Recently I was sitting at the dinner table with my family. As the kids grow up this doesn’t happen as often as we’d like so we cherish the time more than ever and often take time to pray together. As we shared prayer requests, I made a comment that we should continue praying for my daughter Marlena as she transitions. I assumed the context was understood as we all knew she had recently graduated and would be moving to start a job in another city. I was a little taken aback by the strange smiles from my kids. Finally, one of them said, “you know Dad, that has a different meaning these days.” I’ll let you figure out what they were talking about in today’s American context.
As disturbing as the above example is, it’s a good reminder that we need to be mindful of the context in which words are received. In the North American church and phase 4 & 5 fields there are often established patterns of thinking regarding missionaries and their engagement on the field. Whether it’s North Americans thinking missions is only about evangelism or an established national church thinking money to run the church will always come from overseas. Using and defining new terminology can open up doors to address these patterns of thinking and move the church towards greater maturity.
I used a simple change in terminology at one of our Bible schools in Africa to try and deal with an issue that was demoralizing the staff. We worked together to change from a program of student ‘sponsorship’ to student ‘scholarship’. The word sponsorship was used widely by students and staff and fostered a sense of outside dependency in both. We decided to ban the use of the word sponsorship and began working on a structure for distributing scholarships, giving the staff a greater sense of responsibility and control in the process. Very little actually changed in how money came in and was distributed but it did have an impact on how students related to the school. This simple change in terminology gave opportunity to address thought patterns of dependency and gave a platform to empower staff. And, I believe the staff is the key to helping the institution move toward a more sustainable operation.
I believe Global Partners has good mission strategy that’s on point with God’s mission and engaged with the changing context of our world. Terminology of the facilitator era missionary can give us new opportunity to communicate and work in phase 4&5 area ministries. I’d be interested to hear from others on how the simple use of terminology has or might impact your area of ministry.