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Avatar and missions

In the movie Avatar, the Na’vi are an indigenous people group that happen to be blue and 10 feet tall. It’s in everyone’s interest that the humans in the movie be able to communicate with them. And so, a scientist played by Sigourney Weaver learns their culture and language. She’s respectful and …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
In the movie Avatar, the Na’vi are an indigenous people group that happen to be blue and 10 feet tall. It’s in everyone’s interest that the humans in the movie be able to communicate with them. And so, a scientist played by Sigourney Weaver learns their culture and language. She’s respectful and appreciative – attributes characteristic of missionaries at their best.
Unfortunately, many missionaries are not that way. We often more closely resemble the culturally tone-deaf other humans in the movie. Perhaps we’re not imperialists, but we don’t take much time to stop and listen. Rather than looking like the locals, we come tromping through their villages, dragging our cultural baggage behind us.
It doesn’t have to be. Missions doesn’t have to be done on the cheap to be done both well and inexpensively.
A missionary’s first job is to take off his comfortable clothes and don the garb of those he wishes to reach. Hudson Taylor’s breakthrough came when he took off his Western suit, cut off his hair, and put on Chinese silk.
A friend of mine teaches English in one of the most Muslim countries in the world. She asks her supporters to pray. “Ask that He will be Incarnated into this culture through a growing, thriving, visible – if persecuted – body that has an obvious affect and influence on the society around it. Ask that those who have never heard the true message of the season will hear it, through His servants, through dreams and visions, through radio and television broadcasts, through any means possible.”
Communication is much more than words. 90% of communication is nonverbal. We’re rarely understood until we first try to understand. When I went as a missionary to Indonesia, I spent a lot of time learning Indonesian. People appreciated the effort. And when I commuted to work, I did so on the local buses, hanging off of overloaded bus #804 as it rounded the corner to my office everyday.
Our world has become more international since then, not less. Our globe is a fascinating melange of cultures and stories. We who would bring good news to those who look different than we do need to first learn their ways so that we might speak not just their language, but the language of their heart.

Comments (6)

  • Seth–What a great application from what is sure to be a blockbuster movie. I immediately see the applications for our transcultural world.

    As a matter of fact that was the academic pursuit of mine for a season– specifically focused on how North American mission sending organizations worked to inculcate nuanced sensitivity to missionary pilgrims overseas.

    Here is the problem though for the church in America.

    My consulting experiences with many mega churches and mega parchurch organizations has revealed a problematic application of the “let’s be relevant” ethic.

    The emergent church for example has fans, fanatics, cultural rules, heroes, groupies and idolatry. Just peruse You Tube and listen to some of what you hear. Watch what you see. I went to a conference of a first tier leader of the “Jesus is cool” movement and literally half of the people attending were dressed like this guy. Many even had his cool reading glasses or at least a faux pair of them. 🙂

    I love the principle in Acts 17 where the Apostle Paul delivered a “knock out” apologetic for the Gospeal after having done his “market research” described in the last verses of Acts 16.

    He was relevant.

    But he never stepped away from the offending content of the Gospel of Jesus.

    America has too many (I used to be one of them) people who have a “form of Godliness” but deny the power.

    I think I’ll stop with that. 🙂

    There is more to say.

  • Wow, what a great concept to relate to people so they can understand.

    This reminds me of a story where the most powerful God of the universe thought of a way to relate and communicate to humans – He sent himself in the form of a human. I have never ceased to be in awe of this!

  • Seth, you are so right about non-verbal communication. The custom in the country where we are serving, is to display the country’s flag on Independance Day. Well, actually, they display it the entire month…so when in Rome, or the Dominican Republic….

    The reaction from our neighbors was so great you would have thought we brought a boat load of food for them.
    We simply respected their traditions, their country, and loved them by coming along side of them, and spoke the language of their heart!

  • Thanks Seth! I’ve often wondered if we unnecessarily “offend” & call it the Gospel’s offense when in truth-it is our ethnocentric riff on the gospel-with a pint of arrogance thrown in. Your premise-your take on compassionate encultration is relevant in loving & reaching out (with an open hand) to neighbors and strangers in apple-pie eating American communities. When we cling to the truth & abandon all else – this untamed God seems to orchestrate curious opportunities. Through a friend, I met & became acquainted with a local bar owner who agreed to let me hold a bible study @ his bar in Aggieville. I never would have met him had the confines of my Jesus Camp not been shattered through a crushing stepping aside of my ex-husband. Unfortunately-I never followed through on the opportunity because I was too afraid-of the Christians. Anyhoo-if the law all boils down to love God & love your neighbor as yourself-than raising a flag or a pint or abandoning our old sparkly evangelically approved attire-may be a first step to humbly lighting a candle in a darkening world. Then we can leave all of the changing & trabsforming of our new friends (& ourselves) to the heartbeat of an unseen & loving God.

  • Seth- I’m out at Urbana right now, and the theme of the week is John 1-4, how the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. When God wanted to reach us and show His grace, love and glory, He became us. Jesus should be the ultimate model for missionaries. He didn’t come down in the full power of God, not relatable to us. He came in a way we could relate. When we want to show God’s love, grace, and glory we should look no further on how than the model of Jesus.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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