Should We Send "Ordinary Christians" as Missionaries?
September 19, 2016
Updated February 20, 2018
3 comments 1278 views
Should we send "ordinary Christians" as missionaries? That is the question that came to my mind when I recently read an intriguing tweet from Chuck Swindoll:
“Missions aren’t just for superstars. A missionary is just like you. Ordinary folks through whom God does the extraordinary.”
On the one hand, I agree with this statement. I know my own sins and weaknesses. I am regularly astounded at how God has used me. It is his grace at work in me, an ordinary person. A major biblical theme is that God likes to use weak people, sinful people, and people who we would not expect for his Kingdom work.
But on the other hand, Swindoll's comment brought to mind what Ugandan church leaders have told me about missionaries during my When Helping Hurts discussions with them. I get the feeling that Ugandans are frustrated with "ordinary missionaries." Ugandan leaders told me to tell the North American church that we should stop sending missionaries who aren't prepared. And above all, they want missionaries who are theologically trained and strong in faith and character. One Ugandan asked, "Are the donors back home actually strong in faith but they are just sending us middle-men?" Another said, "If they are not trained and not able to teach, then why are they sent to work here?" They are confused when North American churches and mission organizations emphasize the importance of Bible college and seminary education, and yet some of the missionaries they send, who are trying to teach pastors, have not had these types of education themselves.
This reminds me of a quote I read in a book from a 1926 conference in Le Zoute, Belgium that says, "Surely the day has gone when the best men could be picked out for India and China and the rest sent to Africa, as if any man or woman were good enough for Africa. The time for amateurs has passed — if it ever existed. Nothing is too good for Africa.”
How do we synthesize all of these comments, from Swindoll and from the Ugandan leaders? They all seem to be true and important. Should we send ordinary Christians as missionaries? My answer is a qualified "yes." Missionaries are indeed ordinary people, but they should be trained and well-prepared ordinary people. God can use anybody for his work, even if they are ordinary, and in fact even if they are not prepared or if they are weak or sinful. But we should never use this as an excuse to be unprepared, weak, or sinful.
I'd like to elaborate in this post about the Ugandans' perspective for two reasons:
The consequences of this historical shift:
Some very good things have resulted from this historical shift. People like me were encouraged that despite our weaknesses God could use even us. Our fears were largely taken away. This shift has also helped church members in sending countries to better relate to, understand, and befriend missionaries because they realize that we are actually not extraordinary people, but just regular ordinary folks.
But there have been some serious negative consequences from this historical shift as well:
Questions for Reflection and Discussion:
I admit that these are not easy issues, and I don't want to be legalistic about the following items. I can apply these tough questions as easily to myself as to other missionaries and not fully get a passing grade. But it's good for us to be thoughtful and at least consider these tough questions. We should try to get prepared as we can be, even if we cannot get perfect preparation.
I believe my own testimony brings together a good synthesis of these two themes, being ordinary yet being prepared (though as I mentioned I also could have used even more preparation). Besides the sins I have struggled with like everyone else, I grew up being very shy and socially awkward. I could hardly speak to relatives, let alone evangelize to non-Christians. I was sheltered due to my own shyness. I wasn't particularly spiritually mature. Yet for some reason, God called me to overseas mission work when I was only in tenth grade. Because of the great encouragements and positive affirmations about how God can use anyone as a missionary, even ordinary people like me, I was ready to rush off for a quick 1 or 2 year missions training program after high school and then go overseas and change the world. It is only God's grace, wisdom, and direction that kept me from doing this. Over the years, at times I was really frustrated that I could not get overseas sooner, and at times I resented having to do more things in the US first.
But looking back, I am extremely grateful that God made me get more preparation and training first. I seriously cannot imagine how I could do any of the ministry that I do if not for how God prepared me. I would have been a disaster and a train-wreck waiting to happen if I had rushed off right after high school. But I ended up getting 9 years of emotional preparation between my calling and the first time I went to another country for ministry. In that time, I grew so much in my social awareness, emotional maturity, character, confidence, wisdom, and spiritual life. I faced the hardest questions against the Christian faith during my college years, and nearly surrendered to my doubts, but came out much stronger for having faced those hard issues. I was able to experience many types of practical ministry, from counseling college students, to jail ministry, to church internships, to leading Bible studies. I was able to have many diverse experiences of sharing my faith with non-Christians. I had the privilege (largely due to scholarships from generous Christians) to get 7 years of formal theological education. I was able to meet my wife Sara, who is a great partner to me as we both build each other up and complement each other in so many ways. I was able to get training through missions programs, was able to read many theology and missions books, practice living simply, and get personal counseling and marriage counseling. I was blessed to be able to pastor a church for two years and I don't know how I would have been able to teach pastors were it not for that crucial experience.
I am so blessed and grateful for these experiences. It is knowing how extremely important all of these types of preparation were for me, that causes me to want to speak more and more about this topic so that others can also get the preparation they need before going to the mission field. I want more ordinary people to become missionaries, but as ordinary prepared missionaries.
Let’s make sure whatever missionaries we send are thoroughly prepared, experienced, counseled, discipled, and trained before they go. Let's embrace humility, remembering that missionaries are ordinary people, and it is God who works in and through us. But remember, we are dealing with the Great Commission, the Good News, the Gospel. It is important. Let us take the missionary calling seriously.
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What is an 'ordinary Christian'? In my opinion that pretty much covers all of us. The pastors I know fit into that category as well. Our daughter and her family have been in Africa for five years working with a group Take Action which is a Word and deed ministry. Check that blog out as well as thefeyfamily.blogspot.com. Then go to Money saving Mom who is Crystal Paine and read what she just did and is doing. My husband, a very ordinary Christian, goes to Africa and Ethiopia twice a year and does TLT with pastors and other OC's. Besides that we have been in Cambodia five times, China and Korea. None of the above people are scraping buildings and putting on a new layer of paint. There is way too much to do in God's Kingdom. The world is so big so every ordinary Christian, of which I am chief, is needed both here and abroad. Imagine if we did 'pray and give and go!' We are all capable of one of those. Lastly every Christian, ordinary and extra ordinary, read another life giving book by Chris Marlowe 'Doing Good is Simple'. Let us all get out to change our world one person at a time. My e mail is [email protected] love to talk with you. Willie Van Schepen
Thanks for this article, Anthony. I think it also applies to who goes on short-term mission trips. How much preparation is given to those who go on these trips? Almost none. My one and only service trip overseas was to the Dominican Republic, where I helped with school construction for about one week. I knew very little about the country and culture of the people we were visiting in order to properly engage even the women who served us two hot meals per day. I do not regret having gone on this trip, but if I were to go again, I would at least want to have cultural and language knowledge so that I would be a greater help. Really, the air fare for a one-week trip would be better spent to equip nationals and well qualified others to do transformational work.
A coalition of CRC agencies have done some work on the challenges that you are describing. #1. They recommend partnering with a trusted agency--the agency will have a had a long term relationship with the community and help to ensure that (a) the participants are properly trained, (b) that the group's work plans, learning, and relationship building opportunities line up with a vision that the community has created for itself, (c) that the short term group plans ahead for how they will take their learning and experience back home and use it towards continued long term investment.
#2. They also created this video curriculum that groups can use to dig deeper into healthy practices for short term missions: http://www.bechangedforlife.org/
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