Gordon & Niki Elliott
Our denominational tagline, “Transformed People Mobilized on the Mission of Christ” provides in a nutshell what we hope to see happen in the different cross-cultural ministries of the denomination. As we finish out 30 years of being assigned to Bolivia under Evangelical Church Missions, we rejoice that there are people who have been transformed as a result of the ministry to which God has called us. When missionaries work cross-culturally, we send them in the hopes of seeing people changed by the Gospel of Jesus. I’m not sure that we usually think in terms of the change that will take place in the life of the ones we send, but change happens. I know of at least one example for sure; me.
When we began our time with the Mission, I was a fairly confident young missionary in terms of my theology and doctrine. I believed in holiness of heart and life. I preached that God can and does cleanse the human heart of carnality, that Christ died to free us from both the power and presence of sin. However, I had a fairly pre-determined list of what a life lived that way would look like, so that is what I preached and taught. For the most part it was okay. Then I began to see the dangers of that type of approach to Holiness and the Christian life. God does not deal with everyone the same way. Some of our predetermined behavioral norms are culturally determined while others are simply matters of personal preference, which may or may not have any biblical basis. Either way we often end up dividing and judging each other instead of living in unity. This is not just theory. Too often it is an unfortunate reality both in the States and in cross-cultural ministry.
The issue that finally brought this to a head in my own thinking was observing how our Bolivian brothers decided who was qualified to participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. What is necessary to participate in Communion celebration? Do you need to be baptized? Married in the church? Fasting? These are all qualifications that, at times, are imposed on those in Bolivia who would participate. The result is that most simply do not participate and the Lord’s Supper, a symbol of unity and hope in Christ, becomes a divisive issue. As I looked at that, I began to realize that we were missing grace. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world, to extend grace to a fallen people. We seemed to be far more concerned with excluding rather than embracing people. None of this was done intentionally and, if you asked any of our brothers, they would say that they were concerned with reaching out. Somewhere along the way, just as in my own life, certain specific behaviors had been identified as being the measure of one’s spiritual condition. “One size fits all” is not the approach of Scripture with the exception of certain very specific behaviors that are either prohibited or enjoined. It does more harm than good.
Two areas of Bolivian worship that presented a challenge to me to be more graceful were music and movement. Bolivian worship music in our churches has a rich variety. There are the translated hymns that were introduced by the early missionaries in Bolivia. There are also the songs of Bolivian origin originally composed in Aymara and Quechua, sung to Bolivian tunes. These were usually sung to accordion and traditional instruments. There are the early choruses which are of Latin American origin and finally, the translated and imported later North American style worship sung to electronic instruments. Just as changes in music brought conflict in the United States so, at times in Bolivia. I too had opinions as well. And I was not afraid to voice them at times.
Movement in worship was another issue. While dance holds an important place in Bolivian culture, it is usually associated with festivals where alcohol, drunkenness and sexual immorality are prominent. In the early years of Protestant mission work, Bolivian Evangelicals generally regarded dance as one of the worldly things that needed to be given up along with coca and alcohol. But the younger generation was not so sure and dance began to be introduced little by little into the worship of the church. This was not the same form of dance as that which takes place in the festivals but was dance nonetheless. Of course it was quite controversial and I, as usual, had an opinion that was freely shared when asked, and maybe when not asked.
In both these cases I eventually began to see that my reactions were reactions based on my own preferences and not necessarily based on Scripture. And so I began to ask the question, did I not like these things because I didn’t like them or because they were, in themselves, wrong. Grace says that I don’t need to like everything that happens in worship. So I have become much more open in my opinions. Do I still like everything? No, but I am learning to let grace better shape my attitudes.
Now we are headed to Liberia where worship is louder and livelier than even in Bolivia. Dancing is a routine part of worship, Holy Ghost “fire” is called down, walls of churches are blessed and other things take place that are very foreign to me. These are done by brothers and sisters in Christ who agree with me that Jesus is the only way of salvation, that there is one God and that the Bible is His book. So grace tells me to be quiet, watch and learn. Will I like everything in our new country? I don’t know. Probably not. But by the grace of God, this transformed missionary is going to show grace as we work together to win Liberia for Jesus.
Gordon and Niki Elliott are preparing to begin their service in Liberia in the near future. You can read more about their ministry and experiences on Gordon’s blog: www.chairoforthesoul.blogspot.com
You can also find them on Facebook or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.