Editors' note: The following post from Rev. David Strain is part 2 of a blog series in conjunction with 2014 Mission Conference at FPC Jackson. You can read part 1 by Seth Starkey here: First Month of Ministry at RUF Belhaven
Am I a missionary?
The typical image of a missionary involves intrepid westerners venturing into unexplored territory, risking life and limb in the cause of reaching distant tribes in exotic locations. The names of the missionary heroes of the past immediately come to mind: William Carey in India, Adoniram Judson in Burma, David Livingstone in Africa, Hudson Taylor in China, Jim Elliot in Ecuador. Praise God for such men of faith and courage who risked all for the Master! May their examples inspire a new generation to lay all down for the gospel cause in hard places.
But… where are those hard places? Is this the only (or best) model of missionary service available to us? What is the effect of thinking of missionary service only in terms of the example of these giants of world evangelization? Perhaps one result of thinking exclusively in terms of heroic career missionary service is to quash our own sense of call to the missionary task in our admittedly more mundane contexts and environments.
I am sometimes asked, somewhat mischievously, if I’m a missionary to the United States. And while such blatant barbarism as omitting the “I” from aluminium and the “U” from colour and neighbour and flavor cry urgently to every Brit for someone to rescue this poor benighted people, the truth is the United States is gospel-rich. It abounds in churches that preach and teach the truth as it is in Jesus. Indeed, as a novice minister serving his first church in downtown London, England, it was to the ministry of Ligon Duncan and First Presbyterian Church, Jackson that I looked for guidance and examples and resources to help me navigate the pastoral challenges facing me. The point is, Mississippi hardly needs missionaries, does it?
Well, that all depends on your definition of “missionary”. If you are working with the heroic pioneer missionary model, then you are quite right, of course. But if you believe that mission is the work of the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world then perhaps we need to reconsider whose work mission really is, and where the mission field really lies. Oh, how badly we need men and women who are willing to sacrifice all to go to a people not their own, to love them and identify with them, and pour themselves out in order to bring the good news about Jesus to those who have never heard! That might mean for you moving to Peru or Uganda or Spain or Ukraine. But it might mean for you finding out how to love your neighbor, how to invest in your community, how to open your home and life to the lost and blind and world-weary all around you. In one way it can even feel safer to go to a far away place and there speak about Jesus. No-one knows you there. You may speak in a context where your comparative wealth places you in elite status, rendering your pronouncements invulnerable to critique. By contrast, to try praying consistently for your next-door neighbors, and to begin to share the good news with them - that can be a whole lot more intimidating!
Truth to tell, I suspect that one reason for the persistence of the heroic pioneer missionary model as the only model, is fear. Pure and simple. We are scared to talk to people just like ourselves about something we know stands a good chance of meeting with polite dismissal at best and open hostility at worst. We like the idea that we aren’t missionaries because then we needn’t risk our comfort or our friendships or our reputations in reaching out with the gospel to our colleagues and friends and neighbors.
I once heard an evangelist describe a conversation he had with his college roommate. He’d been a Christian for some years, but had so far failed to share his faith with his roommate. One day his roommate walked into the room and without preamble said, “I thought we were friends!” “We are”, he replied. “But I’ve just discovered that you are a Christian” “Yes, that’s right. So what?” “Well, if you are a Christian you believe that unless I become one too, I will go to hell. If you really believed that, and you were really my friend you would never have kept that to yourself.”
To say that we care about others as Christian people, and not to share the good news about Jesus upon every opportunity with them, is to demonstrate either that we do not really care as we should, or that we do not really believe as we ought. Either way our message has been fatally undermined and the name of Christ dishonored.
We are sent as part of the whole church to the whole world with the whole gospel. True, we may never leave the community in which we now live. We may never go around the world with the gospel. But we are still called to take the gospel across the street. We are still called to pray and work for the conversion of lost friends and colleagues and family members. It is still our task to speak for Jesus giving a reason for the hope we have upon every opportunity.
Am I a missionary? Yes. And so are you.
Minister of Teaching and Mission
First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS
Follow David on Twitter @DavidTAStrain