Missionaries via Skype or face-to-face

Posted May 01, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Jason Byassee


My church was recently honored by a visiting evangelist from India, Peter Pereira. He told us this story:

“I asked a woman in a village who her pastor was. She said ‘tape recorder.’ I asked her how she heard the gospel. She said ‘tape recorder.’ I asked who preaches to her Sundays. ‘Tape recorder.’ Then I asked how she plans to present the gospel to her neighbors. She said ‘tape recorder.’”

Peter Pereira’s organization, International Leadership Institute (ILI) works to train local church leaders to evangelize their neighbors. The default missionary is no longer a white Westerner struggling with a native language to present the gospel to someone in the global south. It is rather, as Peter put it, an illiterate Indian woman. She loves Jesus, and she wants to tell of him to her neighbors. This is not only much more effective, it is more incarnational. Jesus is God in our flesh, speaking words in our ears, assuming what we are so we might become what he is. The illiterate Indian woman, presenting the gospel in the cultural and linguistic dress she shares with her friends, is a powerful reflection of the God who takes ours. Tape recorders are an efficient way to tell about Jesus to those who speak a language other than your own and who cannot read the scriptures. But they are a (gloriously effective!) stopgap.

Dave Windley of East-West Ministries also visited our church along with Pereira. He used a conceit I’ve not seen before for his talk—it surprises me that I had not. He pretended he was speaking by Skype from northern India. “Can you see me over there? Wave your hands if you can. This image is so clear!” It was a consistently funny way to reinvigorate his audience. And of course it worked precisely because in our technological age it’s not clear why missionaries need to fly from India to appear bodily to congregations in America any longer. In a Skype age aren’t resources better spent, say, training the woman in Indian to be an evangelist? What place is there left for bodily meeting?

Pereira and Windley spent several days at our church. It was a joy to host them. The Pereiras even stayed in our home. (Our children are still talking about India. They want to visit the orphanage in Hyderabad run by the Pereiras.) It was also a hassle for them and for us. The Pereiras had to travel for days. Dozens of lay people had to cook and prepare and host and put on the event. Our guests had to make do with staying in parishioners’ homes. Surely a Skyped conference would have been cheaper, more convenient. But nowhere near as powerful.

Those meals, hassle that they were, were crucial. I read somewhere that Jesus eats his way through the gospels. It’s true. And so too do his people. Peter Pereira and I started to earn one another’s trust over coffee in my kitchen. My boys began to love the Pereiras over meals at our table. My wife and Esther Pereira became friends over tea and appetizers at a restaurant. Those meals were not devoted to any purpose. Their purpose was just to get to know one another. We did, and we loved one another quickly. There is talk now of my family visiting theirs in India in the future and of theirs visiting ours again one day. I wouldn’t put it past my boys to pursue a vocation in India. This is how such dreams are born.

There is, of course, a place for technology. It’ll allow us to keep in touch with the Pereiras, the Windleys, and our other missionary guests now that they have returned home. They can relay news back to our church about their work. We can pray for them. But these are stopgap measures—means to communicate in between bodily visits—for more meals, prayers, face-to-face talks, and uproarious laughter.

A tape recorder is good when there is no other church leadership available. But ILI exists to train the woman in Indian to be the pastor God is calling her to be. Face-to-face. In a church as embodied as God’s flesh among us in Christ is.

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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