by Jim Reapsome
“Nonprofessional missionary” scares more than a few professional missionaries. Public appeals for students to consider working in business, education, government or industry overseas – while being a “missionary” on the side – are met with red caution flags by the full-time professional missionaries.
"Nonprofessional missionary" scares more than a few professional missionaries. Public appeals for students to consider working in business, education, government or industry overseas-while being a "missionary" on the side – are met with red caution flags by the full-time professional missionaries.
Of course, the cautions are well taken. It is well for those who have had overseas experience to dispel some of the romantic notions often associated with being a nonprofessional missionary. No young person should apply for a secular job overseas, unless he has first talked to some missionary who has been there.
He ought to know that Americans generally are suspect to begin with. He ought to know that the demands of his job will come first, and that there will be little time for "missionary" work. He ought to know that social and cultural and language barriers are steep hurdles indeed. He ought to realize that unless God has given him a fruitful ministry being a "missionary " while working full-time at a secular job in the U.S., the chances are slim that he will blossom overnight into something different in Saudi Arabia while working for an oil company.
Those are tough obstacles, but in themselves they need not stop some young people from trying to overcome them. In fact, professional missionaries themselves might well think about their own futures in regard to working as a secular employee-at least for some period of time-while living overseas.
This course of action appears to be wise from at least two standpoints: the biblical and the practical. We are astounded by the fact that in 10 or 11 years the apostle Paul established churches in four provinces of the Roman Empire: Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia. We picture him traveling ceaselessly, preaching the gospel everywhere. Certainly, if anyone ever was a full-time missionary, it was the apostle Paul.
Wrong. About half of the time he was working at a secular job, making tents; about half of the time he was what we would today call a "nonprofessional missionary." He not only worked for extended periods of time at Corinth and Ephesus, he also worked during shorter visits, such as the one to Thessalonica.
This aspect of Paul’s missionary methods has been overlooked; even Roland Allen made no comment on it in his discussion of the missionary’s finances. But the evidence for the practicality and the value of the missionary’s doing secular work stands out in Acts and in Paul’s letters.1
Paul worked for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which was to pay for what he called "my necessities, " his room and board. He also worked to help pay for the needs of those who traveled with him. He worked to show an example to his converts, so they might work hard at their jobs and not become lazy.
The apostle worked full-time while preaching and teaching so that he might not be a financial burden on others. He worked so that he might "make the gospel free of charge. " He deliberately refused his right to refrain from working, so that no one might suspect he was preaching for money.
Any overworked missionary today would find it hard to accept that Paul accomplished so much in church-planting while holding down a job, but he did. All of his reasons for so doing merit serious study with a view toward applying them to today’s realities overseas.
To take one or two examples: In many places missionaries are suspect because they are foreign and "hired" to preach with foreign money. Working would do away with that suspicion. In some cultures, laziness is endemic; the hard-working missionary could set an example by farming, fixing cars, or whatever, full-time for awhile.
In addition to the biblical reasons for using nonprofessional missionaries, there is an important practical reason: in some countries, they are the only means of maintaining a Christian witness. The need is urgent for more mission agencies to think about using nonprofessionals as a matter of strategy, rather than as an emergency device after the regular full-time missionaries are kicked out.
For example, in some "closed" Muslim countries, only the nonprofessional missionary is allowed to function. Remarkably, God is using these "tent-makers" to establish beachheads of witness. One of the most interesting new developments in God’s strategy along this line is his sending Christian workers from Korea to Saudi Arabia; not missionaries, but construction workers.
These Koreans will not find it easy to witness to their faith, but at least they will not face some of the enormous roadblocks that Americans have. God does have a way of changing our inflexibleness. We need to be alert to what he is doing in the world.
Chinese railroad construction workers took Maoism to Africa. The principle is so obvious that we need to keep probing for what God is doing in the worlds of economics and politics. After all, it was economic exploration that opened most of the colonial world to the gospel in the first place.
Rather than downgrade the potential for nonprofessional missionaries, missions leaders would do well to prepare lists of strategic openings for the most highly qualified persons they can find. Paul, the nonprofessional, was that kind of person.
1. Acts 18:3; 20: 34, 35; 1 Corinthians 4:24; 9:6, 12, 15, 18, 19; 2 Corinthians 11:7; 12:14, 16; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 4:11; 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-13.
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