Monday, April 13, 2009

Missions #1: Why go overseas?

When I recorded some insights about missions here, I mentioned that I do not like to set specific rules for missionaries. However, I can share more specifically about some of the factors that affect decisions and about my personal experience. A reader brought up some questions that I will comment on over several posts. Tentative topics are: Reasons for going overseas, Cross-cultural missions and ethnocentrism, Allocation of resources, and Overseas adoption vs. domestic.

I asked the Missions Committee at my U.S. church to comment, and my mom sent me a copy of the Perspectives textbook, which will give me some additional insight. But I’m looking for comments from you readers as well.

So today I will start out with the question...Why go overseas when there are unsaved/needy people all around you?

God's plan

In the case of individuals, I can say “I don’t know.” The Lord works mysteriously, and He certainly could have planned it another way. Starting with Abraham, God's people were always moving around, going on "missions." It certainly wasn't the most logical or easy thing to do, but it was pleasing to Him.


One piece of the puzzle is that God is glorified when different cultures put aside their differences and come together.

The Missions pastor at my church writes, “I agree that if we aren't sharing Christ here there is no point in going there. But since God is building His multicultural Church there needs to be cross pollination or our American church could become even more monocultural, insular and narrow. We need input from many cultures and I believe we need to be here and there.”

A new perspective

Another piece is that people are sometimes more open to hearing the Gospel from a fresh source. It is sometimes our relatives and closest friends who are hardest to reach.

As to the people back home whom we've "abandoned," they will be curious about our choice, and this provides an opportunity to witness.

A missionary who makes frequent trips to Haiti writes: “Part of the value of cross cultural missions is demonstrating the love of Christ to people in our own back yards. In our case, we get considerable support from non-Christians who witness and participate in our Christian witness to others through medical clinics. One of the best way to reach the 'inoculated' non-Christians in our culture is to engage them in mutual activities, build relationships and shine the light of a Christ-lived life, until they are perhaps, willing to reconsider their own lives in this perspective, through the working/calling of the Holy Spirit.”

How I changed my mind about going

I went to Mexico on my first missions trip when I was 14. I didn’t like it very much. It was a teen mission trip. Everything was very controlled, and I felt like a tourist. In addition, it was a "service" trip, with construction work involved. And I wanted to be interacting more with people. Of course we had good times, but in general I felt useless.

After the trip, we had to fill out a “debriefing” form about our impressions. There was a question about whether or not we saw ourselves serving overseas long-term. I said “No.” I wrote that I saw plenty of needs around me. I could witness to people in my native language and ask them what they needed. In another country, I was completely helpless.

I also felt this way about politics. Why were we always sticking our nose into other countries’ business when the situation in the U.S. was going downhill itself?

A few weeks later, I went on my first trip to Russia. To be honest, I didn’t like that trip very much either. But obviously God did something in me if I’m sitting here 13 years later. It would have made more sense to go to Mexico, which is a lot closer and has an easier language. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s a mystery.

Something kept calling me back to Russia. Certainly there was a growing familiarity about it and a beauty to the camp that attracted us. But something bigger was going on in my heart.

Eventually my heart was broken because I saw how a thirst for God was awakened in people, but then we left. Yet I didn’t think the work was in vain. I prayed for God to send people to help those who were seeking.

In the meantime, I was studying Russian. Gradually, I realized that while I was praying for workers, God said “YOU.” It wasn’t like I considered myself the best person to do the job. I just realized that I could have a part in it.

God answered my prayer by leading me here, but at the same time a lot of the Russian pastors I know now were growing in faith and becoming equipped to lead the churches in St. Petersburg and elsewhere. God sees the whole picture and coordinates all of this.

I don’t feel that I abandoned the people around me in the U.S. In school and college, I always felt that my time was short, and it gave me a sense of urgency to reach people around me. But at a certain point I had to let go and pray that others would take over. People often come in and out of our lives, and we are never sure when they will leave. We must try our best to make each day count.

If it seems that Christians are more subdued in their own countries, it may be because missionaries are not the “super-spiritual” people that they are sometimes perceived to be. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and thinking, "I sure don't look like a missionary." No halo here. There is no magical transformation that happens when you go abroad. If anything your behavior looks worse because you are in completely new surroundings and don't quite know what to do. Even missionaries with mainly evangelical aims have to deal with the unromantic realities of daily life.

Yes, people probably do go abroad with the wrong motives. But I don't think it's as simple as looking for recognition or being charmed by cute orphans. A lot of times it relates to having misguided notions about other cultures, which I will write about in another post.

Your turn

Why do YOU think missionaries seek to go so far away? If you are a missionary, how did you end up where you are? Are there reasons for NOT going, besides there being unsaved people in your own culture?


  1. Liz, I know you will disagree with me about all of this, but I think the problem started not with the missionaries of the last 10 years or so. It's started a few centuries back. Some well-meaning brothers and sisters, who probably wanted to serve the Lord, took a slight, maybe only 1/16th of an inch deviation from what the Lord wanted them to do and today, we are miles away from what what it originally meant to be a missionary. If I understand the biblical aspect of it, a missionary is not someone who has to learn the language or the culture of the people. It can be a good thing, but is it something that is paramount to a missionary work? The question I ask myself from time to time is this, "Why do some churches think that sending someone to some strange land to preach the Gospel is a good thing, but going to a ghetto in NY city is not?"

    It is never a good idea to put a person who can't play violin to play along with an orchestra. It's never a good idea to let a student to teach a class of his or her fellow-students. Yet, we send inexperienced, unqualified people to anywhere. Just because we can.

    Dawson Trotman of the Navigators used to "grill" his own wannabe missionaries by asking them simple questions, like: "How many people did you bring to Christ right here in the US?" "Did you witness about Jesus in the last several weeks here in your own town?"

    If the answer was no, he would not allow them to get involved in missions. I think he knew what he was doing.

    Liz, I support what you are doing, but at the same time, I think a paradigm shift is happening that cannot and should not go unnoticed. There's no need to defend anything, because I believe it's the Lord who is doing it.

    I have known too many Russian preachers who have made thousands of dollars, sucking them out of western mission organizations. Shameless people. Naivete about all of this should be exposed. I think each one of us should ask this questions. Where will I be more effective as a witness for the Lord? Here? There? Or where?

    Honest questions will produce honest answers. God loves honest questions. But he also loves when people HEAR honest answers. Otherwise it's all going to be an empty talk.

    It's not a sin to spend thousands of extra dollars living as a missionary somewhere else. As long as it is not a sin, I think it's not a real problem. But still, we HAVE to question ourselves about our intentions.

  2. Goodness. Vitali - I begin to think you are a missionary from Russia to the US. Little did I realize you were so knowledgeable about missionary work! More than I am, and I work for a church!!

    I am impressed with all of your reasoning, Liz. You mentioned some things I hadn't thought of. For example - Christians being more subdued in their own country. I think that's true! And, not only that, they attract less attention. I bet if I worked where Vitali worked, I'd pay him more attention than the next Christian there. Novelty, perhaps. And if Vitali were, actually, here in the US as a missionary, he would be bolder; he would know that he stood out, and be more aware of his standing. It is a standing that we should all have, all the time, those of us who are baptized. I try to remind people, that we are ALWAYS wearing our baptismal garments. Anyone who knows we view ourselves as Christian may well be watching our every move to see what a Christian is. I expect that in a foreign country I could be more easily aware, of this calling just to BE a witness through everything I do ALL the time.

    Also, Jesus sent his disciples out.... He didn't suggest that they go back to fishing and convert all the fishermen they ran into. Some people are just given that mission - to go out and to share the Faith. Obviously, that wasn't quite my calling, however much I WISH God were telling me to go to Russia! He placed me here, in a church in the USA. Vitali, at least for now, is placed amongst the people, to share his faith with Earl and the others he meets on a daily basis.

  3. I agree with both of you in general. I don’t think anyone is arguing here, we’re just noticing different things.

    Vitali, I agree with you about trends, although I would expand your statement to include the very beginning of missions. Missionaries have always made mistakes, as well as faced undue criticism. But there are, of course, specific trends that can be studied and addressed.

    But, Vitali, other than honesty and questioning our motives, what makes a good missionary? You have commented more on what NOT to do. Of course a missionary should be qualified before he goes. But what makes him qualified? What did it “originally” mean to be a missionary? Can you give some examples?

    How can you measure where you will be more effective for the Lord? You will be more effective where He calls you. I didn’t come to Russia because I had a weak ministry in the U.S. But I’m not really a spiritual giant in Russia either. How can I judge my own effectiveness? We often don’t see the fruit of our labor. I think that God judges where we will be more effective, and leads us accordingly. We are most effective abiding in Him.

    Annie, I agree with your observation about attracting attention, although it was certainly NOT my goal in life! And I love the image of the baptismal garments.


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