2013 January

After a rocky start (and at least one use of the line, “You’re not my mother!”), the nanny comes to love the children as her own. The teacher and the marginalized student become the best of friends. The “escort” falls for her client. In each of these story lines, the relationship starts out as a job and has to overcome that fact in order to become something more.

When you’re paid to be someone’s friend, it’s not a real friendship. The fact that one of the parties involved is being compensated for his participation makes it strange. “Of course you’re being nice to me,” the other person thinks,”you have to. It’s your job.”

This is the case with professional missionaries. In essence, they are paid to build discipling relationships with people. At one time or another, all of these missionaries (at least, the socially competent ones,) struggle with this– the feeling of being fake. “Do I really love these people, or am only here because it’s my job?” And even if the missionary convinces himself that yes, he does in fact love people, and yes, he would be here even if he weren’t being paid, he then has to work to convince his hosts of that.

In order to truly demonstrate his love, the professional friend has to do something drastic to prove it. In the movies, the paid friend quits his job, gives back the money, and shows up anyway. He breaks the rules to show that the friend is more important to him than the job. He does something that crosses the line between “project” and “person” to demonstrate his love.

The question is, knowing this about the dynamics of human relationships, why would we willingly make “paid friendship” the primary mode of missionary engagement? Don’t our ambassadors face sufficient social barriers as it is?

I’m not saying churches shouldn’t support ministers and missionaries financially- the Bible says this is a good thing. But to have the vast majority of our missionary force wholly dependent on the gifts of others makes them little more than “paid friends” to those to whom they’ve been sent. The use of creative access platforms (real jobs) are often treated as a technical requirement rather than a missiological imperative.

Professional ministry is bad missiology. The Apostle Paul knew this, and that’s why he kept his day job. But the Western Church is conflicted.

This is why pastors spend 20 hours preparing for a sermon. It’s why ministers dream up programs and events. They spend time doing things that aren’t discipleship to prove to their people that the relationship part of ministry is real. It’s as if to say, “My job is organizing a good concert. My ministry is helping you become an obedient follower of Jesus.”

The solution to the side-effect of professionalization? More missionaries with real jobs. More pastors who spend at least part of their week in cubicles, kitchens, or classrooms. Having a real job communicates a lot; it demonstrates that ministry can be done by everyone, not just the professionals. It communicates the value of workplace-as-mission-field. It shows that the pastor loves you for free.

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A missionary to Burma* would arrive to his field of service having very little familiarity with his new host culture. Any missionary worth his salt would immediately set out to learning about the people– their beliefs, values, language, and lifestyle. In the process, the missionary is likely to observe some things about the culture that he does not understand. He is also likely to find some things he understands perfectly but completely disagrees with.

For starters, the missionary may immediately notice the poor treatment of women in the country. Burmese girls are often married off at very young ages, and many are denied formal education and medical care. The missionary may also abhor the existence of sweat shops and the practice of child labor that is common in some areas. These conditions are symptoms of sin, and should be opposed by God’s people.

The missionary would probably also find things about the culture that offend him personally. He may find taxation exessive, the media biased, and the country’s immigration policies unfair. Of course, he would likely be frustrated by the fact that the Burmese government does not want him to be in their country. Though his presence is illegal, the missionary moves in and gets to work anyway (he has, after all, been sent by God). Nevertheless, a good missionary would probably not get tangled up in these sorts of things. He’s here to be Jesus to the Burmese people, not to fight for governmental fiscal responsibility.

The missionary keeps in mind that he is in this place for a reason. He therefore concerns himself with the most important things– with exegeting culture for bridges and barriers to the gospel, and with building relationships in order to make disciples. What this missionary would not do is work to maintain his comfort, preserve his preferences, insure his personal safety, or fight for his rights.

As I travel the world and interact with Christians from different traditions, I’m struck by their very unmissionary concerns. They’re worried about their security, their reputations, and their rights. They bemoan the fact that their mission field is not reflective of the Kingdom, that the people to whom they’ve been sent don’t worship the Most High God.

And how do these unmissionary Christians respond to the ungodliness of the world around them? By complaining rather than proclaiming. By fighting for their rights rather than turning the other cheek. By isolating themselves in a “Christian” subculture.

If the missionary to Burma behaved this way, we’d call him a bad missionary. We’d say that he’d become concerned with the affairs of this world and distracted from his mission. Of course, a missionary to Burma isn’t our model for mission., Christ is. His attitude toward an unbelieving world was blessing. He sacrificed His comfort, His rights, –His life– on their behalf. This is the mind all Christians ought to have. In Christ, we are all necessarily missionaries. The question is whether we will be good ones, or distracted ones.

*I have no knowledge of missionaries in Burma. I also am aware of the fact that “Burma” the country is called Myanmar.

For a related post, please read: “You’re Not From Around Here Anymore“

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“You know,” the woman said, in a serious tone. “I have the most important job in the world– even more important than the President of the United States.”

The woman was a trustee for a large missions sending organization. She took her job seriously, and it showed. But how was this the most important job in the world?

“As a trustee, my job is to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.”

She went on to explain: “We trustees decide where funds are allocated, and where missionaries will be deployed. If we assign resources to an unreached people group, we’re ensuring that they hear the gospel and have an opportunity to know Christ. But we’re stretched thin. Churches aren’t giving enough for us to send missionaries to all the places that need them. We have to say, “sorry, we don’t have enough to go around, so you all have to go to hell.””

I couldn’t believe my ears. The audacity, the pride, the ignorance– the bad missiology– were appalling.

Unfortunately, this “savior complex” is ever-present in the missions world. Just as medical doctor might come to believe that he has ultimate power over life and death, passionate and well-intentioned missionaries often believe that they are the only hope for the world. This subtle lie undermines the gospel with short-sighted, human-centered, modernistic missiology.

The only way to change the conversation about mission is to actually have a conversation, so here are my thoughts regarding the Most Important Job In The World:

Firstly, we must understand that “the mission” we talk about isn’t our mission, it’s God’s. He is redeeming sin-slaves to himself. He chooses to use us to accomplish His purposes, but He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. He is not a weak God, limited by our disobedience or our resources.

Secondly, while this woman’s organization was indeed sizable and effective at sending full-time career missionaries, God is doing much more than what the agency is capable of doing. He is sending regular people with regular jobs to make disciples among tribes all around the world. The organization’s strategic plan is but a small part of God’s activity among in the world. Knowing this is key to our humility.

Finally, we must be clear– the only thing sending people to hell is guilt of sin. Not the decisions of the “haves” regarding the “have-nots,” not the strategies of mission organizations. And the only thing that saves people is the grace of God through Jesus; not the luck of the draw or the efforts of His people.

This mistaken notion that the fate of the world depends on our organizations and institutions must be challenged, and replaced with the truth that Christ alone is the hope of humanity. Our part is to surrender to step-by-step obedience as He orchestrates His work of redemption.

In light of that, all of our jobs are equally important (and unimportant).