Stage 2: Discovering

In this and our next three issues of Northern Lights, more about our 5-stage action plan ... one stage at a time (from Issue #518)

Allan & Esther Giesbrecht, along with missionaries Ruth Anna Dana and Denise Hodgman, answer several questions about this sometimes overlooked stage.

Q: Christ’s call to spread the Good News is urgent. Doesn’t “Discovering” delay it, or even distract the missionary from sharing the Gospel?

A: When we have a message as important as the Gospel to communicate, it is critical that our hearers understand it in the way it was meant to be understood. We need to know what our communication will mean from the perspective of those receiving the message.

“Would you like to join us for Bible study?” … “Do you want to become a Christian?” Normal questions, it would seem, for a missionary to ask.

“Yes” is the answer we want to hear, and we rejoice when we hear it. Many times, though, our missionaries have discovered later that “yes” wasn’t what the First Nations person was thinking or wanting at all.

Rather, the “indirect” communication style of many First Nations caused the “direct” communicating missionaries to miss cues the First Nations people thought they were clearly giving. Also, many First Nations place high value on relational harmony, so “yes” may have been said just to please the missionary.

These situations, and others, are exactly why we believe the “Discovering” stage is so important!

“Discovering” does take time, as does “Preparing” before entering the field (see Stage 1, last issue). Just as in Jesus’ parable of the Sower (Matthew 13, etc.), it’s part of preparing the soil – the soil representing the hearts and minds of people.

Learning to communicate, of course, is a big part of Discovering. Most First Nations now speak English, with some retaining use of their Native tongue. But, even using English, we can wrongly assume that clear communication has taken place.

For example, “Do you want to receive Christ?” may sound like a clear question. However, to some First Nations people with a mainline church background, “accepting Christ” may be the equivalent of “receiving communion.”

Q: During this Stage, does the missionary hide his/her reason for coming? Isn’t a missionary expected to be witnessing and preaching and teaching?

A: The missionary doesn’t hide his/her purpose. Some of our missionaries have called ourselves “learners,” and explained that, when we are able, we will present more of the Message.

As with our previous answer, we’ll mention real situations we’ve been part of. One of them is when, even after explaining the Gospel at length, and carefully choosing our words, the question, “Do you want to follow Christ?” has been totally misunderstood.

To the person with an animistic background (believing in spirits, and rituals to influence them), following Christ could mean “adding” a spiritual power to their existing ones.

We’ve learned that, before giving an invitation to become a Christ follower, there must be biblical understanding of God as our only source of power, replacing all other spiritual powers. And that God’s power is for fulfilling God’s purpose for people, not solely for man’s benefit.

This stage (also known as “pre-evangelism”) is not primarily the time to try to change people’s thinking, or present biblical alternatives. The Bible needs to first be presented as the authority for all our teaching.

A primary purpose of this stage is to cause people to question their long-held beliefs … to arouse a hunger for the Gospel. And we recognize that the Gospel is not communicated only with words. Along with discovering, the missionary uses this stage (really, all stages) to model the life and love of Christ.

Q: So missionaries can too easily believe that understanding has taken place?

A: Recently a young First Nations man considering the Gospel asked one of us, “How come God couldn’t just forgive Satan?”

His question showed that he still did not understand the conditions to God’s forgiveness. If a person does not understand this, then salvation is cheap, not costing anyone anything. We know that it cost the Lord dearly.

The conditions to God’s forgiveness must include justice, faith and repentance. We must understand and appreciate Christ’s work on the cross, and the seriousness of our own sin.

We’re not saying that people must completely understand all the major teachings of the Bible in order to be saved. Yet we need to help unbelievers clearly understand the essential Gospel truths related to God, man, sin, the penalty for sin (death), Jesus Christ and His redemptive work, and genuine faith in Christ for salvation.

Q: Bridges and barriers to the Gospel … lines of communication, influence & authority in the community … people’s worldviews – how does the missionary discover all these things?

A: With God’s help, by listening, observing and, when appropriate, by asking questions.

Cree pastor/teacher Bill Jackson is currently writing a new booklet that addresses an underlying belief of many First Nations – that they originated right here in North America. He’s helping us realize that, even if these people hear the story of Adam and Eve and original sin (Genesis 1-3), the Gospel will have little impact. After all, why would they need a Saviour if they aren’t descendants of Adam?

This and other underlying beliefs won’t be apparent if we do not take time to study, listen and observe. We also need to ask questions and give people time to reflect on their worldview assumptions. One missionary writer describes it as: “using every opportunity to stir up people’s minds to consider spiritual subjects in preparation for evangelism.”

Jesus did exactly that when He spoke in parables and asked questions, without immediately giving answers and explanations.

How do we discover? On our fields we appreciate and also rely on trusted First Nations friends to explain the ways of their people – though we know it’s not always easy to “see” even our own cultural values and underlying worldviews because they are so deeply engrained.

Also helping us in discovering, as part of our Action Plan, our missionaries are provided with a practical “Culture Profile Resource” tool to help us retain and organize what we’re learning.

Q: Is this new? Haven’t NCEM missionaries been “discovering” all these years?

A: Yes, we have, but we need to do more. We have sought to learn about the people we’re seeking to reach, but there’s also been an expectation that we should get busy right away spreading the Gospel and planting a church.

We may have valued the importance of learning another language and culture, but we may not have, first of all, taken time to evaluate our own cultures, perspectives, and ways of doing things in light of the biblical truth.

So we believe we need to implement each stage in church planting on our knees. Christ loves and died for each person, and this work has eternal consequences.

Though the time length of this stage may vary on different fields, and with different individuals within the communities, we see “Stage 2: Discovering” as crucial, for Christ’s sake. As always, we appreciate your prayer support.

(from Northern Lights issue #518). Note: some of the locations and involvements of our missionaries may have changed since the original publishing of this article.