It started off just like any other airport run I made with a short -term team. When I was serving as a missionary in West Africa, we did these runs all the time. One of our local church partners from the States sent over a team of people to aid us in our church-planting efforts, and someone had to pick them up and drop them off at the airport. This trip was no exception, but God used it to stir my heart concerning a new reality for North American (and global) missions.
As the team was standing in line at security, I was patiently waiting until they were through the gates on the other side. This process looks much less formal in West African countries than the US, but the lines exist. In front of me stood a little boy who was clearly part of the people we were engaging in our country. His face and demeanor had the characteristic marks of this people I had spent the past several years getting to know, so I initiated a polite conversation.
“Inuwali,” I began, the typical greeting in his language. The boy looked up at me blankly and said nothing. Of course, I was used to that. Most people in that part of West Africa were shocked when an American could speak their language. So, I smiled and greeted him again. He still said nothing.
After a third attempt, he looked at me curiously and said, “I have no idea what you are saying,” in the clearest American English I had heard in quite a while. Now I was the one surprised by a person’s language. Eventually, the young boy’s mother turned around and engaged me in conversation. She politely told me this was his first time in West Africa—that he was, in fact, from Columbus, Ohio!
Fascinated, I soon learned their family moved to the United States over a decade ago. She had brought her son home to meet his grandparents for the first time, and they were now returning to Columbus. She continued by telling me about the large, active West African community in Ohio. That was the moment my paradigm for global missions began to change.
“Cross-cultural missions is as much across the street as it is across the ocean. Doing local missions well amplifies our ability to do international missions well, and vice versa.”
A New Dimension to the Global Missions Equation
Until that moment, I understood cross-cultural missions as a “here/there” or “us/them” equation. Christians in local churches here in the United States had a responsibility to share the gospel with “them”: peoples who had never heard. The one thing I knew about cross-cultural missions was that it always took place “over there,” wherever “there” was.
I was convinced that in order to do the particular kind of missions I was doing—cross-cultural missions with unreached people—I had to cross an ocean somewhere to make it happen. Meeting that little boy from Columbus shattered that understanding.
A few years later, I found myself back in the United States, serving in the missions department at a seminary and watching a new dimension unfold in the global missions equation. Working alongside state conventions, we began to research peoples located around our local churches in the US.
During one of my early research trips, I discovered a West African restaurant right in the heart of Washington, DC. Upon entering, I was surprised to hear the restaurant staff cutting up in an African language I recognized. Upon greeting them in their own language, the whole restaurant lost it with excitement.
Further conversation revealed these people were not only from the area where I served as a missionary, but the owner was from the exact village where I lived. He and I knew many of the same people, and our homes were only a short walk from each other.
Reaching unreached peoples is not just about going overseas anymore, and reaching your local context is no longer about reaching people just like you. We have to change our understanding of both in order to understand today’s mission equation. In the past, local churches drew neat lines between missions (a thing we sent people “over there” to do) and evangelism (local mission to people like you). Today, these categories break down in both directions.
Churches need to realize that cross-cultural mission is as much across the street as it is across the ocean. And when local churches begin to see our new reality, an interesting thing happens. Doing local missions well amplifies our ability to do international missions well, and vice versa.
The Amplification Factor
These twin tasks of the church—local and global missions—are now intertwined in exciting ways that create an amplification factor for both. This is especially true for churches located near America’s major metropolitan centers. Often, the very same peoples to which we’re sending short-term teams to serve alongside our missionaries have ethnic enclaves a short drive from the church.
To be clear, by no means does this imply that partnering overseas is no longer important. On the contrary, we now have the opportunity to engage unreached peoples on two fronts, and these fronts are complimentary.
“As we engage people here, if we reach them, they become ambassadors back to their people. The more relationships we have here, the more connections we have over there.”
One local church in Northern Virginia began to work among an unreached West African people in West Africa and exemplified continued missional engagement. They sent multiple teams every year to partner with missionaries in this group’s home country. For over a decade, this church partnered with missionaries in West Africa, and after learning that they may be able to find this same group of people at home, they began to research the people around them.
Soon, the church had befriended several members of a local West African community. To their surprise, many were from the same area they visited regularly in West Africa. As the relationships grew, they were approached by one of their new African friends with a request. He needed to get a large amount of money back to his village in West Africa, and he knew they were sending a team there soon. They agreed to take back this man’s village aid and entered their mission field bringing with them both a significant amount of financial aid from a member of their village and, more importantly, the understanding that they could be trusted.
Opportunities like this surround us today, but we must seek them out. As we engage people here—in the States, if we reach them, they become ambassadors back to their people. The more relationships we have here, the more connections we have over there.
Learn How to Engage Near and Far
Local church pastor or leader, I encourage you to consider how your church can become involved in reaching the nations with the gospel, both “over there” and right here in our own neighborhoods. The Great Commission compels every church to reach every nation. Get involved with global missionary partners overseas. The IMB can help you find the right partners.
Then, consider how your church can begin to find and engage unreached peoples near you.
Keelan Cook leads the Peoples Next Door project and is a senior church consultant with the Union Baptist Association in Houston, Texas. He is working on a PhD in missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is a part-time instructor of North American Missiology and coordinator of diaspora missions for the Center for Great Commission Studies. In previous years, he spent time as a church planter in West Africa and doing ethnographic research in Washington, DC.