Someone sent me a screenshot the other day of an Instagram post by a prominent mission board among Independant Baptists. Mission boards themselves are perhaps a discussion for a different day. I want to focus instead on what the post said.
The screenshot was simply a text post which read as follows:
“Never pity missionaries. Envy them. They are where the real action is—where life and death, sin and grace, heaven and hell converge.” -Robert C. Shannon
Then, as if trying to redeem a post that provokes some clearly head-scratching questions, the post title read, “Have you prayed for a missionary today?”
I’d scarcely finished reading the final word when a host of questions, rebuttals, and emotions exploded in my mind- some of them a bit perturbed.
Why perturbed, you might ask? It’s quite simple really. As a pastor and church-planter in the United States, it appeared that there are some Christians in this world that seem to have not the faintest idea what pastors and/or church-planters actually do. Well, let me sum up in a single phrase- it’s the same thing!
Nomenclature plays a big part in modern Christianity’s view of ministry. Was Paul a Missionary? Was he an Evangelist? Was he a church-planter? To which I ask, “So what?” How could he be called a missionary if he never left his own continent? Paul’s journeys could have fit within the United States. There was mostly unified language in the world of his day. Or maybe he was an evangelist because he travelled around preaching the Gospel. I’m kind of being cantankerous here, but hopefully you get my point. Regardless of what title you give him, the work is still the same. The only clear thing that Paul wasn’t was a New Testament church Pastor, however, it is arguable that because of his Apostolic office he essentially often functioned in the capacity of one at times. Sometimes this was over churches he started and at other times over ones he apparently didn’t start himself, like Colosse which may have been started by Epaphras. This was a uniquely first-century construction since there are no genuine Apostles today.
All that to say, those in genuine, accurate, Biblical, Gospel ministry today are all doing the same things. Yes, that’s right, foreign missionaries and US church-planters do the same things, or at least, it supposed to be the same- Gospel evangelism with working toward the goal of establishing a church or churches in one’s lifetime or in preparation for whoever comes after. Contrary to what the Instagram post asserts, being in a different place geographically, does not change the content of the Gospel, only it’s context. Different locations do not change the significance of the work. It does not change the spiritual warfare involved. It does not change the potential outcomes for the lost. It does not change the possible hardness of people’s hearts.
The things that change are logistical challenges. Adjusting to new cultures is apparently hard work, and for some, the adjustment never fully happens. Honestly, I would have liked the Instagram post better if it was pointing out the heroism of foreign missionaries for being willing to leave behind the familiar to bring the Gospel somewhere else, but it didn’t. At least that would have been honest. However, read the original post again. It suggests the differences between missionaries and us “regular-folk” are spiritual differences, differences of value, not of kind. That, I suppose, is what bothered me. When I read it, the post raised the question in my mind, “what exactly do you think we pastors and church-planters are doing here in the states, twiddling our thumbs?” Does the fulfilling of the great commission suddenly become more valuable to God when I cross the border to somewhere else?
Pastors in the US deal with matters of life and death (physical and spiritual) on a regular basis. We constantly must deal with sin in people, their blindness to it, and their need of salvation. The Instagram post seemed to suggest that somehow within U.S. border we don’t face those things. In fact, it’s arguable that modernized, prosperous countries have a much harder time seeing their need of salvation than other places, but there’s really no data that can be acquired about such things.
The principalities and powers, and rulers of the darkness of this world are, well, in this WORLD! They’re not somehow so busy blinding the minds of third-world sinners that they can’t find time to make it to the first-world ones. Satans hoards haven’t googled a list of Baptist churches in the US and concluded, “Whelp, no use trying to undermine the Gospel in America, look at all those Baptists.” Frankly, I believe that the large presence of Christianized people in America is the result of more effort on Satan’s part, not less. Why? Because Satan is no fool. One of his favorite ways to deceive people away from Christ seems to be with Christian-like things, things that sound mostly true but miss the mark enough to be false, and that doesn’t really take much.
I remember being in a church years ago that had a dozen or more different ministries, but somehow being in the bus ministry was the “creme de la creme”. Other ministries were made to feel less heroic. This of course, is an unwise comparison. It created an environment where certain elites existed and the rest were viewed as noble, but a tad cowardly for not serving in “real ministry.” I’m sure it caused many to get involved in bus work for wrong reasons- no telling how many. Now imagine going into a ministry for the wrong reason but rather than it taking you on a thirty minute bus ride with a bunch of kids, it takes all of your life savings, three years of grueling deputation travel, two years of expensive language school, moving all your possessions across the globe, and feeling freaked out in a new culture. Then you find out that maybe your motives felt pure, but weren’t. You call felt genuine but wasn’t. You fooled yourself because a subtle desire for glory and heroism. This is why we should stop romanticizing missions to young people who may not have good discernment. Ministry, no matter where it is, is hard work. It’s not romantic. When you get there, no one will recognize you for your efforts. No one will pat you on the back. No one will come beating down your door to sit at your feet like you’re some kind of sage. More likely, you’ll spend much time feeling rejected, isolated, marginalized, uncertain of outcomes and all the while praying for the best (usually with tears). You may find that the people there have the same stubbornness, pride, self-righteousness, and Bible illiteracy as the people where you came from. They just show it in different ways. I never hear anyone romanticizing domestic missions despite them always complaining about how crazy things are getting in American society. Young people may end up dismissing a call to stay in the U.S. because it’s just not that exciting, to which I reply, “Says who?! Have you read the news?!”
I’m grateful for missionaries. I really am. They’re willing to go to strange (to me) places and do strange (to me) things. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be a foreign missionary. God called me to stay here and gave me a heart that is content with that and enjoys that, despite its challenges. Christians ought to place value on a ministry work based on the quality of the Gospel it presents, the genuineness of the ministers call, and the faithfulness of the ministers efforts. That’s it. Overseas missions is most certainly missions of a different kind, but it is not necessarily of a different value. And telling people that it is may cause them to make a terrible mistake. No one is saying foreign missions isn’t hard. I’m just saying it’s a different hard. The parable of talents says nothing of the location of the servant, but rather his diligence to use what he was given.
The original Instagram post I’m sure was well intended, but not very thought through. It creates unnecessary and unhelpful comparisons. It just isn’t wise. The post suggested we should not pity missionaries but rather envy them. I say, we do neither. Just be one. Wherever you are, just do the work of Gospel evangelism. If you’re faithful at it, that is admirable in God’s sight.