Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Future of Missionaries in Russia-Part III

I will continue my thoughts by going more into detail about the different lifestyle options for missionaries. A common strategy for missionaries is tent-making. For example, one main area of tent-making for missionaries to Russia is in education, namely teaching English. This continues to be an area in which foreigners can serve.

I've noticed that a lot of missionaries or other visitors upon arrival in Russia have either: 1) a profession acquired in their home country, but minimal Russian, or 2) Russian language training, but little professional skills.

Does there exist, or will there ever be a third group of people, who have an excellent command of the Russian language and also are highly skilled in a specific profession? People who could live like ordinary Russian citizens? It takes a long time to learn a language to the point of being able to work and communicate in a professional manner. Should living like native citizens be a goal? Certainly it makes sense to try to adapt to their lifestyle, but nevertheless, Christians are called to live apart, and conflicts will arise between these values and the values of a surrounding culture, be it one's native culture or a new one. Sometimes I want to blend in completely and lose my accent. But then I think, what’s the point of being a missionary if you are just like everyone else? In that case we could just drop Bibles from the air and forget about living among the people. No, we don't have to force our lifestyle on others, but those points at which two cultures collide are always opportunities for God's grace to come in and work in hearts.

I wonder if the prevalence of English language usage in major Russian cities is a disadvantage to being able to assimilate. In the U.S. we take it for granted that immigrants will learn English. Some families may retain their native language in the home environment, but for work and education, English is a must. Abroad, however, native English speakers are often able to work and study in their native language and spend free time with fellow ex-pats.

Getting back to the subject, missionaries to Russia now basically have two choices: 1) Work full-time in a profession, or study somewhere full-time and then figure out what to do next. 2) Work in “ministry,” but come and go all the time. In some ways, this seems a little backward to me. Ministries which serve people are very relationship-oriented. Coming and going could have an adverse effect. Work and study, however, while also having relational aspects, can normally be broken into tasks that allow for breaks. Some office work could be done abroad and the meetings conducted via Internet or during the time when the workers are all present. Study programs have breaks in the summer and between semesters. There are also distance- learning courses. So being able to stay an indefinite amount of time is not critical in those cases.

To be fair, I do think that one’s presence in another country should be legitimized. A long-term missionary is, essentially, an immigrant. He is building a new life, and that includes finding a job, housing, etc. But, I do find it frustrating that non-profit work does not currently seem to be accepted as a valid form of work for foreigners.

Let’s say a person feels called to church-planting in Russia. He plants a church and is pastoring a small flock. Suddenly, he no longer has a right to live there full-time. He might have to leave, abandoning his ministry. He might have to come and go constantly, using precious resources for travel, and missing out on certain aspects of life while he is absent. He might have to find a job working 30-40 hours outside of church, which would leave him little time for performing all his church functions as usual. What is the right thing to do?

Where does one’s calling come from ? In what format do we receive our calling? In a title? In a spiritual gift? Is a person called to be a missionary to a certain country, later deciding in what capacity? Or is a person called to work in a certain profession, later deciding where? Is a Christian "called" to work with certain members of society, such as the homeless? Or should he keep his options open and be ready to serve the needy of all ages and groups?

Paul had practical skills as a tentmaker. In the spiritual realm he was gifted to preach, evangelize, and prophesy. Sometimes he used these gifts while working his regular job, sometimes he ministered at night while working during the day, and sometimes he received support from churches in order to devote time strictly to ministry. He sometimes spent several years with one congregation and at other times traveled constantly. We see that he formed deep relationships with fellow believers, even those he encountered for only a short time. He didn’t have a family. He did have spiritual children. Reading about all this in Acts, much of it is inspiring, but it is also difficult to pinpoint general guidelines for missionaries. Part of this difficulty comes from confusion over the word “missionary,” for we are all called to live in this world and make living the Gospel our mission. Many “missionaries” seek to bring the Gospel to unreached people groups, but just as many "missionaries" are serving among Christianized nations. And those different situations call for different kinds of behavior. We are not all supposed to remain unmarried, like Paul. As for working, if missionaries all did “tentmaking,” how would they reach communities who are too poor to offer them a job?

What am I trying to say is that I think it takes a special sensitivity on the part of missionaries to know how they can touch a specific community during a certain season.

The paradox that we face now in Russia is that, on the one hand, God will make a way for missionaries to stay, if it is His will for them to be there. On the other hand, if they are to stay, the majority of missionaries will have to be open to changing what it is they do while in Russia. So, God makes it possible to stay…but for the sake of what are they staying? If a person is called to minister in a certain way, and that option is no longer available, does that mean it’s time to leave? It is going to require a lot of soul-searching on the part of missionaries and their sending committees in order to sort this out. Missions that are founded on the Word of God will stand. Missions that are founded on programs will not. While it’s good to have practical goals and missions “statements,” the lesson is that those goals that we set by human logic are subject to change or become impossible at any given moment.

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