In the opening words of his gospel, the Apostle John declared that Jesus the Messiah had lived “among us.” The Message colorfully renders John 1:14 as “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” while the Common English Bible says “he made his home among us.”
These various expressions all recall the fact that Jesus clearly lived as a First Century Jew. He spoke the mother tongue of the people. He ate at their tables. He celebrated holidays with them. He traveled around with them. He interacted with their children. Jesus was truly at home in First Century Jewish culture.
In this day of instant communication, airplane travel, and Google Translate, rookie missionaries can be tempted to try shortcuts or even opt to bypass the hard work of language learning and cultural acquisition. That might seem like a strategic move allowing them to immediately launch into ministry. However, omitting language and cultural acquisition would be a short-sighted decision for new missionaries. Effective missionaries never see following Jesus’ example of “moving into the neighborhood” as a waste of time. Like Jesus, perceptive missionaries learn the language of a people group. They adapt to unfamiliar customs. They embrace a culture not their own and come to feel at home in it. There are no painless shortcuts on that road.
Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 18:2-4 about becoming “like little children”? To be sure, Jesus used those words in a different line of thinking than that of going as a cross-cultural missionary. Nonetheless, that idea of becoming like a little child does speak to the subject of assimilating into the culture of the people to whom we want to minister. We do need to become like little children as we enter an unfamiliar culture. We need to go in with our eyes wide open, trying to learn everything we possibly can. Sure, it will take time, and missionaries will make mistakes along the way, but the process will increase their long-term productiveness as Christ’s ambassadors.
If we’re going to minister in the way Jesus did, we must “pitch our tent among them” (as some scholars say the Greek verb John 1:14 could be rendered). Will “living among them” be hard and sometimes seem sacrificial? Yes. But we must do it if we are going to truly follow the example of our Lord.