A friend of mine is a church planting catalyst. He helps other pastor-planters get churches stared where there are very few, or none. He's a missionary who helps other missionaries. When I first met him, he drove a sporty car, talked up a football team from another area, and looked like he could easily fit in on a college campus, which isn't surprising since this PhD guy worked on a campus for many years prior to taking this new role in Utah. He moved into a rapidly growing area of the Salt Lake valley that had little Christian presence, if any. This city didn't have a single Christian church. So he helped a church get off the ground there.
I recently met my friend for coffee. I hadn't seen him in person in a while, so you might imagine my surprise when he pulled up in a pickup truck (with a brush guard). He was wearing (boots of the cattle rancher variety) and a cowboy hat. When I asked him about it, he told me he realized there was an entire segment of people in his community that nobody was reaching for the gospel. Sure, there was that church he helped get started, but they have a specific style and flavor that might not appeal to another large group in his area--the blue collar cowboy. My friend decided he would give up the lifestyle of his preference and adopt a lifestyle that might better help him connect with these folks. And when he can connect, he might have more opportunities to share the gospel. And when he has more opportunities to share the gospel, he might have more opportunities to make disciples and gather them into a church -- a cowboy church!
Now, it's not as if my friend has adopted a fake persona. I honestly always thought this side of him was buried down deep within him. And it turns out, it was. He grew up in the South and has had an interest in the things of this lifestyle--guns and hunting, trucks and adventure for years. As he looked around his community, he came to realize that God had already given him the keys to this mission field years before he arrived. They were like that one weird key on the key ring that you forget what it fits. You keep it because you're just not sure. Then one day, you stand in front of a locked door and remember.
When I think about my friend, I can't help but think of Hudson Taylor, a missionary to China. The following is adapted from the Editor's of Christian History Magazine's 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Holman Reference, 2000), pages 251-253:
In September 1853, Hudson Taylor, a gaunt and wild-eyed 21-year-old missionary headed to a country that was just coming into the Christian West’s consciousness. (Only a few dozen missionaries were stationed there.) Almost immediately after he arrived, Taylor made a radical decision (at least for Protestant missionaries of the day) to dress in Chinese cloths and wear the same hairstyle as Chinese men. His fellow missionaries were either incredulous or critical. Taylor didn’t care. He had a heart to see inland China impacted by the gospel and was in deep despair for the millions of Chinese who were dying without the hope of the gospel.
Taylor, seeing a serious need to expand the mission efforts, to China started the China Inland Mission (CIM). CIM missionaries had no guaranteed salaries nor could they appeal for funds—they simply would have to trust God to supply their needs. Furthermore, missionaries would adopt the dress of the locals and then press the gospel into inland China. Westerners highly criticized Taylor’s decisions.
In 1876, the 52 CIM missionaries made up one fifth of all the missionaries in China. In 1881 Taylor prayed for another 70 missionaries. By 1884 72 more were added to their ranks. In late 1886 he prayed that God would provide another 100 missionaries within the next year. In November of 1889, Taylor announced that CIM had approved another 102 candidates for service.
Taylor’s faithful service inspired thousands to forsake the comforts of the West to bring the gospel message to China. CIM still serves in China today, although it is now called Overseas Missionary Fellowship (International).
There's a joke about American church planters. They all wear flannel shirts and hip shoes. They have an obsession for coffee and often look different than their community. They have a twisted lust for large beards. I don't think Hudson Taylor would approve, unless the planter was in a heavily saturated hipster community. Of course a Christian should stand out, but not because of insignificant cultural matters, trends, and fads. Dress and style should not define the missionary church planter. His definition should come from the One who transcends all this nonsense. He should stand out because he is marked by the King of Kings, and he must live accordingly.