We’re In The Lord’s Army

Six people were killed on Saturday, and thirteen injured, when a gunman entered a townhall meeting held by Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D–Arizona), and opened fire. The congresswoman was among the injured. Today, politicians are calling for an end to gun rhetoric that has become popular among pro-gun public figures such as Sarah Palin and others. Each side, of course, blames the other.

Some are saying that the shooter was incited by the militaristic rhetoric of conservative pundits. While the gunman’s motives are yet unknown, the discussion got me thinking about some of the militaristic terminology we use in missions today. We “mobilize” missionaries when we mean to “send them out.” We “enlist” the “support” of “prayer warriors” as we “strategically” “engage” the people of our “target” audience. Might the words we use lead some, both believers and unbelievers, to come to the conclusion that Christians are warring against non-Christians?

The problem with thinking of ourselves primarily as “Christian soldiers” (rather than “Christian peacemakers”) is that we’re always looking for someone to fight. The spiritual enemy is very real, but we’re easily distracted by the human ones (both real and suspected). The Bible includes militaristic imagery (Ephesians 6 tells us to “put on the full armor of God”), but it’s clear that our war is a spiritual one. In the scriptural analogy, unbelieving peoples aren’t the enemy, they’re the captives.

I’m choosing to replace the militaristic terms in my missions vocabulary with words that better communicate my intentions. In any land, among any people, I mean no harm. I’m not that sort of soldier. I’m here to bless, reconcile, and bring peace in the name of Jesus. That’s my mission (okay, so that’s one military word I may have to keep!)

The Mission Has An Image Problem

The state of missions in 1970: too few workers, limited resources, separation between church and mission field, competing sending organizations, a remarkable lack of information about missions.

The state of missions today: too few workers, limited resources, separation between church and mission field, competing sending organizations, overwhelming amounts of unremarkable information about missions.

Except for the move from “not enough information” to “too much information,” the state of missions in the church has not changed in a generation. Despite sending hundreds of thousands of short-term volunteers on mission trips every year (according to Barna, 9% of the American population has been on a mission trip), the church is no more engaged in the mission than it was forty years ago.

I’ve written before about marketing missions, and how believers’ understanding of missions is, to an extent, shaped by how missions is communicated to them. When the “experts” have a narrow understanding of the nature of the mission, that’s what gets communicated.

  • Regular believers aren’t spoken of/to as missionaries.
  • Certain fields are neglected while others are saturated.
  • Missions becomes about numbers, statistics, and difficulty rather than people, opportunity, and calling.
  • Missions is marketed as an “Xtreme adventure” rather than a normal part of Christian life.
  • Mechanics, salesmen, therapists, and entrepreneurs are left thinking that their skills have no missionary value.
  • Missions is misunderstood to be a vocation rather than an orientation.

The problem won’t likely be resolved by a cool website or the launch of yet another “network.” What it needs are vocal missionaries. Practitioners who won’t shut up about what God is doing in their lives; how cultural barriers are being overcome and the gospel is transforming lives.

In a difficult economy, “non-essentials” like communications and public relations are some of the first things a missions organization might cut. I say if there ever was a time when missions agencies needed to focus on communications and PR, now is the time.

I Double-Dog-Dare You

Nobody likes a bully.  Ours was Brian Whipple, a red-headed sixth-grader with a beard and anger management issues. “The Whip,” as we called him, loved to challenge us, in front of the most popular guys and prettiest girls in school, to do things that one would not normally want to do. Dangerous things. Embarrassing things. Against-the-rules things that could result in detention, humiliation, or personal injury.

But we did them.

The pressure was too great to refuse. We were sheep, seeking the approval of our peers, and the “double-dog-dare” was a challenge to our honor. One kid drank an entire bottle of ketchup (and promptly vomited it all over the cafeteria wall). Another jumped off the top of the monkey bars on the playground, breaking a leg and bruising his ego. I gave in to calling my teacher by her first name (“Terry,” as I recall), resulting in extra homework and several weeks on Ms. Ludlow’s “bad side.” These antics got us into varying degrees of trouble, but to us, we cared more about what others thought of us than what went on our “permanent record.”

Lots of people are bullied into participation in missions. They begrudgingly go on a trip to Mexico or inner-city Detroit because everyone else at church is doing it, or because the guy in charge of mission trips double-dog-dares them to do it.

The problem with daring people to action is that it builds resentment. Sure, you can get people to do things, but they end up hating you in the end. They don’t appreciate or learn from whatever it is you’ve convinced them to do. The result is a bad memory of a bad experience and inoculation against future service.

When I was a high-schooler trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had a pastor scoff at my desire to be an animator for Disney and dare me to “do something more meaningful with my life.” I forgot about being an artist and went on to become a missionary. Did God call me to ministry? Yes, I think He did. But the dare was something that stuck in my mind for a long time, and I resented the feeling of being bullied into “Christian service.”

There’s no excuse for a believer to shirk his responsibility to obedience. We all must participate in the Great Commission. I guess all I’m saying is that bullying people into going is a troublesome mobilization strategy.

Workers

Part of what we do as missionaries is “mobilization,” educating people back home about what we do in order that God might by our stories call some to the field. But in an effort to recruit more workers, many have taken to using “lostness” statistics in order to guilt the willing into overseas service. I’ve often heard about how few missionaries there are, and how many more we need in order to “complete the task.” But whose job is it to call believers to missions? Have we changed the Lord’s directive in Matthew 9:37 from “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” to “Tell the Lord we’re sending out workers?” We mustn’t forget that while “The harvest is plentiful” and “the workers are few,” we are instructed to “ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

If there is a shortage of workers on the field, it can only be for one of two reasons. 1) The sin of those who have been called but refuse to go, or 2) God is not calling the masses of missionaries we think necessary to do His will. While I’m certain there are disobedient believers out there who are ignoring God’s call to international service, it seems very like our God to “thin out the army” so that He might do with a select few what we consider only to be possible with four times as many. (It sounds vaguely similar to Gideon’s story.) I also believe that as we dare to depend on human-centered strategies, God is allowing us to fail on our own terms, in order that we might be reminded of our total dependence on Him.

Besides the number of missionaries, we might also need to abandon our expectations for how God might use His workers. Another major problem we’re facing, according to my colleagues, is that while the number of “short-term” workers continues to climb, relatively few are signing on for career service. But such a shift in the modes of service reflects a generational change. Just a few years ago, the model for missions was a married couple and their five children moving to Zimbabwe and living in a mud hut until retirement or death, whichever came first. But today, the greater part of the world’s population lives in an urban setting, and a career for this generation of young professionals may only last five years. Young people today are a date book people rather than a checkbook people. They will sooner give a few years of their lives in service than give a few hundred dollars to a faceless corporation that has little accountability as to how it spends that money. We should not see this change as a threat, but as a new way of doing our work, allowing our strategy to be dictated by God’s calling on individual lives.