We arrived in Costa Rica on a Thursday, and on our very first Sunday in the country El Chupacabra was standing in a pool helping baptize some guy we'd never met before.
The Baptism just happened to be occurring on the property where we were staying for a couple of weeks before we started language school. When our family (still wide-eyed in shock after leaving the U.S.) stumbled into the celebration by accident, someone invited El Chupacabra to join right in with the dunking. It seemed like the missionaryish thing to do, so he did.
Our first ever newsletter went out with a picture of my husband up to his chest in pool water with his arm around that guy. Big smiles everywhere. In the letter, we proudly declared that God was already using us in amazing and unexpected ways. We didn't lie, of course - the newsletter was carefully worded so as not to mislead anyone into thinking we had done more than just arrive, but it was vague enough to still spark interest for would-be investors, and assure supporters that “The Wrights in Costa Rica” were a wise choice. As for the guy? We never saw him again, never knew his name, and, obviously, had nothing at all to do with his journey toward Baptism. But he sure did make great fodder for our newsletter.
That was when I learned that we would actually spend our first year in Costa Rica learning two languages – Spanish was native to our new home, and Missionary Code was native to our new role.
It's kinda scary when you think about it, but Christian Missions is a billion (that's BILLION, like, with a B!) dollar industry – with virtually no oversight, no standards of practice, and no hiring requirements. To top it off, it's shrouded in a cloud of overly spiritualized language, easily manipulated to allow people to believe that more good is coming from their missions dollars than is necessarily true.
I know this because I learned the formula for missions language early on, and I used it often to mask my own failure, laziness, and lack of desire to engage in the field.
While I was virtually paralyzed by depression and anxiety, I used Missionary Code to turn every innocuous coffee date with a friend into “discipleship time”. Hours spent circling Facebook were important to “support development”, and everyday interactions with grocery store clerks and bank tellers suddenly became meaningful when referred to as “intentional relationships”. Oh, and the things your supporters do in their time off (like running, or taking classes, or hanging out with their kids) are things you get to claim, according to Missionary Code, as work.
Applied liberally, this vague and mysterious language can make even the most worthless missionary seem as though they were plucked by God, himself, from their homeland and delivered to the mission field on the back of Balaam's ass for the betterment of the world. (What. You don't believe there are worthless missionaries out there? I know missionaries working all over the planet and every last one of them can give you an example of someone living in the field, today, who's not doing jack shit for Jesus. Some could tell you horror stories of how missionaries are mishandling their time.)
Missionary Code is like Christianese on steroids.
The thing about Missionary Code is that it magically falls under the protection of the Missionary Code. When you give it the side-eye, it automatically creates an unbreakable loop of vague and mysterious language that cannot be broken without making the inquisitive skeptic feel like a faithless douche who hates the Bible. This almost never happens, because most of the time the “I'm a missionary” statement is followed by outlandish heaps of praise and encouragement, but let me give you an example:
Random guy: “Wow, you're a missionary? That's cool. What do you do?”
Shady missionary: “Well, I partner with the local church to make disciples.”
Random guy: “Oh. How do you do that?”
Shady missionary: “I create inroads through intentional relationships.”
Random guy: “Soooo, you invite... people... to church... in another country?”
Shady missionary: “That. Plus, I initiate interest by engaging in Christ-centered dialog with locals.”
Guy: “... *blink blink*... Wait. What does that even mean?”
Shady: “It's hard to understand from a limited North American perspective, but the Holy Spirit is hard at work in Peru/Italy/Cambodia/PickACountry, and I'm merely there to be a vessel. My job is really to just stay available to the call.”
Guy: “...Aaaand you get paid for that?”
Shady: “The Lord says a worker is worth his wages.”
Guy: “Of course He does.”
Random Guy walks aways with a super unclear idea about what the missionary actually does, but has heard, in no uncertain terms, that the missionary has been “called” by God to this mysterious but important job. That's the Code at work.
I'm telling you all of this because there is blatant fraud going on in the world of missions and in the name of Jesus. And that bothers me. If you support a missionary, if you're a church that supports missionaries, if you're interested in becoming a missionary, you should be pushing for clarity and transparency from the Missions world. Most missionaries will be able to answer your questions without resorting to evasive language and obscure ideas. But if they can't? That should be a serious red flag and you should feel emboldened to push back until you clearly understand what they're doing with their time.
This will probably get me killed by the Knights Templar or something, but I want to decipher a little bit of the Missionary Code for you. I hope this will encourage you to ask good questions when you're contemplating partnership with a missionary or missions org.
~ If a missionary says they're “partnering with the local church” or they say they “work alongside a local church”, ask them what that means exactly. It could be anything from “I attend a local church” to “I occasionally drive past a local church on my way to the pharmacy” to “I regularly admonish the pastor of a local church for preaching too long”. Or it could mean they have a real, legit partnership, like, one that's mutual and beneficial. But I would definitely ask. (I would also ask, “If there's a local church, why do they need missionaries?” - but that's a post for another day.)
~ “I do discipleship.” is also one of those super broad statements that could mean anything from “I teach about the life of Jesus 4 times a day, 6 days a week”, to “I just live my life in an exotic locale on the church dime, hopeful that someday someone will ask me about my faith, so, technically, every person I interact with is a potential disciple.” Find out more!
~ Another one to watch out for? “I host short-term teams.” Yikes!... Just kidding. Some ministries make great use of short-term teams, while others are literally STM mills. So listen carefully, in case “I host short-term teams” really means “I go around looking for [what is oftentimes meaningless] work to let suburbanites get grimy and feel blessed.” Not good. Any time a missionary's primary role caters to short-term missions, get the low down. Find out how many other churches they're partnering with and ask what they do with each team. You might be shocked to find out that the poor little kids your church excitedly runs a Vacation Bible School for every summer actually has to sit through a half dozen VBS programs within a couple months. Trust me, it happens.
A lot of missionaries are self-motivated, innovative, disciplined, and hard-working – but, too many others are passing off purposeless days overseas as necessary and beneficial to the Kingdom of God. If you support a mission or missionaries, you have a right and a responsibility to know if they're actually engaging with the community in ways that make sense and reflect a heart for God's mission. You should know what they do, and why, and you should be able to get a pretty clear understanding of how they do it.
Sadly, not all missionaries are good missionaries. This is a hard reality for the Church because we are absolutely terrified of hurting anyone's feelings, and we're easily held at bay by spiritual double-talk. But, I'm telling you, this is a BIG problem and it shouldn't be ignored. Deciphering the code is the first step in helping our missionaries stay functional and accountable.
Missions should not be a mystery.
… ….. ….
Or, tell us about a missionary who's doing it well!
I'm giving my shout out to Troy and Tara Livesay. A better example of hard working, local loving, kick ass missionaries cannot be found! Their work takes my breath away -
Jesus is present with them.