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Volume 8, Issue 2: Africanus

Genuine Imitation

Csaba Leidenfrost

For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake." (1 Thessalonians 1:5)

The apostle Paul was known, and no doubt he was watched very closely, for he assumes that the Thessalonians knew what kind of man he was. This 'watching' resulted in their 'following,' as the next verse makes clear. "And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit" (1:6). Furthermore, the example of the Thessalonians was then observed and followed by"all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe" (1:7). The Thessalonians' example of faith was so effective that the Apostle goes as far as saying "we do not even need to say anything."
What a powerful teaching method -- a classic example of actions speaking louder than words! Take note that the method was not stumbled upon. Apparently Paul purposed to be a certain kind of man for the sake of the Thessalonians, desiring that his example would be followed. Notice also, in his letter to the Philippians and in first Corinthians, the Apostle exhorts the brethren to imitate him (Phil. 3:17; 1 Cor. 4:16). In the same way, missionaries should expect to be watched and imitated.
It certainly would be convenient if only the missionary's good example were followed. Unfortunately, more often than not everything gets imitated, both the good, the bad, and the ethically neutral. At this point I don't think it is necessary to expound on what ethically good and ethically bad behavior consists of. What is more interesting is the impact of the ethically neutral behavior of the missionary on the people that he is evangelizing. By ethically neutral I mean, conduct that does not violate any of God's commands.
Let me go one step further and say that ethically neutral behavior can be either benign or malignant. An example of a benign custom or behavior that is often copied by the newly evangelized may be the wearing of a suit and tie to church. Such behavior is not sinful, just a bit strange -- especially in the heat of places like west Africa where temperatures can be in the high 90's and churches are not air conditioned. However, by ethically neutral but malignant, I mean such practices that have devastating consequences on those that are watching the missionaries' lives. Could one such comportment be the sending off of missionary children to boarding schools?
No one that I know of has questioned the impact of this practice on the families of those among whom the missionary ministers. In my many years of experience in Africa I am appalled at how few second generation Christians there are. Pastors are not succeeding in passing the baton on to their children, let alone the average Christian couple. Granted, it is simplistic to assert that the lack of biblical models of raising godly families is the sole cause of this state of affairs. Nevertheless I am convinced that it has played a major role.
The question then becomes, how do you reverse this trend? Missionaries may preach and teach on parental responsibilities, yet without an example, it falls on deaf ears. Why do we throw out our most valuable tool in teaching when we send our children away? Having our children with us could be the key that unlocks their hearts to understand how it is done. When the concept is lived out in front of their eyes, there is a concrete example to imitate, and the teaching is no longer hypothetical.
Take our situation for example. We work with an unreached people group; we live among them and work among them along with our four children. The people, and especially our national co-workers, have much opportunity to examine our lives, as we are with them much of the day. My teaching on the Christian family is being checked daily against my practice. Over the last few years we have had different people pull either my wife or me aside and say to us that they noticed something really different about the way we raised our family. In each case they expressed a desire for the same results in theirs.
Missionaries do well to teach on the practical how-to's of raising godly believing children; they most certainly should include it in their sermons, Bible studies and conferences. But they do even better to model it in their own families.

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