What follows is part three of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).
(Please note that this post will provide some hand-holding for those with little to no understanding of Christianity)
Part 5: The Missionary Calling
Stories usually require introductions and this one begins with two things; the first is attraction. Two teenagers going to the same youth-group decide get together for the reasons most teenagers do; they liked each other. Being good Christian types they had vowed to stay “pure” which, in their church, meant no sex; hand-holding, hugging and kissing were all acceptable activities just as long as they didn’t take it too far. After they both finished high-school they got engaged and a wedding soon followed.
So far this is a pretty stock-standard stuff however there was one thing about these two that made them a bit, well, different. They both felt called by God to be missionaries. Separately they had decided that any person they would marry had to also feel the same “calling” so, after going out for a few months, they were both delighted to discover that they shared the same viewpoint. At the time this served to validate the idea that they were meant for each other; as if God himself had ordained their union. Whether God really did bring them together or not I am grateful for one of its by-products – my own birth.
Yes my parents each had “want to be a missionary” as criteria for a spouse. It may not be the weirdest thing someone looks for in a partner but it isn’t normal either. They also both felt called to be missionaries and that is the part I want to examine here. I am cognizant that some readers know what is meant my “missions” – especially if you have read earlier posts. For those familiar with the concept please proceed onto the next section
I will now take the time to give a short bible lesson from Matthew 28:18-20. Known as the Great Commission, this passage is said to record one of the few teachings of Jesus after he has been resurrected from death:
“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
If it isn’t already obvious this is a key teaching, not just for evangelicals, but Christianity in general. Not only is it (allegedly) one of the final things Jesus directly imparted to his first followers but it is also one the clearest and least ambiguous commands Jesus gives in the gospels. If anyone has ever wondered why Christians are so big on proselytizing– well it’s because Jesus told them to. And Jesus is kind of a big deal for them.
My parents took this verse very seriously indeed. So once they completed high-school they started university. Marriage followed during which time I was born. Understand that this was 1970s New Zealand so education was free and students received a weekly allowance from the government. Juggling study and having a family, while certainly not easy, wasn’t the big struggle it might have been in other countries. Throughout all of this their ultimate desire to become missionaries remained.
In 1983, with the financial backing of their Open Brethren Assembly, they decided to transplant their family from the socialist-democracy of New Zealand and into the right-wing dictatorship of the Philippines to become missionaries. They had no problem moving two young boys, I was now almost three years old and my brother almost one, from a relatively safe and clean environment into one where hygiene standards and disease control was not as high on the government’s agenda. Placing their family in a dangerous environment and moving them away from doting grandparents, who had no other grandchildren at the time, was a secondary consideration to the glory of the gospel.
If this sounds a bit dismissive of their choices be assured my intention is not to denigrate them but to explain what they did from my current perspective. When I grew up as a child of missionaries their decisions seemed normal and, because it was for God’s glory, righteous. It is only all these years later that I see how crazy their life-choices can seem to others – particularly those who don’t think in a religious frame-work. To my parents, however, there was no real choice being made – Jesus gave the command and the Holy Spirit convicted them, specifically, to help carry it out. Their only decision was whether to follow the calling or ignore it.
Anyone who is or has been a devout member of any faith will realize that is no real choice at all. To do anything less than comply would be disobedience. The flip-side is that, because these feelings of conviction are strong desires, this conviction is actually what the faithful follower really wants to do. At a mundane level it is simply people pursuing their goals only with the added belief that these goals are given to them by God. In other words my parent’s got to do what they wanted while also being able to feel like they were sacrificing for the greater good; the epitome of having your cake and eating it too.
So that relates to my parents specifically and it might leave you wondering: What about all the other missionaries? Do they have similar stories and reasons for doing what they do?
Well that is a good point and I don’t have a definitive answer as I haven’t found data on the main reasons missionaries go and do what they do. However I have heard many a missionary give a testimony and preach a sermon where they do reveal their reasons. Add the fact that I knew many missionaries and listened in on their conversations with my parents – I have a pretty good idea why they tend to do what they do.
In most cases it is the same reason I outlined above. They feel the conviction and off they go. Now the reasons they go where they go and do their specific missionary work can differ quite a bit. But the belief that this is what God wants them to do is pretty consistent throughout the missionaries I knew. Obviously, as with my parents, I can’t say if they really felt God convicting them. Perhaps they were zealous and idealistic young people who thought being a missionary sounded important or fun or, even, exciting. I will never know.
Of course there were a few missionaries that were there for the “easy ride”. This may sound strange when you consider that the Philippines was not a safe place to live compared to most first world countries – but there were some big advantages living there. Exchange rates mean that the money sent to support missionaries can often go a long way; especially if the church or mission agency sends a lot over. Coupled with the fact that, at least in those days, there was little oversight (Often sending a newsletter home every quarter was sufficient) and it ended up being a sweet deal for some.
These were the people who I, and others, always wondered what they actually did. They ate at nice places, bought the latest gadgets and were often taking vacations to interesting places around the country. I remember when I finally worked out why they continued to “work” over in the Philippines when I read a newsletter from one of them. It made it sound like they were single-handedly converting the entire country. I was amazed at how well they could spin a story. While nothing in this newsletter was an outright lie it was certainly embellished.
Most Missionaries are workaholics, if anything, so don’t get the impression they are all freeloaders. Nor am I saying that missionaries with excellent communication skills are all liars. I also am curious as to how easy it is for today’s missionaries to get away with this. The internet has made communication very easy and also increased the expectation of regular contact and reporting. The slackers might be easier to spot – but only if people are actually motivated to check on them.
The final point I want to make about the missionary calling is that there is another step beyond feeling led by God. In the Brethren churches all missionaries must gain commendation from the church elders (the leaders of Brethren assemblies). If this is given they then need to raise the required levels of support. This is important if the local assembly can’t provide 100% of the money needed. In the case of my parents they were supported primarily by their church but also had another, smaller, Brethren group make up the rest. This covered our living expenses. On top of that certain one-off expenses (like our school fees) were provided by generous donors.
While other missionaries follow similar models there are a lot who don’t. Some of the larger organizations have application processes and training that are provided for all prospective missionaries. Support is given, not through individual fund-raising, but by pooled donations that are distributed evenly among their missionaries and programs. They may own property and equipment for their missionaries to use (houses, vehicles, furniture). Still others use a mixed model where accommodation might be supplied by the agency but everything else is self-funded (just as one possible option).
One thing about all these models is that the more a missionary has to self-fund the more autonomy they tend to have. However they tend to have less training and cultural orientation. So there are always trade-offs. Some people will opt to go with a mission agency for other reasons: such as the types of ministry opportunities they want to be involved in. If someone wants to work on bible translation with isolated tribal groups, for example, it would pay to join New Tribes Mission who specialize in these activities.
Feeling called to the mission field (as it is commonly known) is no guarantee someone will be a missionary. Whether sent by their church or joining a mission organization there is still a lot of work ahead of them. Of course I am not convinced the “calling” is anything more than a reflection of their own desires and I believe that some missionaries feel the same way deep down.
The one thing you can never say, regardless of how you end up being sent, is that it’s your own idea. If you think mission works sounds like something you would like to try (and who doesn’t like to travel?) you must convince people that the whole idea was God’s and that you must follow the path he set for you. You don’t have to believe it but it would be a lot easier to convince others if you do.