Before, during, and after our recent three-week trip to Uganda, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about missions. So many, in fact, that most people think that Cindi and I are locked into being career missionaries (which isn’t true; we’re still deciding that). A lot of those thoughts coalesced a few days ago during a conversation with a good friend who helped me think by offering insightful perspectives and a listening ear. The emphasis is on living out Christ’s mission where you’re at before you consider going somewhere else. I’ll write strongly about these things because flimsy and floppy words have never done me much good, and I suspect that most of us in America need exhortation more than excuses and disclaimers. I know that I do. I have failed in the below points one way or another during various seasons of my life, but I value the lessons that God’s taught me and continues to teach me, and I’m growing day by day because of His conviction.
- Missions is not glamorous. Stateside missionary dreams are often high on fantasy and low on reality. I’ve never been a career missionary, so I don’t doubt that I’m full of missionary fantasies, too. But the Lord has been faithful to blow away many of those pipe dreams through a variety of Scripture, thought, conversations, circumstances, and ministry. You think the grass is greener in Europe? China? Africa? Turkey? It’s not. Perhaps if wander-lust is your primary motivation for going abroad, you might not get too far out of your comfort zone. But that type of motivation isn’t exactly Pauline, and it will probably lead you to avoid the kinds of service and sacrifice that real ministry demands. If the main cost that you’re counting as you consider the mission field is monetary, it might be good to ask yourself if you really understand the cost.
- You will not catapult your spiritual life simply by setting foot in a third-world country as a missionary. When it comes to personal change, I think we put way too much stock in short-term trips and third-world experiences and week-long excursions to Mexican border towns. I believe that God can (and often does) use these kinds of experiences to challenge our thinking and alter our values and redirect our paths, but it’s not like taking a pill and waiting for the results. Live long enough (even 26 years) and you’ll realize that strong feelings waver, unforgettable moments are forgotten, and campfire tears dry up. What lasts is the fruit that comes from the Spirit of God planting the Word of God deep in the fertile soil of a soft heart that is receptive, repentant, and relentless. This can certainly happen in the midst of a striking experience, and often does. But fruit never just happens. It takes thoughtfulness, intentionality, self-denial, warfare, practicality, and perseverance. Moreover, personal growth should never be the primary motivation for engaging in any sort of ministry. The word “ministry” itself means service, and service means others. You will grow by serving, but your growth is not a proper or rewardable reason to serve.
- Don’t go to the mission field just because you hate American culture and values. The church and the lost in other countries don’t need Christians who are running from one culture to another but people who are running toward Christ and to the lost with the love of God in their hearts and the gospel of Christ in their hands. Besides, if I truly see the dark side of the American value system for what it is, it will compel me to step into it with the light, not run from it while cupping a hand around my candle.
- Many countries are now sending their missionaries here, and that’s a documented and supportable fact. Our country has long since cut itself free from its Judeo-Christian moorings and is decidedly post-Christian. Not that America was ever a “Christian nation” or any kind of new Israel, but it’s not difficult to argue that Judeo-Christian values permeated the society at its inception. The fact that our culture is quickening its pace towards even more disastrous ways of thinking doesn’t mean that you have an inherent responsibility to stay here instead of going abroad, but it should at least give you pause before you put effort into crossing a culture when the culture that you’re already an expert on needs the gospel just as much. Just because many in America have heard it doesn’t mean that they don’t need it, nor does it mean that everyone has heard it.
- Don’t be a missionary if you’re not currently living out the mission of Jesus among the lost in your own area. Obviously missions isn’t all about evangelism — there are untold opportunities to serve and train and disciple and partner with believers. But often people think of the mission field as a place to impact the lost for Christ. That’s true, and that’s a great reason to go. But not if you’re evangelistically inactive and spiritually lethargic in your current location. If I’m a couch-potato (professing) Christian in the States (no matter what Bible college I graduated from, what church I attend, or how spiritual I think I am), why in the world should the church dish out $100,000 of funding for my preparation and passage and then another $20,000-$50,000 year-by-year so that I can transfer my chump Christianity to another continent? If you don’t hang out with any tax-collectors and sinners where you’re at, don’t run to the mission field and spread your lukewarmness around the globe. At least quarantine yourself in your own area and keep the epidemic of hypocrisy to a minimum.
I don’t think that global vision and missionary labor are any less praiseworthy and needed because of the above thoughts. Being a missionary is not more spiritual than serving locally, but downplaying missions because of this fact is less spiritual than both. I’m reflecting on these things in order to balance the boat, not to sink it. If Cindi and I never go to the mission field, it won’t be because we don’t believe in God’s global purposes with all of our heart. It will be because God calls us to stay and to throw our tiny pebble into the placid lake of American Christianity and pray for a ripple to rise and run. For those of you who will go or who are there now: Godspeed, and may the gospel run and be glorified (2 Thessalonians 3:1).