Missionaries are just adventurers?

“I’m not going to the Missions Conference” said my friend in church. Having just given everything to help organise the conference that hundreds of people came to every year, I was deflated to hear these words from a core member of the Christian community. Why?

“Missionaries at conferences are just a bunch of extroverted adventurers who tell cool stories about their adventures following God elsewhere in the world. I’m not supporting their adventures under the name of Jesus.”

And to some extent, I could see where they were coming from. So many missionaries to gain support, tell story after story of impressive things, in scary situations, or radical moves of God. The story often revolves round them, their work, or their experience, and that’s somewhat natural.

And so many mission teams and people, end up doing things abroad that they would never dream of doing at home, or never think was wise or sustainable to do. Spending your time painting orphanages may seem wonderful, until you rob the local painter of a job. Blitzing the city of [insert name] that is predominantly [insert other religion] with gospel literature before leaving may seem brave and fearless, until you realise the negative impact it has on sustainable work of local Christians.

If those were the missionaries we were having on stage, I might go to be entertained, but equally I might decide to stay at home.

Thankfully, they’re not. For at least three reasons:

  1. Every Christian is a missionary

God is on mission – the Mission Dei. And He calls us along to partake in His vision, which we glimpse as we see His heart in the scriptures, and see His hand at work across the nations. It’s not an optional calling. It’s not a thing for adventurers or extroverts. It’s for everyone, both at home and abroad. And I hope our conferences reflect that – this year, we’d a diverse range of people speaking, from a teacher, to a student, to a golf green-keeper, a church worker, a stay-at-home parent and many more. Forget the scary terminology, or questioning whether missionaries are good for the world. They are. Because we’re all on mission. And His mission is His church, which is the best thing to happen to the world.

2. Every personality type is used in the body

There was a generation who delighted in Myers Briggs personality tests. “I’m in introvert” and “I’m INFP” were things you often heard. Those were very useful (and still are) but often were labels that people hid behind and used as excuses. “I can’t tell people about Jesus like that, because I’m not that kind of person.”

But while respecting the diversity of Christ’s creation, we can’t simply hide behind personality types as a reason why we’re not living and speaking for Jesus wherever we are. Yes, we must cherish the different parts of the body of Christ, value our unity in diversity, and not try and force everyone into the same mold, but we must also always push ourselves out of our comfort zones a little, so that we grow in areas we are not comfortable in. Perhaps that’s what might challenge even the current “Strengthfinder” generation, who like to build on people’s strengths primarily.

It’s why some of the people who’ve left Cork to go on mission to some of the more extreme places in the world, are actually introverts and humanly speaking far from being the stereotypical “adventurer”. And it’s beautiful when God does that – so changing people’s hearts and convictions as to who He is, that they can’t help but radically be re-orientated to His call. It’s who they were made to be, even if that doesn’t seem obvious to them years ago.

3. We must tell God’s story, rather than our own

This is something I struggle with. When does telling an incredible story about God working, actually point to me? Does every story I tell, necessarily have to be about me failing or being weak, but God still using it? I look at some of this in chapter 2 of my book.

And what do we expect of our cross-cultural missionaries….do we ask them to be normal church leaders in a local context, plus have the ability to speak other languages, learn other cultures, thrive amongst other worldviews and perhaps have a normal job on the side too? It’s very hard to say the sentence “God primarily uses ordinary followers of Jesus” when you’ve just said the sentence before it. That doesn’t appear like a normal person to me. That appears like an extremely gifted person (humanly speaking) in certain things, which we could not expect everyone to be. There’s a joke in some circles that love to emphasize how God uses “ordinary” people, that it’s a bunch of extra-ordinary personalities trying to persuade us that we can all be ordinary.

Regardless, every time we organise a conference, we try and excite people, not primarily with big personalities or intrepid story-tellers, but with God’s Word, His work and His story.

The Christian hostel community that I stayed with in Scotland the other night.

Regardless, every time we organise a conference, we try and excite people, not primarily with big personalities or intrepid story-tellers, but with God’s Word, His work and His story.

But it brings me back to thinking….

Perhaps if God uses all personality types and gifts, we should play to the strengths of those who are adventurers at heart? Shouldn’t it be a natural recruiting pool for people who could go to the hardest-to-reach spots in the world where there are still Unengaged People Groups? Sure, we must be careful that this is not the prime reason we pick them – Godly character, a love for God, and for His Church should still ooze from them. But to not tap into the adventurous spirit of many – to overlook travel – is to overlook some of the people most humanly fitted to going.

What if, instead of ranting about travelling people being always on the road, we were to empower them to do what they do well, to the glory of God, and for His mission? What if the way they learnt to love the local church, was to see that their adventurous spirit can be a key part of local church community, without making them feel like they are tied to a chair and strait-jacketed by Christianity?

By loving them, in their diverse gifts and passions, we give them an example of loving people of radically different gifts and passions, and serving and honouring them. And we trust that they’d start to do the same – to value to 9-5 office worker and the stay at home parent. To show love to the disabled kid, or the person who would rather sit at home playing computer games. To intentionally demonstrate that God’s community includes all sorts.

It’s why I wasn’t surprised that out of all those I talked to at a recent Christian hostel, many (even new believers, who’d come to faith in another hostel, and were now plugged in to local church) were considering overseas mission in hard places where Jesus isn’t known.

Perhaps, we should stop looking down on travel as a subsidiary luxury of the western church?

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PS: A question for another day is what church looks like in those hard-to-reach warzones, nomadic tribes or other places, when a bunch of extroverted adventurers turn up together on the doorstep. What does diversity look like then? Answers on a postcard please (or in the comments below).

Dying to Travel: “we died before we came here” (Book review)

I’m always nervous about stories of travelling to your martyrdom.  Partly because the question “what are you prepared to die for?” is rarely as simple as the questions suggests.  There’s a rare case in which Christians are taken by their captors and asked to deny their faith in Jesus or die, and there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable other way of viewing it.  I could think of the Egyptian Christians taken by ISIS on the beach in Libya, and shot.

ISIS Egypt

In other cases there’s far more nuance about why such folk are killed.  Was it simply for their faith, or had they been abusing their colonial powers or privilege or been perceived to be on the side of those who were treating people awfully?

In the first few chapters of this gripping book, “Emily” (not her real name) tells of how her husband gave her Foxe’s Book of Martyrs when they were dating and asked her whether she was willing to live and die for Jesus.  But as someone who also read such a book when I was younger, I was not only encouraged by the stories, but also appalled by some of the political warfare, colonial attitudes and sectarian bigotry that led to many of the deaths, or the lack of information to prove otherwise.

Thankfully what emerged from the book was a story of genuine love for North African people who had not had a chance to hear of the name of Jesus.  The questions the book raises are exemplary to get people thinking of what it would take to cross cultures and take the good news to others.  The stories she tells are answers to the common objections that are raised by others on why such lifestyles are foolish.  Wouldn’t going to such a place ruin your children’s lives?  Isn’t it unnecessary risk?  Do Muslims in North Africa deserve the good news?  Do you have to be superhuman to go?  And the way that she tells them had me wanting to finish the book in a day!  It’s an easily read story of ordinary (but obviously gifted) humans, told with honesty and passion.

The main learning curve for me, was again in the story of martyrdom.  For me in my Christian life here in Ireland, I’ve always been baffled that it’s not the “non-Christians” who have caused me most pain in life, but Christians at my side.  And the more I go on, the more I think that despite such great pain, that they were genuine believers and not just “Christians” by name only who caused this misery.  I’m still examining the scriptures to see whether this is to be expected and Biblically normal to expect this.  But regardless, so it is with this story.we died before we came here

Her husband is billed as being a tremendous human being, working for an NGO and loved by all.  She portrays his faults, yes, but largely has great praise for such a man.  But Emily tells us of believers who (despite being some of the better discipled ones,) were so young in the faith, that when they were confronted over some patterns of sin of stealing, they turned against Stephen (her husband) and wrote articles about him on fundamentalist Islamic websites, where they’d be seen by extremists who would quite happily “deal” with him.

All this is quickly and quietly summarised in a few paragraphs on page 133 of the book, nearly in passing.  She also explains that their team situation had been escalating between expats, and that because of other reasons, they didn’t defend him.  She mentions that Stephen had tried to do Biblical rebuke/confrontation well, going first to the individual and then the group, but she doesn’t explain how this might have looked in a shame/honour culture, or whether they just ploughed on ahead with their usual western way of reading that passage in scripture “if a brother sins against you…”.

It was this, that set up his martyrdom.  But like many cases of martyrdom, it’s a murky one.  Did Stephen die for his faith in Jesus?  Or did he die because he didn’t know how to pastorally handle messy cases in shame/honour culture?  Why did his colleagues or team mates not defend him and prevent such things happening?

Similar questions have been raised in recent years about other martyrs, right up to the most prolific of Christian stories of people like the Jim Elliot in the Amazon.  Why did they have guns on them at the time?

But ultimately, despite the grey areas and question marks over the story, I do believe it is a story where Stephen did indeed die for his faith in Christ, and that his story is one that needs to be told.  Because ultimately, in the Christian narrative, Christ is not dying for those who perfectly follow him.  Christ is not abandoning those even who deny him temporarily (Peter).  Christ claims a weak and messy Bride as His own.  And even when it may be partly our fault for the abuse that we may get, it is still abuse for the sake of Him.  No one made those Islamic fundamentalists shoot him (or whoever it was).  No action of Stephen’s provoked them, other than His faith in Jesus and his spreading of it.

And so I’m praying that this book would touch many hearts and lives, as it has mine, and be an example of Tertullian’s oft quoted phrase:Tertullian

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

I mean, it hasn’t always been that way.  The land of Augustine in north africa was a land where the church seemed to be persecuted out of existence for nearly 1500 years.  And in other settings we could report the same.  But in many cases, martyrdom has grown the church, and I’m praying such stories would do that, as many consider the call to die to themselves and live for Christ.  Emily, in a powerful way, writes that Stephen (and her family) could deal somewhat with his death in a better way, because of the words of a missionary (james Calvert) to Fiji and the Pacific Islands long ago who went before cannibals with the good news of Jesus:

“We died before we came here.”

And if we’re dying to self each day, and living for Christ, such stories of travelling for your martyrdom will be true, regardless of whether it is a physical death you are dying or whether a spiritual death of dying to self.

Traveller I ask you, will you be a martyr in your travels?  Will you die each day you live?