Authenticity and the Missionary Enterprise

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Lastly in this brief foray into authenticity in ministry, I’d like to talk about the missionary enterprise.  I have had the privilege of meeting and working with creative and committed missionaries, who serve sacrificially and amidst great challenge. Their lives are worthy of respect and admiration. But alas, being a missionary has its own special challenges.

Missionaries are some of the most tempted to fudge on integrity, because they have the least accountability of nearly all people in ministry. We create our own job descriptions and write our own quarterly reports to sympathetic donors. We are not accountable to just one church (like a pastor), we are accountable to 5-10 churches (which means we are not accountable to any). We enjoy a nearly universal respect and sometimes almost naïve perception of how spiritual we all must be. Although there certainly are sacrifices in being away from loved ones, and outside the comfortable and predictable confines of one’s native culture, we humans have a strong drive for obtaining comfort and convenience. Often our homes away from homes are filled with all the amenities that we would expect to enjoy in our home country. I remember a quote from a missionary that I did an internship with a long time ago, during a three-country road trip, commenting about travel and staying in a hotel every night. Only millionaires and missionaries do this. Said tongue-in-cheek perhaps.

Integrity in the use of funds is a big issue also. Missionaries find themselves between two worlds, where often (certainly not always) they are considered among the poorest of their home culture, but among the most privileged of their host culture. The awesome part of this is that missionaries can be a  wise (hopefully) liaison between a wealthier, technologically advanced country and a needier one. We have access to resources that can be generously shared.   Networking and human resources such as short term teams and international organizations can all be leveraged and synergized in some amazing ways. But this needs to be done with integrity. The saying in Spanish is, él que reparte queda con la mayor parte. He who hands out the goods keeps the best part. The national church is not dumb. They will sense if the missionary is indeed using all the resources at his disposal for the good of the church or target group, or if the resources that he has are used for personal gain. If a missionary is up to his elbows in the everyday, mundane yet glorious work of God, or is simply snapping pictures for his next glowing report to supporters.

“Who wouldn’t want to be a missionary?” our national brothers and sisters ask. Apparently the job comes with a nice car, a decent house and liberty to travel pretty much any time is necessary. The salary apparently isn’t linked to effectiveness in any way. Sounds good to me! Although missionaries tend to be quite sensitive to their supporters and supporting churches, they need to learn to listen to what the host country people are saying (and not saying) about their place in local ministry. We all need to be diligent before God, to be humble and responsive to constructive criticism, to not only teach people, but to first learn from them, and with them. A cup of coffee (or some tacos) with a good national brother who has the courage to be open and honest will teach more than many books on cross-cultural missionary life.

Do local church mission boards or elder boards ever really evaluate a missionary’s effectiveness?  For that matter, how confrontational are mission boards with their own members? Should we go on assuming that every missionary on the foreign field is really “called” (whatever that means), or is really effective? Can a missionary’s presence in a culture actually be counterproductive, when the host country sees a lazy, disgruntled and ethnocentric individual with the banner “Christian” adorning his life?  Fortunately, more and more churches are becoming more involved in the distant ministries of their missionary partners. Many require annual reports. This is a start.

Ultimately, all will be revealed, said Jesus. This is both a humbling, potentially scary! and also comforting promise. One day, the faithful pray-er sitting in the fourth row back, who lives out her faith in a simple, sincere way, she will be exalted. The national pastor, unknown and isolated, but a Jesus-lover and follower, he will receive a crown. No one will remember how many Twitter followers anyone had, how many conferences we attended or spoke at, how many people visited our blog.

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