” It has changed everything both for me personally and in my ministry. For me personally, being legitimately and authentically on the same “rhythm” as everyone else has completely changed my view of “contextualization.” Contextualization is no longer something that I have to be intentional in doing — I AM part of the context. I feel their pain and joy. I am one of them — not just pretending to be or trying to be.

I feel like it has been an answer to prayer for me spiritually as well. Though I do see a place for vocational ministry and know that God calls us to different things, I noticed in my personal walk with Christ as a missionary that the gospel became my job. It tragically became something I “sold.” If I were a banana salesmen who focused all day on selling bananas, the last thing I would want to do at night would be to sit down and eat a plate of bananas. Though I knew it should not be like this for a missionary — and with many I know it is not — I found that the lines between my categories of work and the truth that changed everything in me often got blurred. Now I live in Milan, Italy as a person who has been radically changed and transformed by the gospel of Christ, placed in community with others, and has the privilege of being part of God’s mission to glorify himself on the earth. I cannot help but testify, NOT because it is my job, but because it is my life. People don’t distrust me when I do because I am a normal person and this is what I believe. They don’t see me as someone with a “hidden agenda” to convert them. Of course knowing they do not see me that way makes me even more bold in my testifying!

I love that one part: “Contextualization is no longer something that I have to be intentional in doing — I AM part of the context. I feel their pain and joy. I am one of them — not just pretending to be or trying to be.”

Do you know that for many church leaders, the same problem exists. They are not really part of the context. They are not “one of them.” They know it, and the people know it.

I wonder if all church leaders would find the same freedom and acceptance that my friend has found if they stepped away from “vocational ministry,” began working for their own support, and continued ministering to the people that God brings into their life… as one of them.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 2-23-2012


    How exciting to see people break out of the canard that is “vocational-ministry”–the best and most godly advice someone who thinks of themselves as a “vocational pastor” -or- “vocational missionary” is for them to get a job and support themselves.

    Most elders aren’t and most pastors don’t.

    All who are in Christ/Christians are full time ordained ministers and missionaries.


  2. 2-23-2012

    Great post!

    How do you learn and feel empathy until you are actually walking in their shoes. get rid of all “platform” shoes. 🙂


  3. 2-23-2012

    Hutch and Swanny,

    Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad to see more and more people ready to become “one of them.”


  4. 2-23-2012

    I am “one of them” but I feel a little weird, like I’m some native in some far away tribe who missionary type people are trying to understand. There isn’t much to understand, “we” work so that “we” can take care of our families. It isn’t a fun little experiment, it’s life.

  5. 2-23-2012


    I think I understand what you’re saying. I think my friend would agree with you. She is not experimenting; she is living. And, that “living” includes working to support herself, among other things.


  6. 2-23-2012

    This is a great post and I totally resonate with what your friend is saying – I get the “spirit” of what she’s trying to say. However, technically, she is blurring the lines between “contextualisation ” and “incarnational ministry”, which is missiologically incorrect. Contextualisation is the process, or thinking, that is required to present Jesus and the gospel in a way that makes sense within the milieu and cultural context of the host people. It cannot happen naturally and by itself, but requires a certain intentionality. I’m a missionary in Asia and I know many people who are living very incarnationally, but are totally missing the boat when it comes to contextualisation.

    Your friend may be living like an Italian, amongst the Italians and may even look like an Italian on the outside, but the reality is that unless she was born an Italian, in Italy, she relates to Jesus within the worldview and through the lens of (I assume) a North American. When she presents Jesus to her Italian friends and disciples them to maturity in Christ, she has to very specifically and intentionally do so in a way that is not North American. This does not happen naturally because we naturally default to our own cultural practices and worldview. This is not helpful when taking the gospel cross-culturally.


  7. 2-23-2012


    You may be right about the use of the terminology “contextualization.” I don’t know if my friend would agree with you about that or not. I do not think she believes that having a job actually makes her Italian or removes the need to communicate in ways that they would understand. However, I think she’s correct in saying that working for her own support changes both the way she views herself and the way that others in that culture view her.


  8. 2-23-2012


    Absolutely! I fully relate to that and encourage her in this. However, this is incarnation not contextualisation. I don’t mean to be nit-picky but the distinction is vital. If, when we’re incarnational, which is good and desirable and what Christ modeled, we think we’re being contextual, when we’re not actually giving good and intentional thought to it, we run the risk of making “American” converts and planting “American” churches in other cultures (please feel free to substitute the words “American” with British, Korean, Western etc). This has been one of the biggest mistakes made by missionaries since the first ships set sail from Europe.

    Also, contextualisation goes way beyond “communicating in ways that they would understand”. It goes to issues of worldview, culture, local religion, history, etc. That’s why it has to be very intentional and well thought through.


  9. 2-24-2012


    I appreciate the clarification. I’ve seen “American” churches in other parts of the world. They always stick out of the culture like a sore thumb (in my opinion).


  10. 2-24-2012

    This is what Paul is saying in 1 Cor. 9, as he lays out is undeniable right to be paid to minister, but throws it all out the window with a passion saying “I would rather die” than give up his boast that he worked to meet his own needs. He goes on till the end of the chapter showing how this resolves a great “hindrance” to the gospel and adds great freedom and great reward. Todays ministers throw all of this under the bus. So now, most fellowships consume 75 – 85% of their “giving” to buy hired goodies and cathedral orientation gatherings for themselves.

  11. 2-24-2012


    While I agree with you, I know that some people would say that the “hindrance” is the changing factor. They would say that if it was not a hindrance in a certain culture or context, then Paul would have accepted money from the people. Like I said, I agree with your explanation, both from what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9 and from other passages as well.


  12. 2-25-2012

    I love the line “I noticed in my personal walk with Christ as a missionary that the gospel became my job. It tragically became something I “sold.” If I were a banana salesmen who focused all day on selling bananas…”. Evangelism, as is almost all aspects of Christian life here in the west, a consumer orientated sales job. The problem is a top down problem, you can not give something you do not have (connection to the One Head). The top (paid)guys have a job, and they feel that it is their job to teach those down the food chain (the congregation), how to do the same sales job except without pay. The problem in western culture is, what the hell am I selling? The best church experience? Or maybe a get out of hell free card? A plastic smile, and a dog and pony show?
    There can be no reality of experience outside of connection to the One True Head, when we lost Jesus, we lost everything.

  13. 2-25-2012


    Do you think it’s possible to “have Jesus” (i.e., not lost him), and yet disobey him in some way (intentionally or unintentionally)?


  14. 2-26-2012

    I believe our position as children in the family is not based on performance but faith resulting in regeneration. Having said that, there are those who Satan has taken captive to do his will, those have lost connection with the One Head. In strategic warfare, taking Christian leaders captive would be a high priority target. The results is obvious.
    Because many leaders usurp the authority of Christ, they are particularly valuable assets in this cosmic warfare we are engaged in. In reference to the blog post on the book of Jude verse 12b shepherds who feed only themselves. Clouds without rain… verse 19b who do not have the Spirit. Even with minimal spiritual discernment, I can sense zero presence of the Holy Spirit in many leaders. I am not being harsh just honest. Then there are a few that I have a keen awareness of a great darkness in them.
    I want to thank you for your interactions with myself and the others here, it is really kind.

  15. 2-26-2012


    I agree 100% that our state as children of God is not dependent on what we do. I’m honestly not concerned with what some named or unnamed leaders do or do not do. They can be “in Christ” and yet do the wrong things as leaders, just as I can be in Christ and do the wrong things and you can be in Christ and do the wrong things. My goal is to help all believers (whether they consider themselves leaders or not) to live with one another as God’s family under the lordship of Jesus Christ. My friend (in this post) has found that this is more readily done by being in and among the people, especially when it comes to working a job instead of being paid to be a professional missionary/minister.


  16. 2-26-2012

    I agree with you, I may be concerned for the sake of the sheep who are being harmed, but I am not God, and I do not have any authority in those situations. Jesus and His will is what life is about, right? So to clarify, if I may, the difference in doing wrong things, which is unavoidable, and in claiming Christ’s authority over others to their demise is what I am referring to.
    I love what your missionary friend has discovered, it is a key to ministry to live at the level, and in among people giving off the fragrance of Christ…beautiful.