Applying Paul’s Great Commission Lifestyle Principles :: Gospel Fellowship Association Missions

Applying Paul’s Great Commission Lifestyle Principles

Forrest McPhail
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We know how Paul applied “being all things to all men” and “laying aside our rights” for the sake of the Gospel. We now need to consider ways that we as cross-cultural missionaries might apply these principles to our lives today. As we ponder the people group we target, questions arise. Here are some examples.

Laying aside one’s rights leads to questions such as …

1. (Men) Should I grow a beard? Where I live and serve nearly every man has facial hair as a sign of manliness.

2. (Men) Should I learn to wear the skirt-like garment that men use here (i.e., a kilt), or just wear pants?

3. Do I need to leave my jeans back home since these are considered to be a luxury or status symbol where I serve?

4. (Women) Would it please Christ if I submitted to the standard of modesty where we live? What if this means wearing a head covering or scarf all of the time? Would this include hairstyle and make-up options?

5. In order to better relate to the people I came to serve, should I forego certain conveniences or comforts within my power to obtain? To avoid testimony issues, am I willing to cut back on the use of cutting-edge technology, home appliances, air conditioning, etc.?

6. Would I lay aside brand preferences for technology such as laptops, smart watches, or other gadgets if some good tools would cause people where I minister to think I am flaunting wealth or status?

7. Should our family learn to live in a much smaller house or without a yard, even though we could easily afford a much larger one with more space, only because these communicate extravagant materialism in our context?

8. If God sends my family to serve long-term in a very challenging/primitive or extremely high-cost-of-living area, should we consider limiting our family size in order to be able to serve in such a place?

9. If my family serves in a place where large families are greatly prized, should our family seek to have more children than we might otherwise have desired?  

10. Should I, as a single missionary, embrace a very limiting lifestyle if required to remain within the confines of what is acceptable for single men or women where I live?

11. Does our family need to be cautious about buying imported food items and choose to eat more local foods, for the purpose of identifying with those around us?

12. (Women) I love to go all-out in decorating my home to reflect my home country’s seasons and holidays. To provide a more welcoming hospitality to the people we have come to reach, do I need to rethink how I decorate?  

"The biggest hindrance to the missionary task is self. Self that refuses to die. Self that refuses to sacrifice. Self that refuses to give. Self that refuses to go."

On Being a Missionary; Thomas Hale, Gene Daniels

13. Should our team be willing to start a non-government organization (NGO) for social work in order to meet governmental or societal expectations of foreigners, even if we would much rather not do so?

14. Our family culture is to go to bed very late and get up late in the morning, but the people around us operate on “early to bed and early to rise” schedules. Should we adjust to them?

Being all things to all men leads to questions such as …

15. Few people we serve own private vehicles. If available, should I choose to rely on public transportation even if it is quite inconvenient?

16. I come from a relatively free country where human rights are sacred. Am I willing to submit to more oppressive authorities and minimal legal representation in order to work in this place?

17. Should my family accept vaccinations that are expected, or even demanded, where we are called to serve, even if we would never get those same immunizations back home?

18. My family values privacy, but the culture where we live is very open and spontaneous. Do we need to learn to have an open home and become more hospitable? We come from a community-oriented background and want to reach people with the Gospel; do we need to learn to respect people’s privacy where that is the norm?

19. I am very concerned about the overreach of environmentalists and anti-gun lobbyists in my home country. The country where we have relocated fully embraces these. Do I need to keep silent on my political views?

20. People here socialize almost exclusively around coffee and/or tea. Should I learn to drink tea or coffee, even if I really don’t like them, to make social interaction natural?

21. Our family is quite happy to eat at home three meals a day, but most people around us eat out for most meals, or vice versa. Should our family adjust its mealtime habits to accommodate social norms around us?

22. Eating street food is a common way people socialize here, but that food can be unsanitary. Do I need to learn how to eat some street food to be able to have time with friends? Should I take this risk?

23. (Men) My personal style is casual, but the people of this country highly value professionalism, especially of teachers. Is it important that I dress to meet expectations?

24. (Women) Women here are very deferential to men in public, even avoiding eye contact with men to avoid causing offense. I was not trained this way, but rather to be confident and look people in the eye. Do I need to embrace this cultural norm of deference?  

25. I want to teach my children to interact with adults in a certain way, but the adults here simply don’t interact with children like that. Should I adjust my parenting to reflect this?

26. Our family loves classical music, and we play various professional instruments. Western music, especially classical music, is foreign to people we seek to win. Do we need to lay aside our strong preferences for this and instead use local musical instruments and styles?

27. I don’t view myself as rich, but the people around me do, no matter what I say. Do I need to learn how to function as a righteous rich person in the context where I serve, even if perceptions about me are inaccurate?

The list could go on, but these are questions missionary colleagues of mine around the globe have asked and answered for themselves as they prayed and sought wisdom to lay down rights appropriately.

Revisiting Paul’s view of Lifestyle Preferences

As we observe Paul’s life and teachings, especially 1 Corinthians 9, we see that he willingly laid aside “rights” to his preferred lifestyle to be a more effective servant of Christ. These were willing sacrifices, things he “gloried” in, because they helped him better fulfill his ministry.

His lifestyle of laying aside his rights to be all things to all men meant that his habits were in a constant state of change as he traveled. For Paul, daily life, all of life’s big and little decisions, came down to this: How can I most please God and be a more effective gospel servant regarding this part of my life?1

We need to revisit these gospel ministry lifestyle principles regularly. As we seek to apply them, we will find disagreement with others, perhaps even within our own ministry team. We must give latitude to others to follow their conscience before God. Each must resist the love of convenience and comfort. We must not coddle ourselves, clutching our preferences. Instead, we must discipline our bodies, keeping them under control, lest we render ourselves less effective for Christ or become disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

To read the series from the beginning, here is the first article: The Great Commission Life Principle. 


1 Mabel Williamson, missionary to China in the mid-20th century, wrote a very thought-provoking series of meditations on this topic: Have We No Rights? a Frank Discussion of the Rights of Missionaries.