by Gary Corwin
Not long ago, it seems, missionaries were put on a pedestal in the minds of many believers. They epitomized spiritual maturity and commitment.
Not long ago, it seems, missionaries were put on a pedestal in the minds of many believers. They epitomized spiritual maturity and commitment. While this custom never reflected a particularly good understanding of the doctrine of divine calling (and the worthiness of all vocations done at God’s bidding and for His glory), it did reflect an appreciation for the personal sacrifices and ministry challenges inherent in their calling. That time is now largely past, and the reasons for its passing are not altogether encouraging.
Missionary work now suffers from the disrespect of pseudo-familiarity. Where once it was the domain of the exotic and the unknown, thanks to CNN and short-term mission trips, this is no longer true. Now almost everybody is an expert. Familiarity with other cultures has replaced how to communicate effectively as the measure of expertise. I’ve been amazed to see how this affects even teenagers who have assumed expert status by preceding their compatriots to a missions destination by just a few hours. What everybody has done, or is capable of doing, no longer holds a place on the pedestals of our affection, even if qualitative differences are real and significant.
Other factors contributing to the shift include our culture’s heightened suspicion of institutions. This, unfortunately, is taking place at the same time that mission agencies have become increasingly institutionalized. Ironically, this has often come in response to sending church pressures to improve missionary care, retirement plans, and so on. At the same time, we have to admit that survival does seem at times to be the overriding purpose for some agencies.
The perception that most mission work today is less rigorous and dangerous than it used to be is another, and generally accurate, factor working against missionary pedestals. (Although a close look at the facts often shows some amazing exceptions.) More troubling is the inadequate way that some mission agencies have responded to legitimate calls for greater participation, and for missionary and mission accountability, coming from sending churches, and even from some of the receiving ones. Unfortunately, many people know too much to accept agency PR pieces unequivocally, but they know too little to appreciate what is really happening.
Another factor in the fall of missionaries from their old pedestals is the diminished stature of do-gooders of every kind. There is relatively little in our society at large, or in the evangelical subculture more specifically, that encourages or celebrates self-sacrifice.
So what’s the big deal? What difference does it make that missionaries are no longer held up on a pedestal? Well, on the positive side it can serve to reinforce the profound truth that the lordship of Christ is over all the spheres of life; that any calling is as worthy as any other if it is in fact the Lord’s calling on one’s life.
On the negative side, however, the list is a bit longer. First, while missionaries shouldn’t expect to be set apart, shouldn’t they be able to expect some encouragement and gratitude? Surprisingly, this is often very scarce.
Regular prayer support is also scarce. This mainstay of missionary life seems to have suffered collateral damage with the destruction of missionary pedestals. Apparently, the same sense of the exotic that built pedestals in the first place also provided the impetus for a lot of the prayer.
Finally, a sense of urgency for reaching the lost has suffered from creeping universalism and an indifferent truce with pluralism that has taken up residence in many of our evangelical churches. Everyone’s in, or will be, so who needs missionaries? Anachronistic reminders of our imperialistic and politically incorrect past are certainly not something we want to put on display. So who needs pedestals?
About a decade ago I was captured by a vision of what could happen if the primary mission stakeholders churches, agencies, and trainers worked closer together, employing the unique strengths and passions of each in response to the Great Commission. I was excited by the prospect of increased effectiveness and scope that strong synergistic relationships between these stakeholders might bring, and I sought to expend my energies in support of that vision. Now, at the dawn of a new millennium, I must confess I’m a bit discouraged.
It’s not that no progress has been made. It’s that it has been so meager. So many among the churches especially-the most central stakeholder of all-seem so dismissive of strategic issues and so enamored with experiential ones. It’s as if they have concluded that making instant experts of congregational members via short-term trips is all that is required. The reason, I have sadly concluded, is that missionaries have fallen so far off the pedestal that their voices are seldom heard.
What to do? "Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’" (Matt 9:37-38, NIV). Intercessory prayer must be our key response. Also, prayers of thanksgiving, because the harvest force mobilization is a lot stronger in other parts of the world than it is in North America. Finally, keep on trying. The Lord of the harvest is worth the effort, whether our appeal comes from a pedestal or not.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and missiologist-at-large for Arab World Missions, on loan from SIM.
Copyright © 2001 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.