Missionary Matthew Bennett invites the American evangelical to inspect and treat their current context as if it were new to them.
By Marissa Postell Sullivan
Like many missionaries returning from the international mission field, Matthew Bennett experienced a sort of reverse culture shock—not in the grocery store but in a church service. As he listened to the preacher intertwine the American life with the Christian life, Bennett was burdened with a desire for believers to value people of all nationalities and to wholeheartedly trust in the gospel rather than in protected freedoms.
In his book Hope for American Evangelicals: A Missionary Perspective on Restoring Our Broken House, Bennett, assistant professor of missions and theology at Cedarville University, guides readers through the “evangelical house” wearing missionary lenses. He invites readers to investigate and treat their current context as if it were new to them. Here’s a recent conversation with Bennett about what he sees from a missionary’s perspective as he views the American evangelical house.
What are a few ways your time as a missionary in North Africa and the Middle East impacted the way you view missions in the United States?
Matthew Bennett: The exposure to brothers and sisters who were practicing the same faith yet under significantly different pressures allowed me to see more clearly the essence of the gospel and what it requires to live it out in ways that transcend what we understand as our rights or expected privileges and freedoms in the U.S. Those things are not actually necessary to faithfully living out the gospel. The gospel is something you can still be faithful to when those rights and privileges are denied to you by earthly systems.“The gospel is something you can still be faithful to when rights and privileges are denied to you by earthly systems.” — @MABennett82 Click To Tweet
In what ways do missionary lenses help bring out the beauty of the church for those who may struggle to overlook its blemishes?
It begins with the church recognizing it is something to be displaying the gospel, not merely collecting people who think along the same doctrinal lines. As we gather to reinforce a biblical way of living that includes doctrinal refinement, the church also exhibits a commissioning at the end of each Sunday gathering that we are the church just in a scattered form. And as we scatter, each of us is called, as disciples, to be disciple makers in the spaces and spheres we are sent to.
If we continue to have those important doctrinal discussions within the church—seeking to be challenged and chastened by the biblical storyline and its implications for living and considering how it transforms both our gathering and our scattering—that’s going to reshape even the language we use in our gathering to make the beauty of the gospel something compelling even when it’s challenging. But sometimes we’re satisfied to let it be challenging and confronting of the broader culture in ways that are more eager to win a point than they are to provide a more beautiful alternative in the gospel.
How do missionary lenses help believers inspect the church to make sure it rightly reflects God’s plan for the church for generations to come?
“Missionary” is not just a disposition we take on when we depart, but it’s a sense of saying, “We are a people uniquely gathered for the purpose of living out a story that’s going to run contrary to everything our broader culture will tell and to the things we’ve smuggled in in our own hearts that are tainted by the flesh.” So, we must begin by being confronted by our missionary God who is not content to leave us in the condition our sinful flesh would have us in. We receive the gospel and its implications afresh as we gather. As a missionary intends to bring the gospel to a foreign place to see it challenge those worldviews, so too, are we bringing our own worldviews to be challenged as we gather.“As a missionary intends to bring the gospel to a foreign place to see it challenge those worldviews, so too, are we bringing our own worldviews to be challenged as we gather.” — @MABennett82 Click To Tweet
But then a missionary lens reconfigures where we understand our church life to begin and end. Many of us think of “the church” as something that begins at 10:30 on Sunday and is out by lunchtime, and the rest of the week is parochial life. But if we understand the church is a gathering of people to conform themselves first through faith, in receiving the gospel, but then through a constant re-evaluation, seeking to be better able to display that beautiful, orderly way of living in God’s world, then, even as we gather, we’re gathering with a vision of anticipating our scattering.
For believers who haven’t served as international missionaries or traveled internationally, what are some ways they can put on missionary lenses where they are?
Missionaries have to learn to be really good listeners—and not just to listen but to hear and not just hearing the things that are said but the way they’re said, the invisible meaning that gets conveyed with the words that are chosen, the patterns of speech that are used to describe a part of a person’s life. As you start to pick up on that as you’re learning a new language, you’re straining to hear every bit of meaning. For people speaking the same language, it’s a lot easier to assume you mean the same things by the words you’re using. Have you taken time to listen to your neighbors and how they use language? That’s a window into how they see the world.
What encouragement or charge would you offer pastors seeking to help their congregations realize the missionary nature of the church?
Rather than choosing to soft-pedal the gospel in order to accommodate a worldview that is antagonistic to the gospel or to go the other way and to be hard-nosed on doctrine and unbending on any way of stating it, walk a road in which we do not bend in our doctrinal convictions. While holding these convictions to be true, help your congregation consider how to meaningfully, kindly engage in conversations with people from different worldviews and put on display the beauty of the gospel. So, take the application from merely “this is biblical doctrine” to “this is biblical doctrine, and it’s important for the world.”“While holding convictions to be true, help your congregation consider how to meaningfully, kindly engage in conversations with people from different worldviews and put on display the beauty of the gospel.” — @MABennett82 Click To Tweet
Where does the analogy of viewing the church through missionary lenses fall short?
While I think it’s a helpful exercise to think about selecting lenses to look at the church with, the reality of the nature of a New Testament church is that it is inextricably missionary in its essence. I’m not just suggesting that we can maybe get to some better solutions by trying on a new lens. We don’t have a choice, because the church is God’s Plan A for the advance of His kingdom and His mission. So, we don’t get to choose whether we’ll be missionally inclined or not if we’re to be a faithful, healthy church.
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Marissa Postell Sullivan
Marissa is the managing editor for LifewayResearch.com.