Saturday, February 21, 2009

Missionary reports

I was recently reading a missions magazine (it doesn't really matter which one), and found myself somewhat...bored.

It isn't that reading about other people's experiences isn't interesting. But somehow, what I'm looking for does not often correspond to what has been published. And it is odd to read about my own occupation (if it can be called that), without finding recognizable traits.

The typical missionary magazine contains reports from the field, updates on specific ministry areas, biographies of missionaries, and comments on missionary methodology. They give the impression that they are meant more for the sender, to know what he is supporting, or for the prospective missionary who is inexperienced and soaking up whatever information he can find. The information may be accurate; the stories poignant, but just how representative are they of everyday life on the mission field?

When I was a child, I heard missionaries speak often in my church. A few times a year we even called a missionary via speakerphone, and the whole congregation had the experience of hearing from a real live missionary in the field.

I loved hearing those missionary stories. But I never really stopped to ask questions, because I never pictured myself in that role.

When I came to the point where I was picturing myself as a missionary, I already knew it would be Russia, and I already was a short-term missionary. I had been to summer camp several times. Now I had to find out: could I manage everyday life? I needed to know where Russians bought groceries, how they did laundry, how they bought tokens for the metro. Once I knew about some of these details, I could picture myself living there.

When you learn about these simple elements of daily life, it takes the mystery away, as well as the romance that can cause disillusionment. Of course you haven't yet penetrated the soul of the people. But it is still a big step. When I was in Congo, I didn't get that far. I visited a few Western grocery stores. I was driven everywhere in a rental car. When I did visit a village, I didn't have enough language to perform any of the usual communication or negotiations. I am not talking about travel ethics, I am merely noting the different degrees to which you can experience a culture.

When I hear a missionary sharing about his/her experience, I begin to zone out because of the questions that arise in my mind. When hearing about someone teaching or holding any kind of gathering, I wonder, Where did they find the space to do that? How do they pay rent? How do they get along with the government? When hearing about feeding a group of people, I wonder, Where did they buy the food? How did they carry all the groceries? How did they go about inviting people? When hearing about a Bible study, I wonder, What percentage of the population is Christian? Do they normally possess Bibles? Do they have the Bible in their own language? In what language was the Bible study taught? Who leads the Bible study? Who attends? Is it culturally appropriate?

Maybe they aren't appropriate questions for a presentation, but I think they are helpful in certain contexts, when communing with other missionaries, or with people who would like to be able to pray for the ministry very specifically, and would like to be able to picture details of scenarios.

I am guilty of rather detached writing myself, when I write reports. I feel that people want to hear about numbers, salvations, events, things that look good on paper. I must carefully formulate prayer requests. That is partly why I have this blog. I can write a little bit each day, and it doesn't have to be a grandiose report each time. I can just write down ordinary observations, from life. And then when I go to write a more formal report, I can glean from these notes.

Some of my favorite missionary "publications" to read are the letters of past missionaries. There they pour our their true feelings; they explain about their worries: strife among missionaries; misunderstandings; sickness; heartache. Of course there are positive reports too, when God answers requests and teaches new lessons and provides abundantly. I still write long personal e-mails to a few people, and there is no substitute for that individual interaction.

I am glad that some missionaries have the opportunity to blog. It allows them to share some simple facts of life. It allows others to ask questions.

I know that blogging sometimes become oversimplified. You get tired of reading about how many loads of laundry this person did today, or how angry that person is about what his neighbor did. This is all fine as long as you call it what it is, and think carefully before devoting part of your day to this activity. My blog is meant for friends and family, so I include certain details. If it is interesting or beneficial to someone else, I am glad.

5 years later

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