Thursday, February 25, 2016

What does a missionary do?

Today I learned that enrollment in ELCA seminaries is down considerably compared to ten years ago. 

This got me thinking: perhaps we don't need more pastors, we need more missionaries. Perhaps if the seminaries are down in enrollment, that's because they're making room for missionary training schools.

For quite a while now, I've had this vision statement rumbling around that helps me stay focused. I like to say, I'm a missionary who happens to serve as a pastor.

Mission seminaries are not unheard of in other places and traditions. Good friends of ours from Germany served in Abakan for ten years after completing their studies at the Missionsseminar Hermannsburg
Hermannsburg Mission residences

At the very least, thinking about seminaries as centers training missionaries does focus the sent aspect of seminary. You send somebody to seminary, and then the seminary sends the person they train into mission. 

I tend to think this is one difference between pastors and missionaries. Pastors can be raised up and called in place, from among their own people. This should happen more often. But if you end up with a missionary in your midst, part of your job is to send them away in mission.

After adult baptisms, I think the number of missionaries a faith community sends is the most important measure of that community's spiritual vitality.

In the middle of this dialogue, a colleague asked an innocent question: What would these missionaries do?

I think people kind of know what a pastor does or will do, because they live near pastors and see them at work. Pastors preach, lead worship, visit the sick, tend the dying, go to meetings, juggle flaming clubs.

But what does a missionary do, other than, in the post-colonial mindset, inflict a foreign religion on a vulnerable people group?

Well, it is a good question, so let me offer a sort of list of what I think missionaries might could do.

Build Relationships With People of Peace
It takes time, but the most important thing missionaries do is connect with the right people, develop friendships and partnerships with them, so they can be a voice of the gospel with such people of peace, and through them to the wider community. 
From Mike Breen's Discipling Culture
Missionaries as people sent by those who support them, and sent by God, can overcome and protect against colonial approaches to mission by seeing themselves as companions, partners, accompanists, for the mission of God they see already happening in the community.

from Global Mission in the 21st Century
Swim in Blue Oceans
Identify specific cultural contexts where no one is really going, and then go there. This will vary widely from missionary to missionary, and may even appear somewhat odd or idiosyncratic. One missionary might surf. Another might play Dungeons & Dragons. One missionary might spend time in laundry mats. Another missionary might wait tables near Wall Street. One missionary might move to a village in Iraq. Another might live in a suburb of London. The point is for the missionary to travel enough cultural distance that they have moved to where people actually are, and in contexts open to the gospel but not already inundated with other Christian communities vying for a limited set of already somewhat Christian people.

Read Pope Francis's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium
Honestly, it's amazing. You will be happier after you read it. You will want to share the gospel. Your heart will shift and join the pope's in his heart for the vulnerable and poor. Fair warning, it's kind of long. But heck, if you're going to go on a long journey and stay where you're sent for a while, why not equip yourself with the spiritually profound insights of the world's most famous missionary?

Our friends who were trained at the Hermannsburg Mission walked through a gate as they were sent, and the promise of the early missionaries sent through those gates was to never come back, to remain on the mission field the rest of their lives. Our friends devoted a decade to their work in Abakan, and I think in places like that part of independent Russia, perhaps even longer, a whole lifetime, is needed. So missionaries may be sent, but they will also stay. I know another missionary, with the ELCA. He spent so long in Japan that Japanese became more of his native language than English, and he lived more years there than here. Yet he devoted time every day his whole life to the study of the language, to learn it better, because...

Learn the Language, Translate the Message
I think the average pastor thinks their main job, for which they receive a paycheck, is to optimize the institutional equilibrium of the organization they serve. So they balance a bit of challenge with some comfort, they try not to rock the boat, they introduce change at a glacial pace, and they work really hard not to offend the easily offend able.

This is an impossible job.

The average missionary, because of their freer position vis-a-vis the culture they are seeking to reach, sees their job differently. Their job is to learn the language, and then communicate the living voice of the gospel in that local idiom. This is called indigenization, and it is an art, a highly refined art. It can take a lifetime to learn, and is as compelling and adventurous as a professional violinist playing a Stradivarius. It requires interest, passion, and love. 

Engage New Media
Many pastors avail themselves only of their own in-studio media resources. They write an article for the antiquated church newsletter. They author blurbs for the bulletin. They make bulletin boards. They preach sermons.

These are good things, but missionaries know to reach a culture, you communicate via media. Missionaries read the context well, and identify which media resources are particularly suitable vehicles for reaching different parts of the culture. They get good at writing newspaper columns, they create podcasts, they cultivate engaging social media presence, they make friends with television newscasters and radio show hosts. And these are just examples, because if you look back up to the first point, people of peace, the missionary identifies the right people for the right communities and the right reasons.

But missionaries do not resist media. They inhabit it.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! Evangelism is really the way to go. To be honest this is why I am so glad that so many of the graduates of LSTC are becoming mission developers. There needs to be a real evangelical furvor in any church if it is going to survive, let alone find joy, excitement, and vitality.