Dear Missions Pastor/Church Leader/Generous Supporter,
You know that thing we talked about the other day? Where sometimes missionaries use misleading language in their newsletters and updates to sound more productive then, perhaps, they actually are? Remember that?
Ok. Well. Sometimes, you're the problem.
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In 2006, U2 frontman, Bono, (literally wearing rose-colored glasses) called the Church to action in Africa during an interview for the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. I was there. It was kinda awesome. It was a bold and honest interview and it created a fervor for justice and aid for Africa's poor and marginalized nations. It lit a fire. And that fire launched Africa Missions to the top of the missionary food chain.
Africa became a rockstar. Everybody wanted in.
Six months later, El Chupacabra and I found ourselves sitting across the table from a pastor as he explained that he wouldn't support our effort to get to Costa Rica because, “You guys are great. You're good communicators, you've got vision, and I really believe in what you're doing... but... I just can't sell Costa Rica... Are you sure you're not called to Africa? Our people want Africa.”
As we left, reality sunk in; Our mission wasn't sexy enough.
Honestly, we could totally understand why. I mean, really, sending a family to a largely Christian, tropical, vacation destination to do missions should be a tough sell. But, we were going to help launch Latino missionaries into the world, and “the world” includes Africa - so we hitched our wagon to the “Save Africa” train and had all of our support raised in 7 months. The end.
Just kidding. That wasn't the end.
Sometimes, the message from church leaders and individual supporters is that a paycheck is directly linked to a missionary's ability to come up with a good story. That's how the “Missionary Code” is unwittingly pushed on hard-working missionaries with boring but important jobs... like, I dunno... maintenance. (It's hard to write home about plunging the same toilet twenty six times in three days for Jesus. It's not sexy, but I know missionaries who do it.)
Everybody knows that “building relationships” is a Sunday bulletin snooze-fest, but the people in the pews go wild over Wham-Bam-Raise-Your-Hand evangelism. (Oh, sexy street-evangelism, you sly dog.) So “building relationships” morphs into something more palatable, like “planting seeds of Faith” (nobody ever argues with “planting seeds”- it's, like, Holy Spirit approved). Then, five hours of office filing becomes “praying over every detail of our ministry”, and having a beer with another missionary to engage in the messy but necessary act of commiseration, makes the newsletter cut as “fellowship, planning, and development”.
The point is that, while, yes, there are crappy missionaries who take advantage of this creative language to get by doing little or nothing – and we cannot ignore that problem – there are others, invested, engaged, hard-working men and women in the field, who sometimes feel roped in to this word play because the Church insists on overly spiritualized reports from missionaries whose work they don't entirely understand.
A good missionary needs more than your money. They need your sincere interest in what they are doing and how they are doing it. They need you to cheer them on through the rare exciting moments in missions, and also, the dragging, boring, everyday, “why the hell am I here?!” times. They need your f-r-i-e-n-d-ship. They need your prayers to stave off the very drama that so many crave hearing about.
Sadly, when sex sells, crime and illness become a missionary's bread and butter. When your house is burglarized, or your car is stolen, or you blow out your knee, or you give your kid a concussion by accidentally hitting him in the brain with a surfboard... *ahem* I mean, like, for example... that's when supporters perk up. They want to know more, they connect with your 'suffering', they feel bad and they want to help – and all of that is sweet, and kind, and caring (and, truly, missionaries need extra $$ during those times!) - but, ironically, when a missionary is dealing with junk like that, they are the least engaged in their work. Drama steals a missionary away from the good and important things they ought to be doing. But drama is sexy, and the sexiest missionary wins the prize.
Sexy missions doesn't equal healthy missions. We are remiss when we simply assume that, because a missionary's reports are filled with spiritual fireworks, they must be thriving. Every missionary's well-being depends on a trustworthy relationship with their supporters, and the ability to express their struggles, defeats, and failures without fear of losing their resources. (Oh, and here's a tip: A missionary who never seems to have struggles, defeats, or failures should raise some red-flags.)
Healthy, real, legit missional work begins with a heavily invested church and a fully understood missionary. Pastors, leaders, and supporters need to make the time to connect with and be available to the missionaries they're in bed with. Only through loads of regular two-way communication will a missionary be able to share the true ways God is working in and through them. In the same way, by taking a keen interest in what our missionaries are really up to, the Church will be able to wisely discern the truth about a missionary's effectiveness and/or appropriate fit in the field.
We'll have to take off our rose-colored glasses and bring our expectations of missionaries down to Earth, but when we finally throw off that trendy neglige, we'll be left with the actual body of Christ, doing good work in the world.
And that is just...um... titillating?
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