I’ve been giving thought to what makes someone ‘a missionary’. I’ve been living abroad since 2006, with the exception of nearly a year in Canada before transitioning from living in The Netherlands, to living in Peru where I currently reside going on three years strong.
Part of me used to get irked on the inside, I will admit, when I listen to people say “you don’t need to go to another country to be a missionary” which is true. However, I used to feel like the majority of people I heard say that were making excuses for why they wouldn’t go overseas somewhere. There’s plenty of need for the Gospel all around the world so I may be saying this with a biased lens, but there sure are an awful lot of people who seem to be called to stay than there are those that feel called to go!
Some Called To Stay, Some Called To Go
While it is true that one doesn’t need to go abroad to fulfill the Great Commission, it conversely doesn’t mean that just because you’ve gone to another culture that you are necessarily advancing the Gospel, either.
I’ve asked on social networks, such as Google+, for some feedback from people about what makes a missionary different than a glorified tourist. Among the responses I got were:
If your sole purpose is outlined in your mission, belief system, you are a missionary. A tourist goes where they want to go, a missionary goes where they are called to by conviction in their fundamental beliefs. I see no difference traveling to Detroit or Tehran. Some people feel as though the world changes when they go somewhere else, the real story is the world changes when you can go somewhere and make a difference. A person that becomes a burden or user of resources for the place they are helping is also less helpful.
And my friend Danny, a Gospel entrepreneur who travels the world looking for disciples to raise up in the areas of online businesses said:
Firstly we are all missionaries once you decide to follow Christ, you don’t have to go to another country to be branded as such but then you have the challenge of living it out where you are. If you cannot be an effective missionary locally what makes you think going to a strange country with a different language makes you any more effective? Most overseas missionaries are really mission workers.
And, from my friend Carlton:
I don’t do well with American missionaries who go to a country, live only around other American missionaries, only see the locals during planned events (classes, church, etc.). To me, that’s just a tourist. Missionaries live among the people, and become a part of the people. Just my opinion though.
These are some good thoughts.
I know some missionaries who’ve been in their respective countries for over 8 years and still don’t even speak the language or travel without an interpreter. I know people who have been here in Peru for years, and work in certain settings and don’t consider themselves here as missionaries, but part of a business and have lived in bubbles — I use that word in a non-accusatorial or disparaging way — and due to what reasons they’re here for, have never learned Spanish.
But some missionaries I’ve met have told me, to my face and in total sincerity things along the lines of “yeah, I need to learn Spanish but I’m mostly around other Americans, so it’s not necessary.” They are still doing stuff for the kingdom of God and impacting people in other ways. Not necessarily very relationally, but still with events, outreaches and team efforts.
I’ve also helped host or been recipient to ‘glory trips’. At least, that’s the nickname I’m giving it, when missionary to Ecuador and social media friend Miguel Labrador calls it “short-term missions smugness.” What I mean by that is it’s not as much about doing anything for the Kingdom of God as much as having lots of good photo-ops so they can post pics of themselves feeding starving children on Facebook or whatever social media network, but while here they spend the majority of the time complaining about everything, like the food, lack of hot water in their shower, and telling you what they’d do differently if they were here in your place, and so forth. Then these people go back home and act to other people like they’re Mother Theresa for the ten days they just put in on the mission field timesheet.
I’ve also helped with a few different teams that have come down for short-term trips where they basically had a plan or purpose for what they were doing when they got here, and were looking for on-the-ground-missionaries like us (myself and the team I was a part of) to basically set it up and do that for them. I’m not sure if these people just believe all we missionaries do is just sit here on the field waiting for visitors to come and that at the drop of a hat we’ll schedule things and hook them up with speaking engagements and/or projects to do.
What are your thoughts?
Does being in another culture make one a missionary necessarily?
Do you have any stories, either as a missionary living abroad or from taking short-term trips yourself?
Interesting Reading Material
I appreciated reading this post at My Crazy Adoption, called Short-Term Missionary or Tourist, which fills in some of the gaps I may be leaving out of my short post.
September 13th, 2013 update: Also check out my article for Relevant Magazine, What No One Tells You Before Going On Mission Trips.