The Idolatry of Missions

The following is a guest post from Jonathan Trotter (@trotters41). Jonathan is a missionary in Southeast Asia, where he provides pastoral counseling at a local counseling center. He also serves as one of the pastors at an international church. His article originally appeared under the same title on A Life Overseas. Used with permission. 

 

Missionaries are like the church’s Special Forces, right? They go into enemy territory, sometimes covertly, tearing down walls for Jesus. They have special training, preparing them to serve in the darkest places around the globe. Missionaries are on the front lines of the Kingdom of Heaven, right? I’m sorry, but no.

Wherever the Gospel is advancing, there is the front line. Wherever lives are being transformed by the love of Jesus, there is the leading edge of the Kingdom.

But aren’t missionaries the crème of the crop? Um, yeah, no. Turns out, we’re just people. We may travel more than most, and maybe we speak more languages than some, but the idea that missionaries are somehow “set apart” is dangerous. I’d like to begin a discussion about this. Care to join?

Whether these false ideas come from the missionaries themselves or those who send them, the consequence is the same: damage. Damage to the missionaries and damage to the churches who send them. 

How These Lies Damage Missionaries

If a missionary believes these lies (crème of the crop, special forces, etc.), and if churches reinforce them, one of two things will happen.

Option 1. When the missionary realizes he isn’t superman (or supermissionary), confusion, discouragement, and maybe even depression will set in. He may be forced into secrecy, covering up and hiding the fact that he is, in fact, human. He may feel like a failure because he now realizes he’s not the best of the best, like all the “real” missionaries. He may create a thin veneer of perfection and hide behind it for a Very.Long.Time. Obviously, this is not healthy, but it does make sense to the missionary who’s comparing himself to the false perfect. And when a whole community of missionaries builds walls and covers up, the fallacy is reinforced; everyone looks super on the outside, and no one can see the inside. And the damage continues.

Option 2. If a missionary believes these lies, and continues to believe them, she may become extremely arrogant, judgmental, and condemning. The judgment and condemnation will be aimed at other missionaries who “just can’t hack it,” as well as all the lesser people back home who never even tried. After all, she’s the top of the class, the one called and equipped for greater works. Again, these attitudes make sense if she starts with the basic assumption that missionaries are better. Now, it’s true, most people will never talk like this. But I bet you’ve met people who act like it.

How These Lies Damage Sending Churches

We’ll address this more in a bit, but for now, let me just say that when a church believes these lies, it effectively keeps missions OUT THERE. Missions becomes something missionaries do somewhere over there. The great call of God becomes disconnected from the church of God. And that’s really, really sad.

Furthermore, it minimizes and marginalizes the godly saints in the local body. The old lady who just put her last few dollars in the plate may have sacrificed more than the family who moved abroad. The arithmetic of the Almighty includes variables we can’t see.

One of the kindest, godliest men I’ve ever known worked on an assembly line for most of his life. You know what he did during his shifts? He talked with God and he memorized the Word. And so, when this blue-collar, shift-worker of an old man looked you in the eye and shook your hand, you felt like you knew Jesus a little better. He was faithful to his Lord for decades longer than I’ve been alive. And whatever reward I get in heaven, I’m pretty sure it won’t be any grander than this faithful, Spirit-filled saint’s.

When the church idolizes young missionaries, it runs the great risk of forgetting the faith-filled old people. The plodders who’ve loved well and remained faithful for a lifetime. And when the church neglects those people, the church misses out big time.

It’s not just the faithful old that tend to get marginalized. What about the faithful young? Is the work I do abroad more important than the local pastor in my home country who loves God with all his heart, and loves his people with sacrificial and compassionate love?

Is my job more important or more holy than my friend who’s a doctor in an inner-city emergency room? He loves and treats folks most people wouldn’t even touch. And he does it with kindness, giving strong witness to the Spirit of Christ who lives in him.

My job, loving and serving people across cultures, is what I’m called to do. I really believe that. But as I’ve said elsewhere, I sure hope some people are called and equipped to do work other than this. And I sure hope they realize their work isn’t second-class.

The Risk of Idolatry

Why do churches put missionaries on a pedestal? Why do missionaries put themselves there? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that they, and we, do. And it’s dangerous.

I grew up in a culture that idolized missionaries. By the time I was a teenager, I had read the biographies of Adoniram Judson, Gladys Aylward, Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Elisabeth Elliot, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Brother Andrew, David Livingston, and others. We revered these people. My parents even made sure I got to meet Elisabeth Elliot when she came to town, and we had a hand written note from her on our fridge!

These people were great and faithful and followed God in amazing ways, and I’m so grateful I was exposed to their stories; I in no way want to dishonor them. The error was mine, not theirs, because somewhere in all those stories I got the idea that really good Christians became overseas missionaries. If I wanted to sort-of serve God, I could become a pastor, but if I really wanted to serve God, I’d become a missionary. And if I didn’t care about serving God at all, I could become a lawyer (which I did, by the way, but that’s a story for another time).

The truly faithful, the truly holy, the ones most loved by God and most in love with God, would obviously serve him overseas. No one said it out loud, but I internalized the message nonetheless. I doubt you’ve heard these things spoken out loud, but have you ever felt them?

For too long, we have idolized overseas missions. We need to stop now.

I’m afraid that in our desire to be good followers of God, we’ve lost intimacy with him. Intimacy is personalized and requires time and a willingness to pay attention to subtle cues; we’ve preferred the one-size-fits-all, task-driven, widget-producing faith that measures success not by love, but by product.

Have we cared more about the work our hands do than the love our heart does?

Have we challenged people to obey “the call” instead of the Christ?

Have we sent and honored missionaries who are filled more with ambition than adoration?

Again, these things make sense if overseas missions is the end-all. But it’s not. Serving cross-culturally is definitely a valid response to the Gospel, but it is not the only valid response to the Gospel.

In fact, if traveling a long ways is how we serve God, then Jonah was doing a great job even BEFORE the whole fish incident. Remember, serving Jesus isn’t about traveling the right distance as much as it’s about traveling the right direction.

We’ve called “moving to a foreign land” the pinnacle of obedience, but in some cases, moving to a foreign land might be more like running away — disobedience, in its most spiritual form.

A Caveat

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying cross-cultural missions is bad. I am a missionary serving outside of my passport country, and I love it. I really do. I hope to stay here for a long time. I’ve recruited people to serve overseas, I’ve preached to teenagers about serving overseas, I’ve passionately extolled service abroad. And I plan to continue! In fact, our personal website even has an extensive resource page for folks interested in serving overseas.

But here’s the problem. Early on, I internalized the idea that this job, this ministry, was in fact the best. It’s what the best Christians do. It’s what the holiest Christians do. It’s what people who don’t have problems do. But you know what, that’s crazy talk. I’m not setting out to discourage folks from cross-cultural missions. I am trying to say, if you’re going to follow God across cultures, do it because he called you. Do it because you love people. Don’t do it because you think it’s what good Christians do.

Conclusion

Before we moved overseas, I wrote a song that had these lyrics, “To the ends of the earth, or down the street, where you send I will go, I will go.” I sang it with gusto and enthusiasm. I now realize it’s ridiculous; it’s based on the false dichotomy that some are called to go to cool places (the “ends of the earth”), and others are just called down the street.

We are ALL called down the street, it’s just that some of us have to travel a bit to find our street.

God didn’t want to send me to the ends of the earth OR down the street. He wanted to send me to Cambodia AND down the street. Why? Because the call of God is local. It’s right here, with the people in front of me.

He may call you to change streets (and that’s totally his prerogative), but once you get to your new street, you still have to love and serve the person in front of you. He may send you to a street that looks (and smells) nothing like the streets you’re used to. Great! But you know what, once you get there and learn their language, you still have to love and serve the person in front of you. It’s not rocket science.

So, whether your street is paved and filled with luxury cars, or it’s a collection of muddy ruts and filled with wildebeests, the call of God is the same. Love well. Serve well. Live your life in such a way, that…

When people look at your eyes, they see our Father’s compassion.

When they see you create, they marvel at our King’s genius.

When they watch you sacrifice, they know our Savior’s kindness.

No matter what street you live on, may you truly experience life on the front lines of the Kingdom; not because you live on a special or super-holy street, but because on your street, “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

 

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