A Ministry of Presence

Discipleship Starts with Dropping in, Dancing and Drinking Tea

Who of us doesn’t agree that relationships really ought to come first in our lives? Yet all of us may struggle with this at times. We may prefer or simply feel we have no choice but to focus on other priorities.

Try adding cross-cultural dynamics to the mix by moving into a context where there’s a new language to learn and where people’s expectations or assumptions about friendship, neighborliness, and hospitality are like nothing you’ve ever experienced. Pioneers worldwide navigate these tensions, feeling both the pain of adjustment and the joy of connecting with those to whom God has sent them.

Julie has noticed that in the context where she serves, just being present in the daily lives of her African friends, and especially at key events, speaks volumes. “There is nothing that makes a [West Africa] woman happier than people coming by to visit,” Julie says.

Parties and Rites of Passage

Julie spends a lot of time socializing, whether chatting around the rice bowl and drinking tea, dancing at her friends’ parties, or showing up for events where she may just feel like part of the crowd. Her presence, though, is noted.

“When a woman in this culture is introducing you to another woman, they will say, ‘This is So-and-so, and when my father died she came for two days, and when my daughter was married, she was there. When I was sick she came to the hospital with fruit.’ They give a resume of how you showed up in their life as a way of introduction.”

Not Giving Up

Pursuing a ministry of presence can be a challenge for those who come to the field from a fast-paced American life. “Ministry here is not like placing your order and going through the drive-through. You’re going to put in years, sometimes,” Julie explains. Though there are seasons of acceleration when God works quickly, from the missionary’s perspective it can seem so slow, just making their rounds and showing up in someone’s life week after week. “And then one day, the door opens, and you don’t know when it will happen. Who knows if it’s going to be your next visit? What if you decided ‘this is enough!’ and the next visit would have been the one?”

Trust and Transparency

In any culture where keeping peace and saving face are high values, building trust takes time. Broken trust can be almost impossible to repair. As a result, the people tend to wear masks. They don’t open themselves to others and share their thoughts and struggles very easily. These dynamics play out in relationship-building, evangelism and discipleship; they may also characterize a fragile newly planted church. How do you build a church of people who do not trust one another?

Julie had been visiting one woman for years before one day, when the family dispersed for afternoon naps, the woman started to talk about the struggles she has. “Finally, something broke, and I put in the right amount of time of just being present with her that she felt she could open up.” Julie, who was wondering if it was time to give up, now counts it her most significant friendship. This is the woman in whom she’s seen the most spiritual growth.

What Missionaries Need to Know

When Julie asked Christian women of a Muslim background what they wanted new missionaries to know, they repeated again and again, “No one is argued into the kingdom. Love us and spend time with us. We will see the love of Christ through that.”

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Names in this story have been changed.


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