Lifestyle Choices in Missions: What to Carry/What to Leave Behind
by Christine Jeske
The author shares five questions cross-cultural
workers need to ask when making lifestyle choices.
The first time Jesus sent his disciples ahead to prepare the way for him, he instructed them to “take nothing for the journey, no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic” (Luke 9:3). These words of advice, coming from a man who had “no place to lay his head,” make a hard line to walk for any modern-day missionary.
Few missionaries today fit the category of those called to go with only a single outfit and no money, but that does not mean we are exempt from examining what we should carry. Today, the choices are not just whether to carry a purse or an extra tunic, but how to be an ambassador for Christ in an increasingly unequal world. For how should we decide what to spend on plane tickets, vehicles, domestic workers, and refrigerators? How should we determine what level of crime we are willing to live amidst, where to send our children to school, and what amount of privacy to expect?
What we carry with us in life communicates messages to those around us. While in South Africa, I was once confronted with, “I don’t
understand why you Americans come here. What do you do? Just drive around in your four-wheel-drive vehicle and hand out things and feel good about yourself?”
While we do not usually hear these questions spoken so directly, every person who lives overseas must recognize that those we live among are watching how we answer these questions. How we choose to live communicates more about what we believe than the words we speak, and our example can either open or close people’s hearts to the word of God. Discussions of wealth and lifestyle are often glossed over in missionary training, but in the process we ignore a topic Jesus never balked from addressing.
God blesses lifestyles that vary as widely as from David to Jeremiah, to the Roman commander whose daughter was healed, to Peter who said, “Gold and silver have I none.” Rather than carrying guilt and judging ourselves, we need to accept that missionary lifestyles will vary as widely as their contexts.
Lean toward Trust
In deciding what to own, carry, and leave behind, our starting point must be complete trust in our Lord. Our model is Jesus’ own dependence upon God.
God chose to enter into the human race through his Son, Jesus Christ, and the method he chose was not one that would be considered safe by any means. Born as a baby, susceptible to pain and tears and every human experience, Jesus “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
His first sleeping place was a barn. In his first months of life, his family became refugees. When he began his ministry as an adult, life was scarcely more comfortable. Without a home of his own and few clothes for his body, he spent his time with little privacy and relied on others to supply his basic needs.
Jesus’ life was marked by a complete dependency on his Father. Not only did he depend on the Father in speech (John 8:28), judgment (John 8:16), authority (John 7:17), and life itself (John 6:57), he depended on the Father to meet his daily needs. It was this complete trust and dependence that also enabled him to trust and depend on those around him.
Through both his example and his words, Jesus taught us to live like him without fear and worry. If God cares for wild lilies and sparrows, why should he not also meet our needs (Matt. 6:24-25)? Why should our concern be over physical provision when God so adequately provides not only our physical bread, but also the true bread of life (John 6:34)?
For many missionaries, this issue of dependence upon God for security and daily provision presents a far greater spiritual challenge than any other aspect of following God’s call. In theory, we feel ready to go anywhere, giving up our very lives to be martyred for his sake. But in practice, our trust is measured by our heart’s daily response to giving up little things. In the little choices of what we own and treasure, we live out Jesus’ challenge that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).
This “losing” can take many forms. It may mean living beyond cell phone reception. It may mean living in an Asian city without a square meter of grass to sit on. In examining what we will give up for God, we see where our treasures lie, whether in heaven or on earth (Matt. 6:19-21).
One couple moving to Germany for theological studies wrote about the challenge inherent in moving with preschoolers, even to a country considered wealthy by most standards.
We’ve spent dozens of grueling hours trying to find a place within our budget that’s safe and wrestling with commute issues. My bonus points are a sink that’s bigger than a dinner plate and a bright living room without too many breakables for the long winter’s indoor play. I’ve been humbled with how much I love my stuff—our house, furniture, yard, train set, tea party set, books, and that butterfly mobile in the children’s room! It’s been good to savor and give thanks for all the good things we have, but I’m sad that we’ll have to be without some really fun materials during this developmental stage of our children’s lives. Attitude is my most important item to bring.
It’s in the attitude of “taking up your cross” to follow him that we meet God. All followers of Christ are called to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him” (Prov. 3:5-6).
However, in leaving behind homes and in interacting with people of other cultures, missionaries have unique opportunities to glorify God through this area. When we are truly able to “throw off everything that hinders” (Heb. 12:1), we provide a living example of faith both for those in the country where we minister and those watching from our homeland.
Discernment in the Details
As we continue to put our complete trust in God, countless questions may arise in the details. There has never been one universal prescription for how much a missionary should spend on housing, education, transportation, or vacation. My family has had to reassess these questions with each relocation, job shift, and stage of life. My husband and I began our experience overseas in a Nicaraguan village where we brought only a single suitcase. We lived deep in the heart of community, eating our meals with families in the village and having no way to secure our living quarters. Our neighbors knew every item that existed in our home. Envy and separation sprung up over something as small as a pack of gum, and we chose to limit what we owned to as near to what our neighbors owned as possible.
Later, with our newborn daughter, we lived in China while serving as English teachers. We spent much of our time with other Chinese professors and lived at a significantly higher level of income than we had in Nicaragua. Later still, in South Africa, we faced a whole new set of questions regarding the painful history of racial and economic separation and high crime rates and caring for our now school-aged children.
Instead of developing legalistic codes, we must learn to ask the right questions and accept God’s answers. Below are five questions to ask in making lifestyle choices.
1. What will keep love as your number one priority? Simplicity must not become an end in itself. When we make packing lightly or living like those around us our end goal, we can become legalistic or guilt-ridden. Our aim is to love God, love our neighbors, share the gospel, and make disciples. Jesus challenged a rich young man to sell his possessions and give to the poor, then come and follow him (Matt. 19:21). Giving up possessions was not enough in itself; it was the following of Jesus that mattered. We can give all we have to the poor, but without love we gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:3).
I once attended a Bible study in which a top prayer request was for a missionary family whose home had twice been broken into and their refrigerator stolen. No one else in the village owned a refrigerator, and there was no reason this family especially needed the refrigerator. While we empathized with the violation of security in having one’s home broken into and belongings taken, we couldn’t help but wonder if this was evidence that the family’s lifestyle was building walls between themselves and the community. Rather than praying for stronger locks for their doors, perhaps it would have been best to pray for unity with the neighbors, even if that meant giving up the refrigerator.
2. What facilitates the work you are called to do? Each of us has a unique purpose within the Body of Christ. Whether evangelists, overseers, writers, business people, dancers, web designers, or radio broadcasters, we require unique tools for our work. We also need to not carry certain tools that would hinder work.
For someone whose work requires frequent travel to remote areas, work might justify the four-wheel-drive truck scoffed at by my South African acquaintance. For a business-as-mission servant in many parts of the world, going without a suit and tie in favor of more “simple” attire could hinder the work. Still, these decisions should be made in prayer.
Paul was an example of one who knew how to live with both much and little. He was not ashamed to use his Roman citizenship or his Jewish ethnicity when it facilitated his work, but he did not count these as his right, nor did he find his worth in them. He dined with rich and poor alike. When he found himself in a prison stripped of material and social capital, he served God just as gratefully and effectively.
3. What facilitates sharing? When we give, receive, borrow, or lend, we enter into a relationship of trust. In many cases, this can meet physical needs and exemplify the generosity we have found in Christ. Providing much-needed medicines, water filters, or shared refrigerator space can convey the love of God to others.
Sometimes, however, we get caught in patterns of sharing only in one direction: we bring and share. This sends a message and sets a precedent of a one-way relationship: provider and receiver. However, we see Jesus both providing and receiving, both sharing what God gave him and opening himself to what others shared with him. His reliance on others regularly opened doors to his ministry as he performed miracles, engaged in conversation, and taught from daily experience while in others’ homes, eating others’ food.
While my husband and I lived in Nicaragua, we found the greatest leaps in our relationships happened when we received. I arrived with few clothes, most of which were inappropriate for our setting. When word got out about my sparse wardrobe, family after family began joyfully providing me with clothing (in a laughable array of colors and eras from the 1970s to the present!). And when I contracted head lice and had no shampoo, strong friendships formed during the hours I spent having neighbors pull nits from my hair. These experiences of receiving conveyed the message, “I love you enough to trust you and I am no different from you, a child of God dependent upon him for my every need.”
4. How do people expect me to live? I was surprised to discover that what my Nicaraguan friends wanted me to wear often differed from what they wore. One family continually encouraged me to wear jeans, while every woman in the village wore skirts. In South Africa, as willing as our family was to move into a mainly black South African neighborhood, the people there politely insisted they would prefer we lived with those of our own race.
In China, we were acutely aware of the strong cultural expectation of power distance between us and our students, which dictated a level of formality in how they expected us to behave.
At the most basic level of trying to fit into a culture, we attempt to imitate what others in the culture do. This is not the whole game. We also need to uncover what they consider normal for us to do as foreigners.
Sometimes, in guessing how we can best fit in with nationals, we insult them with our misperceptions. One woman from Ghana shared how disgusted and insulted she was by a group of North Americans who came to her country on a mission trip. They had filled their suitcases with tattered and stained clothes to wear as they worked, expecting the clothes would somehow fit in with what they expected to find the people in poverty wearing.
“Is that how they think we dress?” she asked. She wore a crisp, bright dress with high-heeled shoes and jewelry, her hair neatly styled. Indeed, many North Americans need to be reminded that their own habits of hygiene, bathing, and laundry do not live up to the standards of many people living in poverty.
This is not to say that we need to be ruled by others’ expectations. Sometimes, breaking these expectations conveys a message. When I took my daughter to a public hospital in South Africa and we found ourselves the only white faces in a packed waiting room, the experience opened up opportunities to pray and have conversations about solidarity and trust in God.
5. Am I taking resources away from others? In a world where materialism often rules, we must remember that not everything we can have is something we should have.
This challenge presents itself in many forms. While working at a South African seminary, our family was offered one of the largest apartments on campus free of charge. Was accepting this taking away from someone else, or was it a gift kindly given to us? In many cases, families will honor guests with the best cut of meat or their single egg, while their own children watch in hunger. In these situations, we need constant sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s stirrings in order to give honor and respect to the giver.
Sometimes, serving others works in reverse of what we expect. After I made the choice to take my daughter to a public South African hospital, a friend suggested that since the public hospitals were strapped for resources, we should go elsewhere. Was our place in the hospital taking away resources from someone else? Was our attempt at solidarity more of a burden than a witness?
Another example is that many missionaries are appalled at the idea of hiring a domestic worker while overseas. However, people in other cultures often expect foreigners to hire housekeepers, and a long line of people would gladly appreciate the income of that job.
This domestic worker decision is one that incorporates all the questions mentioned above—questions that each person must answer differently. It requires weighing the relationship we may develop with the domestic worker, as well as relationships we may form by doing our shopping, water carrying, or other tasks ourselves. Will having domestic help create free time for other important tasks? Will having the help allow us to release our pride and learn from him or her about the local culture? Will having the help alienate us in the minds of our neighbors who don’t hire employees—or will it have the opposite effect of making them feel more comfortable around us because we meet their expectations?
Whatever the choices we make about purchases, homes, and housekeepers, we need to walk in the freedom and grace of Christ, trusting the Holy Spirit’s convictions and promptings, without judgment or jealousy toward others. Whether with much or little, we must walk in trust and gratitude. In Paul’s words, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).
Christine Jeske has served in Nicaragua, China, and South Africa and teaches for Eastern University. She is author of Into the Mud: Inspiration for Everyday Activists, True Stories of Africa (Moody, 2009) and blogs at www.intothemud.com.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 134-135. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.