Most of the visits I get to my blog in the English version is thanks to a series of articles I wrote almost a year ago, called "When missionary organizations say jump". It's a series about what to avoid when becoming a missionary, and many have linked to it before, most notably, Marc.
I noticed now that there is no index in my blog for all the articles, so here it is:
Marc just wrote an excelent article sumarizing my series of articles "When missionary organizations say jump". He did such a great job, that I had to mention it here. I mean, he just made my articles sound much better!
Once I read in this article a very funny answer to this question. It is one of the funniest things I have ever read since I wasn't expecting it. But then the best jokes are allways done just after you say something serious enough.
Well, what's a missionary? And you can forget about searching the bible for it: It's not in the lists of gifts and no one is called a missionary there. So, where do you go to find out what a missionary is? Well, you have to dig deep into the church tradition. Or maybe not so deep...
The concept of mission is understood everywhere in the modern church. A missionary is someone that goes to another country to plant a church. That's the basic concept. We call that embrionic church a mission. So, if missionaries are church planters, who planted churches in the early church? Well, that was the work of an apostle. So, reason would lead you to believe that missionary = apostle... But that's not exactly so.
The apostle was sent by a church. A missionary is sent by a missionary organization. The apostle supported himself financialy most of the time, the missionay is fully funded by the missionary organization. The apostle empowered people to follow Christ as a community, while the missionary most of the times creates a leadership that ministers to the "laity". The apostle left the church early in its development, even before there were leaders assigned, and so the community was given room to grow on their own. On the other hand, the missionary stays in the church until a leadership is fully developed, and in many cases, becomes the main pastor of the church.
I believe it's time to consider this differences. Why did the apostles plant churches that didin't need their presence to grow? And why do modern missionaries plant churches that depend on the "clergy" so much? Until we can answer this questions properly, we'll never be able to make a difference.
To end this interesting and grumpy series, I would like to speak about what should happen when everything works:
Joe gets vision, language knowledge, a correct basic understanding of the culture, spiritual preparation (some bible school may be part of it), financial support with no strings attached, and he goes to the place God showed him. When he gets there, he starts investing in people, being salt and light, creating relationships, integrating in culture, helping people in a genuine way. People start to embrace the kingdom of God, and a church is born.
The church grows (I'm not talking about numbers here), and becomes a real family, with everyone learning to follow Jesus in everyday life, discovering their gifts, practicing their gifts, ministering to each other. A real new testament kind of church. And then, the missionary becomes the full-time pastor of this church and creates a leadership to minister to the laity...
Well, if this was a podcast (audio article), in that last phrase you would listen to the vinil scratching. Wait a minute! The missionary becomes the leader? Creates a distinction between clergy and laity? The clergy ministers to people while they sit on their pews? Not in my Bible! And I would love to see anyone showing this happening in the new testament! Go ahead, give it a try.
When the church is planted, dear church planter, it's time to move on. It's time for that community to rise up and start walking on their own. If you did a fine job, the church will be just fine. A nice leadership will rise within the church, and they will be able to stand on it's own (keeping relationships with other churches, of course). If you fail to do so, even if you teached everyone to be a minister, they will see you as the special one, the leader above them. And that place belongs to Christ.
Do you want to know what happens to churches where the church planters stay as pastors? The church planter is seen as someone above, and people fail to minister one to another, they become dependent. That church will never be able to stand on its own, and they will have a crisis when the church planter retires/dies. Some people even call this kind of church planting colonialism.
Do the work, and then leave in proper time. That's the best gift you'll ever give them. One day, it will be time to go.
A rule I have learned with time is this: If you want to understand what kind of community a missionary will create, follow the money. Where does the money come from? What kind of churches or organizations are funding the mission?
Some people may say: No, if you want to know how the community will be like, you have to see the background of the missionary. Well, in my experience, as strange as it may sound, money speaks louder than the missionary tradition. If the missionary as a vision, and the ones funding have another, the missionary will be oscilating between the two, and end up being "convinced" or substituted.
Beware of money with strings attached, you may not like those strings. If some organization is sending you, they will tell you when to jump and how high, and you may not like the game. If for some reason the vision God gives you changes while you are in the mission field (and that will probably happen), you'll have no say on it. They will say jump and you'll have no option but to do it. And that will create great stress on you.
You want to have freedom in the way you plant churches? Get funded the opposite way. Discover where God wants to send you and what kind of church he wants you to plant, and then present the project to churches or people that might support you. And if it's not enough, get a job in the country you are going to. But do not accept money from people that will try to force their own vision on you. It's better to have to work in a secular job than to have to put up with the stress of pleasing people that don't have the same vision you do.
Why do you need this freedom? It's not so you can do your thing, it's so you can do what God really wants. Because you are the one in the field, you are the one that will start to understand what kind of strategy is needed. You are the one God will be dealing with. And you don't want to get to a position where you have two lords: God, and the missionary organization.
I have allready talked about the problem missionaries have in creating relationships. It happens mostly because they are not in the same places "normal people" are. They don't have a job, neither they have other easy way of meeting people.
To make matters worse, many of them create a different habitat for their own families. They hang out with other missionaries, they create special schools for their children, and in the end, they end up creating a habitat that looks like home.
The trap is easy to fall in. Missionaries need to be with other missionaries to share experiences, take a break from "the work". And without noticing it, they start creating their own neat world, like a bubble inside an hostile environment. The trap is in this: A truth that is streached until it becomes a lie. Missionaries do need to be with other people that are having the same struggles they are, but not to the point where they create a separate world just for them. Not to the point where they start seeing other missionaries as their community.
Have relationships with other missionaries, but beware of separating yourself from the real world. After all, that's the world you are trying to reach.
Christianity has everything to do with family, and nothing to do with business. It makes me sad when people forget all about it and start looking at mission work like if it were a business.
When I start earing language like "targets", "5 year plan", "percentage of efectiveness", "expected growth", I start geting all hitchy. Lighten up, people! That's not even in your hands! All you have to do is live in obedience to God. It's the Holy Spirit that works in people. And if you are doing your own plans, then you are on your own. God likes planning his own work. Maybe this is why so many missionaries and pastors get stressed, depressed, and run havoc.
And then there are meetings. And meetings. And more meetings. And they are all formal, all about objectives and planning, all boring. Where is the love? The relationships? Are we just a bunch of people that get together to make a project happen? Is that the only thing that connects us? If that's it, forget about results, you are allready a failure.
Get a life. No, really. A family life. Meet people, get to know them, create real relationships with the people involved. Love them. And when you get to a point where you are together independent from the "project", then you have conditions to start doing something. Imagine the project died, would you still be with them? Let me ask it in another way. Do you meet with others frequently just to hang out? Are those relationships self-preserving, or they exists only because of a project?
Creating relationships and learning the language are the biggest problems you will face in a missionary field. Both are a question of time, but you have to start somewhere.
Just think how you got to know the people you know. Maybe you met them in the neighborhood when you were a kid. Or maybe you met them in school, university, church, club, some place like that. But if you are working, probably most of the unbelievers you created a relationship with are co-workers.
Well, when you are a missionary moving to a remote country, you can forget most of that options. You didn't grow up there, so there is no neighborhood or school friends. Church is not a good place to meet unbelievers (at least of the kind you are trying to reach), and since you are a missionary full time, there's no other co-workers you can meet (besides other missionaries).
So, how do you meet people? From all the options above, there's only one way: clubs. More specifically, organizations where you can meet people that have the same interests/hobbies you have. I like bird watching, and I am enrolled in a portuguese association of bird watchers. And I met some people there. But none of them become strong relationships like the ones I have with my co-workers.
And that's why, in my opinion, missionaries should get a job in the country where they go to, so that they are able to meet more people (and at the same time learn the language better). What kind of job? Something that helps you meet lots of people in a consistent way, and where you have plenty of opportunities to talk with them.
So, you are being payed by a missionary organization, and working in a secular job doesn't please them very much? Dump them Try to do some voluntary social work. Many countries have organizations where you can enroll to do voluntary social work in a consistent way. Just don't go there saying "I'm a christian and I would like to help!" because it sounds like "I would like to use your organization to convert people to my religion". Some people like to brag about the fact that they belong to a christian organization, and then they wonder why people don't want them to help.
Has a conclusion, if you want to create relationships, get a life. A normal life.
Note: There is much that could be said about forced evangelism and creating relationships or enrolling to organizations with a hidden agenda. I expect people who read my blog to understand that that sort of things is wrong. Some people even call it manipulation. I expect people to see this recomendations has an explanation of why missionaries have problems meeting people and how to avoid it, not as an explanation of how to infiltrate places to convert them. If you enroll a social organization, do it because you genuinely want to help people.
I really admire people like Simon, who is preparing to go as a missionary to Japan, and while doing so, he is allready learning japanese. Most people don't, specially if they are in bible school at the same time.
Learning the language is essencial. Language is the biggest breakthrough. If you can't talk, there is not much you can do. And that process should start before you embark on the plane. We get plenty of missionaries here with no language skills, and they are a blessing, but there's not much they can do, and they get frustrated really fast (yes, even those that arrive smilling from ear to ear).
You should at least know what you are geting into. "Sit down and estimate the cost" (Luke 14:28). Normally people need at least 3 years to learn the language well. And if you are going to a country on a 5-year mission trip, you'll only have 2 years left. Time goes really fast. Some realize portuguese is a hard language too late (~150 different verbal forms? Hundreds of irregular verbs and male/female forms? What's the deal?), and give up.
In the end, being a very important subject, language will come with time. And you will learn it better if you learn in a country where they speak it, no doubt about it. But if you learn the language while you are in bible school, you'll spare yourself much misunderstandings later. And it won't be as easy for the locals to fool you (some "christians" will try to).
In terms of language, be prepared, you'll thank me later.
Missionaries come allready traumatized. They bring a list of no-can-do phrases. Stuff they should avoid so that they don't scare people off. A mentality of "You can do no mistakes".
Well most no-can-do phrases are crap anyway. Missionaries come here with their best clothes because someone tells them that we use fancy clothes in Portugal. No jeans, no havannas, only suits. We have a bunch of missionaries from Canada that don't use more than half the clothes they brought because someone told them we used fancy clothes all the time! Ridiculous. And this is just an example.
The result is a plastic life. And it notices, too. You know when you meet someone, and you feel like he is hiding something? That he only tells nice things? Everything is ok, everything is fine, they never say no. Well, that's how a missionary looks like when he gets to a country. A friendly robot, with no identity.
If you really want to learn the culture of a country, you have to talk with people from that country. And relax, at least where globalization has reached, people understand that you are different. They will be able to tolerate some mistakes because you are foreign. Just be humble and honest. People like honesty. They prefer it to plastic people that are allways smilling and that look like everything goes well with them.
And another thing. You are foreign. You are different. People will notice that even if you stay in a country for 30 years. There's no point in trying to imitate locals, you'll never look or sound like them. Just relax, being different is not that bad. And if you don't like eating snails (we do in Portugal), that's ok. You'll still be accepted, people will still hear your message.
If you want a recipe: Learn the language, do your best to learn the culture humbly. But that will never be your culture, and people know that. Just be polite when you say no. Be humble. Be yourself, but in a humbly polite way. Create relationships. Love people. That should be enough.