*Here are five seemingly contradictory things I’ve notice that help make up a healthy and effective missionary (and likely a Christian in our changing world in general). What do you think? I know I do not have these things sorted out, but I do feel strongly enough about it, that it is worth shinning a light on and having the conversation.
1. Independent yet lead-able.
We’ve got to know how to lead our selves, govern our own schedules, encourage ourselves, at times defend ourselves and our ministries, and even lead ourselves to Christ. Yet we also have to be incredibly flexible. Given the nature of the places we may go, we may need to be led to a new focus, a new place and it may all happen suddenly, such as in an evacuation. As newcomers and foreigners we have to have the attitude in us that we have everything to learn. In other words, we won’t ever thrive without deep conviction, follow through and passion, and yet we can do a lot of damage if we do not learn to listen and even at times obey others (yes I mean to write it that strongly, obey…) Let us be open minded, yet let us never be flaky. Let us be adaptable to where God has us, always ready to respond to tough news that could forever affect our futures, knowing that our lives are in His hands, but at the same time immovable in the Lord, knowing full well that we will face opposition if we really serve him..
2. Adept at horizontal and vertical relationships.
If we would be good missionaries we must also be mystics. Especially for those coming from a western culture, the missionary life will blow up your sense of privacy and you will have people unexpectedly and continually visiting, watching, and probably living with you in a way that you have never experienced before. Yet, we need to learn to escape from people and spend time with God. If we don’t have an awareness of peoples spiritual conditions, especially our own, we are going to fail. We may seem to succeed, and help lift up some people academically, socially or in some other way, but we risk the danger that we have helped people simply replace the old fears and old idols for newer and more sophisticated western ones.
3. Tough skin, and a soft heart.
We need tough skin, but a soft heart. If we have too soft of skin, we probably are going to end up with a hard heart. I’ve seen people come, and just be destroyed emotionally by the darkness, and cruel poverty that they had never known existed in the world. As an urban missionary in America I saw numbers of people come with idealism and naivete, which was quickly eaten up by the evil of the world, and eventually they outgrew their need for a ‘radical’ life of love for the poor, and moved on to an easier life and work as someone might move on from watching Saturday morning cartoons when they grow up. Instead we must move through the tears…. I do not say move on, or even move beyond tears, because when we loose the ability to see the sadness in peoples lives, and weep with them, we’ve lost our hearts, and become no good to anyone! Oh we can continue to live and work surrounded by crushing needs and darkness and still grow a hard heart. No, we must work through the tears for the terrible things of this world, and do something about it. Like our Lord, we must offer very selves. Never in fear, nor indifference, but with courage and love.
4. Absolutely unified, and absolutely intolerant.
We often get this one all wrong and backwards as well. If we are missionaries of the true gospel, that must mean we must be absolutely unified in Christ. At the same time we must be absolutely intolerant of anything opposed to the reality that it is Christ who saves alone. As the Apostle Paul wrote the Ephesians we have one Lord. Our Lord Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through me. It ought to break our hearts to see people unified in a ministry or a methodology, or a particular tradition or cultural affinity, but tolerant within those contexts of not preaching Christ as our only hope. The good news is that Jesus is the door to heaven, we can truthfully and scripturaly proclaim that it is a door open to all, and we are now living in the great time where that door is never shut, no matter how broken or evil a person might be, and yet it must be faithfully proclaimed, that he is the only door there is. On the other hand, we don’t have the time or luxury to battle over cultural and even our church or theological differences and preferences that we bring with us from outside the mission field. In my opinion we need to accept the fact that the harvest is ready, and the workers are few. This is why I work for a broadly christian mission that accepts volunteers from all manner of church backgrounds, from every part of the world. I will not waist a minute of energy defending my philosophy of ministry as more legitimate or effective than anothers that could be used for teaching hungry Christian leaders and reaching the lost. But if you are for Christ alone, as revealed by the scriptures, than you are my sister and/or my brother and there has to be some tangible and working reality to our unity beyond mere words, despite a possible multitude of other differences we might have. When we don’t explicitly, and regularly preach Christ as the only hope, what do we communicate? We think we are being sensitive and reasonable, but actually we are acting like we ourselves are the hope of the world. When we are tolerant of working and identifying ourselves in some way with those who do not recognize Jesus, we are actually stating that some other method, ministry, ideology, cultural sensibility or program is our Lord and Savior. Things we invented, it is easy to be excited by these things because they point to us.
5. Believe in depravity and in Grace.
It is unfair and even cruel to ourselves and to others when we fail to see the extent of our problems. If we went to the doctor and he said our pains came from not drinking enough water and sleeping well, but failed to tell us of the cancer growing within we would not want to continue to see that doctor. When we act like all people need is a little more information to act on, or a little inspiration to get them going, or a little assistance financially to get them the momentum they need, we are acting like that doctor who is not being honest, or at least is incompetent and can not see the true problem. The doctrine of depravity, which is taught throughout the bible states that our greatest problem is that we have become spiritually dead, that in everything we do, think and say, there is something of rebellion and selfishness. It is also true that we are also victims in this world, and some more than others, because we live in unjust world filled with other spiritually dead people, and it is also true that we can be ignorant, and can’t possibly imagine a different world than what we live in. When we work with people, we need to remember depravity, and not just the depravity of those we work with, but most especially our own! We desperately need the clarity to see, and humility to admit that everything we do is touched by sin, and so we need to question ourselves. But also with others, we can’t expect that if we just present better information or build a better program it will change lives alone! Not only are we needing information, needing opportunities, and etc.. We are also prone to be stubborn, rebellious and lazy and a host of other things! When we don’t understand depravity, our own and that in others, we are just going to burn out!
Yet we need to never forget grace. Grace says that people can change. Jesus had grace when he looked at Nathaniel who was ethnocentric, harsh, and ignorant when he said of Jesus ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’. Jesus declared “behold a man in Isreal with whom there is no guile!’ Than he called the one who just insulted him to leave his home and his life and wander around with him for three years and become one of his apostles. We need to study Jesus deeply, to understand grace. Grace means not only that we can change, but it also means that Jesus isn’t afraid of our darkness and our mess. He can come in and clean it all up. Grace is all about how Jesus paid for our sins on the cross of Calvary. In our lives as we give grace, it means sometimes we will be wrong about people, they will fail us, but we are absolutely willing to pay the price. It doesn’t mean we ignore depravity, in ourselves or in others. But it means in spite of that depravity we know that because of God’s grace, people can change, people can grow, and that in fact people will grow so we can expect much of them. It’s because of grace that I’ve seen marriages healed, the lost finding meaning in life, depressed finding comfort, those trapped in addictions freed. It is because of grace we can work where we do, and say, the light of the world has come to this dark place to shine, and change lives.