What follows is part two of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).
Part 2: Where I Provide a Primer on Missionaries and Mission work.
If you enjoyed my first post where I discussed Missionary Kids then consider this to be a direct sequel to that. This time I will talk about Missionaries themselves.
You may not know what Missionaries do or you might have a very good idea – either way please appreciate that this is my perspective on the class of activities know as “missions”. I will present three categories which are not prescriptive but, rather, represent the best way to classify these activities. Please bear in mind that lots (possibly the majority) of missionaries do not confine what they do to one single category of work. This should become clear when I explain the categories themselves.
Again; this is my opinion on the matter but, as an insider, my opinion should carry a bit more weight.
The categories themselves are easy to understand and break down as follows: Aid, Evangelism and Support. See, that isn’t very hard. Most of you with background in Christianity can probably start categorizing the things you know (or have heard) missionaries get up. You should also be reaching a realization that all the things you can think of fall easily into one of those three groups. But I will elaborate for the sake of everyone else and to prove my point.
Aid work is a no brainer. By that I mean, not the work itself, but the fact that even those with no religious background could probably list what it might entail. These are when doctors and nurses open hospitals and run free clinics in poor or remote places. When food is given to hungry and housing is built for those who need it. Perhaps it involves running an orphanage or setting up a school. Whatever it is these missionaries want to look after the needs of others. Often short-term mission trips (when a missionary goes out for less than 6 months) are in this category as they may have a specific project to work on such as building or providing emergency relief.
Ultimately it is still done for the higher purpose of serving God by either providing this aid to other Christians or using it to create more followers. This is not to say their motives are impure – from my experience these people genuinely want to help others – rather it is to say that it conceptualized as more than just helping people here and now. After all there are numerous charities and aid organizations that have no such “higher purpose” and are able to meet the same needs.
Evangelism also sounds obvious to most people. Unlike Aid work this is the side of missions where the non-religious get a bit wary. At least in New Zealand, where I am from, they do. Proselytizing is not considered positive in my culture as religion is considered something people should keep private. Anyway I will end that tangential point.
Evangelism is more than preachers trying to convert crowds of listeners or the devout handing out tracts to the unsaved. Don’t get me wrong; it is about communication for the purpose of winning souls for Christ – but it involves more than the obvious. Running bible studies for seekers, hosting radio and TV shows, putting together concerts, and translating the bible into a language for the first time are just some of the things that fit in this category. There are even groups of athletes who go organize sport contests and demonstrations as an “in” to get the message in front of them. Many of these people are gifted entertainers and precise communicators. They can draw a crowd or get small groups of people opening up about themselves, depending on their personalities, although many can do both.
The final category, Support, is the least glamorous and understood of the three categories. It is still vital to the missionary cause. Now I need to clarify one thing: I am not using the word “Support” as a substitute for “miscellaneous”. This is not a catch-all category for the left over missionary jobs that I am, somehow, going to force into it. It is a distinct part of missionary work and, it could be argued, allows the other roles to function properly.
Let me explain via an example:
A missionary going to a remote village would require transportation. Often the only way to get there is via an airplane as the roads are non-existent and, due to the mountainous terrain, traveling by foot could take several weeks. These missionaries, Aid Workers or Evangelists, don’t tend be trained pilots or mechanics – so there is a definite need for people with those skills. The same goes for a wide array of other necessary functions. There are teachers for missionary children, accountants who distribute funds among the missionaries, custodians of guest-houses and compounds where missionaries live, and even IT support.
Without this group most missionary work would fall apart very quickly so a good analogy is to see them as the heart supplying life to the rest of the missionary community.
I can already anticipate some comments on those categories. So I will try to address them here.
The first is that you can think of missionary work that does not fit into one of them. Before posting; think long and hard as to whether you might be mistaken or if it might actually be a hybrid of two (or all) of the categories. You may be correct but please think carefully before posting because you don’t to suggest something that turns out to be covered already.
I am willing to admit that there might be other categories I have missed entirely. In that case I am more than happy to revise my categories – after all these aren’t sacred truths set down for all time. If you are sure (and I mean; near certain) I have missed something then let me know.
Furthermore Missionaries don’t tend to categorize themselves as I just outlined. This isn’t because they resist categorization but because being an actual missionary isn’t that neat and tidy. Hopefully no one thinks that there is a checklist of neatly sorted jobs available so that, for example, those wanting to do aid work only look at the aid work jobs to the exclusion of everything else. Of course you don’t, that would be silly.
Usually a missionary hears about a need and feels called/”prompted by the Holy Spirit” to go and fill that need (or the other way around; they feel the prompting so they see what needs are out there). However, and this is the key, they almost never end up doing just that one thing. Instead they perform multiple jobs that don’t always fall into the same category.
The reason is simple; they embark on their missionary work with a plan that doesn’t take into account the sheer volume of additional needs. Missionaries tend to be similar to others in Christian ministry who believe that, as they are called to do God’s work, they need to work as hard as they can. When they get to their destination and realize there is more work than there are workers they try to take on as many additional tasks as they can handle.
My own parents, for example, started off doing church planting but ended up doing so much more; training church planting teams, providing theological education, assisting new missionaries with settling in, volunteering around the large missionary kid school, preaching, leading study groups and counseling fellow missionaries. That list is far from exhaustive. It is very common to hear of preachers becoming mechanics, pilots becoming interpreters and teachers being youth pastors – all without stopping their other ministries.
Hopefully that wasn’t too dry a read and you got something out of it. I want to make the point that this was intended to be descriptive and, hopefully, it avoided making judgments about mission work. I definitely want to address the positives and negatives of Christian missions (how it impacts the missionaries, their families and the places they go to minister) in the future. However this is not one of those moments. Thank you, once again, for your time.