A couple of years ago, I went to a missions conference put on by some of my Reformed friends. The keynote speaker was a local pastor essentially telling everyone NOT to become a missionary. Classic.
The line of reasoning was familiar to me: There is lot of important work to do here – don’t waste tons of money flying to some distant land to try and help people you don’t know. Make a difference in the culture you know – the one in your backyard. If you aren’t already doing lots of service and mission-y stuff already right now where you are, then you will obviously make a terrible missionary. Do you regularly visit the meth-heads in the trailer park down the road? No? Well then how do you expect your are going to minister to poor folks in some village in Africa? See. You should just stay home, work hard at your job, have lots of kids, and get more involved in your local church. Foreign missions sound romantic, but they are really just for a tiny handful and you probably ain’t it.
This sort of advice has become even more common as books like When Helping Hurts have made the rounds in the past decade. Heck, now going abroad isn’t just a wasted opportunity at home, but it’s maybe even destructive. If you really can’t stand it here in the West, at least make sure you do something on the “approved” list, preferably Bible translation.
Now here is the thing: I don’t disagree with any of this. There really is a ton you can do right where you are – an endless amount and you may in fact be the very best person to do those things – raise those children, volunteer at the food bank, run VBS, be the “salt” in that workplace, love your neighbor, be a political activist – whatever shape that might take. Maybe for some it means even the more formal steps of becoming an elder or deacon or pastor. And if you are looking for horror stories about how some missionary couple’s marriage fell apart or they lost all their money or their kids got abused at some boarding school – you don’t have to look far. There are risks obviously – maybe ones you would, by most accounts, be foolish to take. Finally, I am a huge fan of bible translation and really think it is one of the best works to be doing abroad.
Despite all that, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of this whole argument. It has just never quite sat right with me. It seemed just a tad too easy, or a bit to status quo or maybe too much of an exercise in how the Great Commission might be shoehorned into suburbia. But despite this feeling, I never really had much of a comeback to these sorts of warnings and advice. Hearing them again at this missions conference was a bit disheartening, but it was a feeling I was used to. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong.
Then this, from John Piper’s blog. I only noticed it because he was writing a few comments about a short trip he made to Ethiopia to visit some missionaries there. This comment stuck out in particular:
One medical missionary corrected a common missionary counsel. He said that we are often told, if you are not an evangelist in America, getting on a plane won’t make you one elsewhere. He said that in his case this was not true. For him, the commitment to leave a lucrative, American medical practice and serve in Ethiopia has given him both opportunities and boldness in witness that he never had in his medical practice in the U.S. This is true, he said, both stateside and on the plane, and in Ethiopia. So let’s be careful about being too absolute in the kind of pronouncements we make.
This makes complete sense. This along with one other recent big change in my life (my first major job change in 13 years) made me realize what the flaw is in the usual anti-foreign-mission rhetoric. The flaw is that it disregards the RUT. It underplays the incredible power that a change in vocation and location has in being able to free us from our established habits and routines, to open up new creative possibilities, and to even bring to the surface largely hidden personality traits.
When you live in very comfortable America day-in and day-out, your mind rests on the things around you. You think about how to give you kids the best economic opportunities – and how to make it to their piano recital on Thursday. You think about how to schmooze the people on that next teleconference for work. You dress the same as the folks around you. You think a lot about how nice it would be to remodel your kitchen with that extra money you might have next month. You have some friends over to drink beer and watch football, or you visit some other friends and drink wine and play cards. You serve at church too, but there is some stuff you’d really like to do that doesn’t seem like it will ever happen because someone else is already doing that or you’re too timid to bring it up. Besides, there is lots of other work to do. It’s just life. It’s normal. It’s fine.
But it could be an unhealthy rut, and breaking out of a rut is really, really hard to do. Few things have the power to do it and our own self-will or personal resolution are unlikely to do the trick. It can be really good for you. Maybe not comfortable, almost certainly not tidy, but perhaps very good. I believe the Holy Spirit has his hand in making us content and faithful where we are, perhaps forever. But I also believe this windy person of the Trinity may also have a hand in blowing us in new, slightly scary directions – even if he has to pry us out of our rut with a crowbar.
That is finally why, after all the reasonable advice, I still wish we would end on the note of encouraging people (not discouraging them) to possibly consider foreign mission work. Don’t automatically write it off. Are you relieved when your favorite pastor or authority figure tells you not to worry about it? That is perhaps a sign that you really should stay home. But for ongoing years after does the thought still stick with you? Pray to God and ask for guidance. Do you think he will withhold that?