The following has been written particularly for anyone from the U.S. headed towards missionary work in Mexico (though many things may be applicable to other countries in Latin America as well). Keep in mind that this is an introduction––there is obviously so much more that could be said about Mexican culture, and this article will not do it justice by any means, but I’ve tried to highlight some of the things that will be most helpful to know upon entry.
Living in Mexico again after being in the U.S. for 13 years has reminded me of some of the challenges you will likely face and especially of some of the attitudes for which you’ll need to watch out. I trust that by God’s grace you’ll find the following helpful and encouraging.
Mexico is Not the U.S.
This may sound obvious but it is really crucial to remember. Mexico is more modern than numerous other countries around the world, but it is still a developing nation. Most houses lack many of the amenities that we’ve come to expect as normal in the U.S. You’ll find that you are unable to carry out some simple daily tasks with the same level of ease and convenience––that also goes for dealings with local government agencies. There are of course exceptions and some things that are actually more convenient. At times, however, you may be tempted towards frustration, i.e. “It would make so much more sense if they had ___________ like we do in the States.” or “The way they do ________ here is so backward.” In moments like these, we need to guard our hearts and remember our purpose in this country. Like Jesus, we come not to be served but to serve and to offer up our lives for the eternal good of others.
We Come to Join the Work that God is Already Doing in Mexico
In spite of the rampant prosperity gospel and the bent towards hyper pentecostalism, there are many examples of healthy Christian community in Mexico. There is need for church reformation, yes, but not any more than there is in the United States. In general, there are areas in which the Mexican Church is stronger and vise versa, as well as areas of overlap (which is to be expected due to the historic presence of American missionaries in Mexico). God has been doing a work in Mexico for several generations now, and there is a legacy of gospel faithfulness that is humbling to witness. We come to join this work and serve on the shoulders of national Christians and foreign missionaries that have gone before. Even in church planting, we must employ a posture of listening and learning from this rich heritage.
Our Goal is Gospel (not American) Transformation
We come to Mexico to bring the gospel to people’s hearts not to get them to embrace American culture or values. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t aspects of the Mexican culture that are wicked and in need of reform, there are. Just as there are evil and sinful elements of American culture. Henry Van Til once observed that culture is “religion externalized.” That is to say that what people worship deep down will bubble up in their art, their music, their approach to marriage and parenting, their ways of spending time and money, etc. So if culture reflects what people worship, and God alone is worthy of worship then our approach to culture cannot be neutral. Though most cultures have elements of goodness, beauty, and truth because of the image of God even in fallen humans, no culture is simply neutral. Mexican culture is not religiously neutral. It is shaped by Roman Catholicism, pre-Hispanic cults, and increasingly by post-modern secularism (which is itself a religion). So we should be in favor of cultural transformation. However, our concern should be to see the lives of individual Mexicans, and Mexican families and communities aligned with the values of the Word of God and the Kingdom of Christ, and not with the values of traditional American culture (there are various areas of overlap between traditional American culture and Biblical values but obviously areas of great disparity as well). And to be clear, this cultural alignment with Biblical values begins with (and is sustained by) the preaching of the word of Christ and the conversion of individuals through the power of the Holy Spirit.
A close friend, who is Mexican, recently shared with me about how he traces much of the corruption and instability in Mexico to the predominant influence of the Roman Catholic Church and the corruption within that institution’s hierarchy. I think he’s onto something, namely that this historical reality has contributed to a particular view of authority in Mexican society that continually threatens human flourishing within the nation. This friend also pointed to the legacy of protestant Christianity in the United States and how this has led to greater levels of human flourishing in our country. While perhaps the majority of the American founders were not genuine Christians, it can be convincingly argued that their view of authority and accountability was based largely on a Christian worldview. With that said, our goal must never be to Americanize but rather to Christianize. Not through force (like the Conquistadores) but through the gospel of peace proclaimed through the power of the Holy Spirit. “Christianize” has a negative connotation, I know. But I do think the term can be redeemed. To help, let me restate it like this: our goal must never be that Mexicans become more like Gringos but that they become more like Christ. I use the word “Christianize” to imply the need not only for initial gospel proclamation but for ongoing discipleship towards obedience to the commands of Jesus (Mat 28:19-20), seeing individuals, families, churches, and entire communities more fully reflecting the glory and supremacy of Christ. Mexico was Roman Catholicized but it has yet to be truly Christianized. Some may scoff at the idea of reaching an entire nation, but such pessimism did not deter the saints of old who won whole kingdoms with the gospel. And are not all things possible for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?
Safety and Practical Considerations
There are countless wonderful things about Mexico, but Mexican friends will generally be the first to tell you to be on guard against crime in their country. Even if the region that you will be serving in is more tranquil, it is still wise to be aware of the following precautions.
Strongly avoid giving the impression that you or your friends or family are wealthy. As an American, criminals will already guess that you at least have some money, but posting on social media about expensive trips, or talking in public about vacation homes owned by friends or family, or any other indicators of wealth, may get you into trouble. Be honest with your Mexican friends but be discrete and discerning when these topics come up––the wrong person my be listening in. Holding hostages for ransom, kidnappings, and trafficking of children are huge problems in much of Mexico. I know several Mexicans who have experienced these things first hand. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
In addition to this:
Avoid travel at night. Try not to flash $100 bills around when you go to exchange money. Don’t try to bribe police officers even if it seems like an easy out. Don’t flush toilet paper (there are wastebaskets for that). Watch out for motos when you’re driving, embrace the harmless but frustrating differences with joy. The list could go on, but considering these things ahead of time can save you some headache and free you to focus on your work––though thankfully, God also works through our fumblings and failures. Life in Mexico is generally less predictable than in the U.S. Pursue humility and hold on for the ride.
Serving King Jesus in Mexico is an honor for which I am grateful. I have learned so much from my brothers and sisters here. Theirs is a nation with enormous potential for the furtherance of Christ’s Kingdom throughout Latin America and the world. To contribute to that mission we must submit to Jesus by the power of his Spirit and remember the good news which sets us free from our selfish pursuit of personal comfort and releases us to love as we have been loved––unconditionally.