What is a missionary? This is a question that my wife and I pose when we teach a class on missions. We get a variety of answers. Everything from teaching to building churches to giving food to the poor; the list goes on for a while. I think the answers we come up with come from both the roles we’ve seen others take, but also from how we see our relationship between those who are going and those we are going to see. I’d like to relay a story from a good friend of mine that I believe sums up the latter very effectively.
I have a friend that moved a long way from her family. She rarely saw them because of the distance, just once a year or so. She was bothered by the fact that her kids were not growing up knowing their grandparents very well. With the limited time available each year for them to see each other, she considered the time very valuable for her parents and kids to spend quality time together.
Her parents, on the other hand, would come to visit and were always concerned with what projects they could do. Despite her effort to get them to spend time with their grandchildren, they always somehow diverted to working on some project around the house. After a while, she finally gave up trying to get them to stop, and instead found herself focusing on trying to find them projects to do. Her parents never seemed to believe that she was content with the way things were, so to bide their time she sometimes found herself coming up with projects that were neither important to her nor actually needed to be done. Her parents were acting out of love, but they were also acting out of paternalism, which had traditionally been their role, but was one that never changed when their daughter got married and moved out. She appreciated their effort, but wished that they would take some of that time to strengthen the family bonds.
Now let’s travel to South Sudan and see how similar the story is. We went to visit a church plant we were supporting. I showed up a day before the other missionaries, so I had some time to talk to the local indigenous pastor. He told me about how important it would be for us to go visit one of the new churches they’d planted in a more remote area. In fact, he made this point several times over the next day or two.
The next day the other missionaries showed up, and noticed that the gravity shower we had built on a previous trip was broken. The water tank was cracked. Fixing this became the first item of attention, and a significant amount of time and money were spent doing this. In fact, so much money was spent that we didn’t have enough left to be able to visit the church plant that was so important to the pastor there. The fact was, that the water tank had cracked because it rarely had water in it, and as the broiling South Sudan sun would bare down on the empty tank, it cracked. It simply wasn’t that important to them when it was built, and it wasn’t that important to them when we fixed it. They wanted to build relationships, we wanted to build STUFF. This relationship also had more than a sprinkling of paternalism. A paternalistic relationship says, “I’m from the rich country and I know what’s good for you better than you do.”
I learned a lot from that trip. Thinking about it made me think of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, as well as those of the other Apostles. What was the purpose of those journeys? There are so many answers to that question found in the New Testament that I’m not even going to narrow it down to any particular verses. They include evangelism, teaching, encouraging the body of Christ, dealing with problems within the churches, discipleship, raising up new leadership, and in one case taking up a collection to help another church that was in a region dealing with famine. Not once was the purpose to do projects. I understand that there are times when this is necessary, but if we go in with the attitude of “what can we build?” we frequently and completely miss out on the more important purpose of being there. That purpose is to expand the kingdom of God and to promote unity within the Church. There is no Western Church and developing world church, there is only the Church. We need to be aware that a Church is people, and not buildings and stuff. As it says in Acts 7, “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?”
This is hard for Western missionaries, particularly Americans, to grasp. We are a very task oriented culture. We know that when we go somewhere, particularly if it’s a short-term missions trip, we have a limited time and we feel like we need to have something tangible to show for it. Most of the rest of the world though, considers relationships to be far more important. We need to keep this in the forefront of our mind when we go to see our brothers and sisters overseas. That project may be really important to you, but if it’s not important to them, you’re really not doing any good.