Mission work in the Christian church is booming all over the world, and I am very honored and blessed to be a full time missionary of the United Methodist Church.
Talk to young people in missions today, and you will very likely hear that contrarian conjunction drifting off into the ellipsis of thoughts uncomfortable. Young people in churches love to go on mission trips. I have heard from many different sources that the mission trip today has taken the place of summer camp in previous generations. However, short-term mission trips often allow the participant to be a “religious tourist”, as one young pastor recently put it, and she is not any different from when she is at youth group.
She would not likely call herself a missionary.
I do call myself a missionary. It’s kinda what I do.
This does not make me any kind of academic expert on missions. There is a branch of ecclesiology called “missiology”, and I am but a casual reader. Having said that, I do still have a voice and opinion of some weight. I think the official commissioning grants me that much. And so that allows me to speak of my, and my young adult colleagues’, uncomfortableness (not quite discomfort, mind you) with being identified as a missionary.
Let me explain more. During my missionary training we did an exercise one night where we drew pictures with crayons of what we think of when we hear the word “missionary”. There were pictures of hearts and crosses and perhaps a physiological representation of femininity. Keep an open mind, please. I drew a scene from “Heart of the Darkness”, the influential novel by Joseph Conrad about rescuing a civilized Englishman from his own madness deep in the Congo jungle. There was a Bible, a flag, a musket, and a mysterious collection of greens and browns and blacks meeting the edge of a river. You see, by end of my undergraduate experience I had learned of the parts of missions that I hadn’t learned in Sunday school. Like how conquistadors had priests with them to baptize indigenous people as they were being slaughtered. Or how the mission outpost doubled as a fortress for the imperial forces of Europe (think “Things Fall Apart”). In the colonial context which I was trying to draw, imperialist violence was almost always accompanied by the presence of a clergyman, who often gave his blessing to the expansion of Christendom over the devil’s dominion of the heathen.
That is not really something I want to connect myself to.
But I still chose to go into the mission field. I like to think that my reasons were quite different than the imperialist accompaniment of the conquest of the New World.
See, for me, mission, in the Christian context, in the 21st century, is much more about connecting groups of people who are normally separated by vast geographical and cultural distances. For example, the average Methodist church with a children’s choir and the occasional pot luck dinner will not have much of a concept of what people in Ulaanbaatar are like. Nor will the Mongolians know really what people in Iowa are really like. However, the missionary connects these two groups in the love and grace of Christ that knows no boundaries. The Iowan church will then likely support the ministry of the missionary in Mongolia, hopefully in a financial way because, believe you me, mission work rarely lands you in a penthouse apartment.
And that brings us to a very interesting discussion about the differences and the interplay of ministry and mission. Really, I believe the differences are more or less just semantic, but let’s just accept for now that they are different. Individual churches, eklesias, have ministries, like youth group or Sunday school or music or collecting food for pick-up to the local food pantry. It is something local and routine. However, mission requires you to go outside of your routine and your comfort zone, which likely means you aren’t staying local either. It does not require you to travel long distances, but perhaps you may have cross 49th Street to the “real South Side”. Or indeed get on a bus or train or plane or ship and cross time zones. The point is that mission work is not terribly routine, and that break from the routine requires a leap of faith. Hence the commissioning ceremony that brought tears to my eyes last fall.
What motivates that leap of faith is what truly separates my generation’s thoughts of mission from those who were commissioned long before us. For me, it is compassion, mercy, and justice. God broke my heart with the terrors and evils of the larger world, filled me with righteous indignation, and now I work to clear some metaphorical money changing out of my Creator’s temple. It not so much about converting the unbelievers as it is helping people find Christ where they already are. And giving the devil a swift kick in the captain’s quarters. With picket signs. And TV cameras, if possible.
Glory and Jacob Dharmaraj write in their small book, Mutuality in Mission, “the ultimate goal of Christian mission is to make men and women fully human—the way God wants them to be—not merely turn them into religious or spiritual beings” (7). That is something I can connect with. There may be parts of a certain group’s behavior that really isn’t compatible with the Way of Christ—be it corporate greed or child brides—and we then must help those men and women become more fully human. That is a very difficult thing to do because I for one know I am not very good at being fully human all the time. However, if indeed, as missionaries, short-term or long-term, we share the love of Christ with everyone and bridge the gaps that divide the body of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven is truly coming on earth.
And I am most comfortable with that concept.