The Hand Punching the Foot

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I get it. It’s not cool to be a missionary anymore. Everyone thinks you’re a thinly veiled, culture-killing, imperial colonialist.

I think it’s healthy to remember that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the missionary was an esteemed position – but I guess that’s why everyone is so angry about it now. Here’s how I see the history playing out:

  1. Circa 1850-1970, missionaries are idolized (mostly because they do crazy things, like pack their belongings in their coffin and make the world a better place)
  2. Missionaries, due to their status as the pinnacle of Christian life, willingly or unwillingly assimilate enormous amounts of cultural power, both in their home countries and in the countries they serve.
  3. Partly due to some shoddy theology and not a small amount of racism – as well as just being sinners – many mistakes are made. Some nefarious and shady. Some innocent. In all, people are hurt. (And, sadly, the list is pretty long)
  4. People begin to think that being a missionary isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The result of this process seemed logical enough – implicitly or explicitly the global church has been taught that missions is for the professionals.

Missions is for the professionals

If being a missionary requires packing in your coffin, then it is only for The Few, The Proud, The Brave – and so agencies look for the elite Christian-Marines, and most of us exclude ourselves from that demographic.

If being a missionary usually results in lots of mistakes (some that could legitimately tarnish a Gospel witness’ effectiveness, and most that we only see in retrospect), then only the mostly highly skilled linguists and cultural chameleons are qualified – and so agencies, churches, and universities look for elite Christian-ninjas, and most of us are not welcome to participate.

If being an ‘open missionary’ smacks of colonialism, compounds, and antiquated ideas about people of darker hue, then we should abandon full-time ministry as a useful endeavor and instead become a professional of some other field to mask our real intentions* – and so agencies look for people who have half a decade of university level education to fill their most entry-level posts.

The real tragedy is that most of the church is still taught that only the professionals are qualified for ministry. Living an authentic life for Jesus is tough, let alone trying to do it with dual integrity across cultures (integrity within yourself, and maintaining the cultural integrity of your host environment). So we often just bury the complexity under a whole lot of bureaucracy and training and hope to God it goes away. (Hint: it doesn’t)

We are surrounded in a sea of voices that say we must either be missionary Marines, ninjas, or marketplace professionals. (full disclosure: at different points in my life, I considered joining the people attached to each of those three links) All require extreme skills in areas outside the core of what Jesus taught: “Go into all the world, teaching people to be my disciples, and I promise to be with you, before you, and behind you the whole way.” (my paraphrase of the Great Commission)

When new people attempt to engage a lifestyle of overseas missions, they often become disheartened by one of these parties. Or they avoid the the nuggets of sage advice that led to this predicament altogether and become yet another case study to reinforce the importance that only professionals can do this.

Giving missions back to everyday people

There is a new option emerging en force: one that does not look toward “global missions”, but instead takes the most challenging elements of global missions (crossing into a new culture, and becoming a professional first in order to do it well) and bypasses them by looking local.

In some ways a response, and in other ways a blast of high-energy protons shooting away from the imploding molecule formerly know as missions, there is a rising movement of being a “local missionary”. And I get it. A ton of my best friends are in the thick of leading this movement in our city, and I love them for it and praise God for all the incredible things happening right here. It is perfectly aligned with Jesus’ message. Check out what some are doing here, here, or here.

I understand the heartbeat of this movement – it is my very heartbeat. My wife and I are currently fomenting this type of missional identity in a fledgling community in our city as well.

However, in a pursuit of differentiating itself from another church program that’s really just about getting people to show up on Sunday, many conversations in the movement quickly devolve into an “us vs. them” parade between the competing billboards of “Go” versus “Stay”.

The new wave of “local missionaries” want the public to know they pack all the punch of missions of yore: loving others beyond what is reasonable, serving with our whole selves for our whole lives, and bringing the Kingdom here and now. They aren’t another small group or another Saturday service project: they are about a holistic life of mission. So they use the language historically reserved for that most revered position of missionary and slap it on your suburban doorjamb.

This is crystallized through the tagline of one of the leading networks, “Staying is the new going“. I happen to love every single person I know who is involved in this movement, so I am in no way trying to castigate anyone. Their heart is gold, the execution is–

Well, it’s like stepping on your own shoelaces – moving forward is just an epic face plant (really, much better suited for a Vine then the True Vine).

Go vs Stay – the part where we step on shoelaces and hand grenades

The “Go vs. Stay” cold war is all over conferences and organization taglines. But like the dog who ate your homework, the focal point of the debate is not what we hope it would be. “Go vs Stay” is not about geography, it’s about obedience. As this post from one of my favorite locally-minded networks brilliantly demonstrates, what Jesus sends us to is less a geography and more an identity.

Those who I rub shoulders with who are dismissive of the “local missionary” movement are often quick to say that to be a missionary, one must be outside their home culture. Even Google seems to agree. What happens when we change the suffix? When we use the word “missionary” we are culturally inclined to think “geography”. What about the word, “missions” – is that exclusively foreign?

And of course, the root of both of these is simply: “mission”; or as the Biblical narrative unfolds it, the missio dei.

Subconscious Church anchors into humility before Jesus, is tenacious about unity within the Body, and propagates shalom in their context. This focus on posture reflects a specific understanding of identity. I believe it’s the same posture that spurred 19th century missionaries to pack their coffins and the same that is inspiring the “local missionary” movement of the 21st century. Because I believe that the missio dei is for all people.

In the manuscript, I write:

Here is the definitive, all-inclusive, and exhaustive theological examination as to whether or not you should be actively involved in the mission of God:

1. Do you profess Jesus as Savior and First Love of your life?

Yes           No

If you selected “Yes” to that (really long) theological exam, Congratulations! You are a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Period.

This is not meant to give license to those inclined to the sound of their own voice. As we press into a community built on the foundation of Spirit-inspired Identity, Spirit-shaped Character, and Spirit-led Movement, the gathering and scattering of believers under the Lordship of Jesus ought to naturally preclude grand abuses of this freedom in Christ.

Rather, since it is far easier to slip into the safety of policy and self-disqualification, this is meant to embolden the community of believers passionate about making their Living King known to those around them in desperate need of Rescue. This is the challenge of community: to be on the mission of God, carrying the Words of Life to those who are dead, acting as ministers of the Gospel of Reconciliation, and interceding for the lost and broken around us. It is a cosmic-sized challenge that requires a profound Humility, a persistent Unity, and a collective lifestyle of Shalom in your context – not merely in theory, but in practice.

Go or stay? Just obey!

To the young, naive, idealist Jesus says: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

To the middle-aged, middle-class parent of four who is comfortable with a quiet evening of TV, Jesus says, “Tend my lambs.”

To the introvert Jesus says, “The Father will honor your quiet service.”

To the recent college graduate, Jesus says, “How will they know if no one tells them?”

To the entrepreneur, Jesus says, “I have come to seek and save the lost.”

The point, obviously, is not that Jesus limited these commands to these groups of people, but that all people who follow Jesus receive these words, and therefore, all people who follow Jesus are on the mission of Jesus.

Jonathan Trotter put it best when he said, “We are ALL called down the street, it’s just that some of us have to travel a bit to find our street.

And this is why we need to stop the “Go vs Stay” argument: because we are all called to God’s mission. Locally or a long way away. We should focus less on the geography of that mission and consider more whether or not we are obedient to how the Holy Spirit is revealing that mission in our lives.

The question is not, “Should I go?” Or even, “I’ll go unless you keep me.” The question is whether or not you will step up to the calling to which you have been called.

Are you brave enough to listen to, and lean into, how the Holy Spirit will unfold that mission & calling in your life? I promise it will be out of your comfort zone. By definition, obedience is hard because we are asked to do something we’d rather not do (like the dishes). It won’t matter if genuine obedience means staying in your childhood town or moving to Congo to give child-soldiers a chance to have a childhood: really listening to the Spirit’s lead will take you out of your own plans for your life, and therefore out of your comfort zone.

Go far or stay near, only don’t use your geography as a trendy spiritual mask to avoid the call to your Nineveh. Go to that place the Spirit calls you, and love the people there with your whole life until they are in the Family of God, you/they are dead, or Jesus returns.



*How are we supposed to lead people to the truth when we build the relationship on a lie?

K Livingston
K Livingston
I believe in dreaming big, working hard, cheering loud, standing tall, bowing deep. All of it because I believe Jesus = life.
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