When I was a kid, I didn’t know any missionaries. I knew of our church’s missionaries, of course, from photo cards tacked to the bulletin board in the foyer, family shots mostly, full of awkward smiles and limp hands on shoulders.
But the closest I ever came to knowing an actual missionary was vicariously, through the stories a classmate told about her Aunt Stella (not her real name) who served in Africa. I’m sure I met Stella when she was home on furlough, but for the most part she remained an abstract representation of the “missionary ideal”: faithful, consistent, dedicated, a lifelong servant, etc. (In fact, my most concrete memories of Stella involve squirming in the pews as she stood at the pulpit and asked for continued support, and wondering why adult members of our congregation would be so worried about an unmarried woman working in the mission field!)
There was a definite sense of detachment from the people who chose to head overseas on missions, this feeling that they were somehow other from those of us toiling away back at home.
The question we might ask
This has not changed much. True, the funding models have shifted to reflect a decreasing church membership base, but the idea remains that missions work is primarily something people do away from Canada, and there is an expectation that those back home will pay for it.
We don’t have to look far to see the truth in this, either. Those “Support Your Missionaries!” cards still decorate church foyers. We still find ourselves fidgeting and quieting our children in the pews when self-supported missionaries make their congregational pitches. Still common, too, are the personal funding requests from friends and family, although letters and bulletin inserts have become emails, texts, photos and notices in our social media feeds.
Increasingly, as the cost of overseas missions continues to rise, those who choose to minister to developing countries will be forced to ask their communities to dig deeper into pockets that seem to be getting shallower all the time. Often, the burden is being borne by families and friends who have less time and fewer resources – and not just financial – to give.
To me, this model encourages detachment and an ever-increasing demand on resources, and is unsustainable. At the least, knowing this should give us pause, causing us to reexamine what it means to serve, and whether we are making the best use of the resources that have been lent to us here on earth. At most, we might ask ourselves if it’s time to start bringing our missionaries home.
Can the model be transformed?
I am not for an instant dismissing as irrelevant the work that is being done overseas; any one of us can undoubtedly rattle off a dozen examples of lives or communities that have been changed. However, I do believe that maintaining our traditional missions models perpetuates the neglect of the mission work we’re all called to do even in our own neighbourhoods, towns, cities and provinces. The unfortunate reversal to our familiarity with overseas missions is a dearth of knowledge about the needs right outside our own doors: identifying as many mission-changed lives nearer to home can be a very difficult task.
And I’m not talking about church laity going about their daily lives and working for the honour and glory of God. No, I’m talking about something that shouldn’t be – but in practice often is – quite different: evangelical, intentional, gospel-bringing mission work to the neediest members of our communities. Or to put a finer point on it, doing the work right here that we’ve always done overseas.
Our neighbours’ neeeds are as great as that of the poorest foreign child, demanding at least an equal share of our missions mandate, yet I wonder whether the resources we allocate are meted out equitably. In this space over the next few months, I hope to explore the reasons that our overseas, long-term missions model needs a firm re-examination, and explore the unspoken yet common mentality that ministering to other countries is more important than doing so in our own neighbourhoods.
The simple answer to this question is that we’re stubborn and we don’t like change. The more complex response involves dissecting an approach we’ve assumed is correct, daring to imagine what could happen if we engaged with a model centred on sustainability and stewardship rather than tradition and a we-always-have-the-answer mindset.
And I’m hoping you’ll respond, because difficult questions are always best answered by respectful and generous dialogue.
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