Thursday, May 4, 2017

What People Get Wrong About Missions

I've been doing missions for about three years now, with some breaks in between. First was India in 2014, and now Romania, where I'm planning to stay. But actually, you could back it up further to when I was going to Mexico with my church in middle school, plus visits to Skid Row, and of course my first two trips to Romania at 14 and 16. So I've had over ten years of dipping my toes into this field.

And I suppose I need to mention my education in Intercultural Studies, in which I obtained a bachelor's degree. And yet, experience and education are two very different things.

What people tell you about missions, especially from a pulpit or a podium, may not corroborate what you might actually experience if you happened to go out on the field yourself.

For example, I was told that as a traveler I would experience culture shock and re-entry stress. I have experienced neither between my 2 months in India and 3+ months at a time in Romania. Sure, I have struggled to adapt. There are difficulties with culture, language, food, and the one thing people don't emphasize enough: other people. But I haven't had anything I would call culture shock, nor any re-entry difficulties to speak of.

Okay, so maybe I'm weird. But there are many other examples of misconceptions about missions that I will go into more extensively here.

One problem, or not quite a problem, just a caveat, I guess, is that there are so many different kinds of missions. Missions varies depending first of all on what area of the world you are working in, and then it is different according to the missionary's goal, and then of course the individual missionary or organization is unique in itself. People tend to have a certain vision in their head of missions: young women in colorful skirts hugging Zambian children, let's say. Or someone leading an underground church in China. Or maybe a pastor preaching at a tent revival in Brazil. There are countless ways of doing missions. But people do seem to cling to a certain idea that preexists in their mind's eye.

So even though there is such a wide variety of missional situations, people cling to whatever they have been most exposed to. This results, unfortunately, in some people applying the limited vision of missions that is in their heads to any missional organization or individual missionary they come across. This isn't just a missions problem; it could apply to any number of areas. Yet, it is extremely pertinent to missions because of a few different factors.

1) Missionaries often rely on donors. We need people to understand our unique job in our specific country, at least enough for them to feel that they can trust us to do God's work.

2) People are often very opinionated about missions. Let's assume those opinions are favorable. There is still a lot of possibility for a person to be judgmental rather than willing to learn when they come across a new kind of missional focus/situation.

3) I cannot magically transport my family, friends, and acquaintances to live in Romania with me for a few weeks to show them our challenges and our specific opportunities. I cannot video tape and now I can't even do much photography. So I write. But lately, our challenges are not even ones I can put into writing with much detail.

So you can see the nature of our difficulties in regards to trying to engage people and show them what we are doing. But how different are we, really? What about missions in Romania differs from, say, missions in Indonesia? Let me try to paint our picture.

Romania is a post-modern European nation, and we work with young adults, so amplify that post-modernity by 10. Romania is also post-Communist but far enough away from it that people worldwide no longer view Romania through that lens. Also, Romania is predominantly Orthodox Christian. Most people have been baptized sometime in childhood. Religion is a big thing here. And yet, for us as a Christian organization, we face a significant amount of distrust and persecution.

That creates a cocktail that is something along these lines: young people may either cling to Orthodoxy (which is not necessarily our enemy, just to be clear) or they may reject Orthodoxy so much that they are hostile toward any religion, or at least toward Christianity. And of course, there is middle ground. But my point is that people here have very strong preconceived notions about Jesus and the Bible and church. We're not walking into any situation in which Jesus is unheard of. And that can actually be a disadvantage.

If you witness to someone who has never heard of Jesus, you have a little bit of an advantage, I'd say, because you are more in control of how Jesus will look to them as they form an idea of him in their minds. Yes, you may be coming against Krishna or Buddha or an ancestral spirit, but at least you can present Jesus rightly. If you don't let yourself get in the way, that is.

In addition, even though Romania is a vastly Orthodox nation, the state is actually pretty hostile towards us. Not all aspects of the government are out to get us, but things have become increasingly difficult as we have faced unwarranted opposition. "Principalities and powers" refers to more than strictly spiritual, demonic activity. The powers that control the kids we are working with would rather like us not to, and they are doing their best to kick us out.

People have asked me why we haven't done many baptisms. The answer is, most people here already are baptized in the Orthodox manner, as I mentioned. So you can imagine it is difficult to tell someone that they need to be baptized again, without making it appear that they must choose between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. We are not out to oppose Orthodoxy. We are just introducing people to Jesus who may not have truly known him before. Furthermore, the Orthodox baptism emphasizes inclusion while the baptisms we have done emphasize rebirth, to put it in basic terms. One baptism means one thing, while another has a different emphasis.

Even conversions are different here. We're not working with a society that is ruled by group-think, as in a South American context where tent meetings see many come forward. And we're not ministering to a tribe in which a tribal elder may lead the whole tribe to make a decision. We're working with very individualistic, um, individuals who have access not only to their traditional beliefs but to all that is available via the internet and with the influence of European secularism. And we're working with young adults and teenagers, who think somewhat freely but are still often under the oppressive thumb of their caretakers. It is very difficult to lead young people to trust in Jesus in this context. I'm saying that not only as a missionary with NGO but as a youth leader in a Baptist church here with an active youth group. This stuff doesn't always happen as quickly as people would think it should.

We work through spiritual matters with many of our kids. This is more difficult for me what with the language barrier, but I am trying. I do a lot more of being Jesus to our kids through my actions and forcing myself to engage in spite of my introversion. I know verbal communication about the gospel is necessary. I do it all the time in the States. And I do it here when I am able. Still, I feel like people think missionaries have to preach on street corners or turn every conversation into a "you-should-accept-Jesus" confrontation. Maybe some missionaries do that. But I can tell you, they're either a) not in Europe or b) not working long-term. The longer you are in a place, the less of an outcast you can let yourself become and the more you will need to guard against burn-out. This is real life, folks.

Speaking of real life, did you know missionaries who work long-term have to pay bills and cook and do other normal things? And even though these things are normal, the difficulty level is often higher than you might expect. The language difference combines with logistics and suddenly making a meal plan for the week takes up more time than it ever would in the States. Many short-term missionaries never have to worry about paying bills every month or feeding themselves or transportation or cleaning or even washing their bedding. Those things are often taken care of by their hosts. And that's the nature of STMs, but the problem comes when people who have only ever gone on STMs don't realize that long-term missions involves a lot more plain-old real-life stuff.

And of course, there's ministry. The way ministry works for us here is that we welcome our kids into our homes. Ministry therefore is never truly over. We do a lot of hanging out with our kids and being available and cooking meals for and with them and teaching them to drive and such. Some ministries have clear-cut boundaries regarding time and space. A pastor in India preaches, he congregates, maybe he even has lunch with some people, but then he goes home to rest. We also rest, but we never assume we'll be totally in "off" mode. If we need serious downtime, we go in our rooms, but usually even our downtime is really just relaxed ministry.

Many missionaries welcome local people into their homes, maybe quite often, but we specifically house our kids in our apartments with us. Can you imagine how stressful it would be for all involved if we preached at them all the time like some people think we should? Yikes. Imagine living with your pastor and then imagine if he delivered a sermon directly at you every day. That wouldn't even be called ministry. That'd just be harassment.

So, we pray for our kids. We arrange English lessons for them and sit in the room as they're taught. We take them out for pizza or donuts on a weekly basis. We celebrate holidays with them, Romanian style. On Easter, we attended the midnight service and then ate a bunch of special food we made ourselves. We arrange trips for our kids, when the powers let us. We make fries together, we talk about Jesus, we offer advice. We take them to church when we can. We laugh with our kids and do silly things and answer their questions. This is our ministry, but more importantly, this is our family. We are very deep into this love thing. We wouldn't be able to go this deep without Jesus showing us how. So we live like him.

This is not a definitive list of all the ways people can make assumptions about missions but I hope you can understand a little more about why every missionary is different, and that that isn't a bad thing. I'm sure there are lousy missionaries out there, but right now I'm not in a position to judge them. Instead, I'd suggest you take a minute to think about the possibility that there may be a whole lot more missionaries accomplishing God's will, in their own way, in their specific corner of the world than you may have previously thought. And then maybe you will have a little more grace for those offering grace to people you will never meet.

Thanks for reading. To donate to my apartment that I'm sharing with an orphan, click here.