Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.
– Matthew 28:19-20, emphasis added
I continue to wrestle with the ideas behind missions and missionaries. (They both seem too task focused). This wrestling match is particularly relevant as I navigate preparing for, interviewing for, and deciding on career fields.
The discussion points that ensue are drawn from information and arguments put forth by Craig Greenfield, author of Subversive Jesus, and the dissertation of Bill Westfall, D.Min. titled Message, Mode, and Milieu: Recalling an ancient approach to Christian discipleship sufficient for the Western-consumerist context of the American college student. Both were, or are currently, what some might describe as ‘full-time’ missionaries.
Craig Greenfield pens the sarcastic role reversal below to shed some light on our false notions of missions as trips:
“Imagine if I wrote this letter to my local dentist.
‘Dear Sir [/Ma’am], I’d like to come and be a dentist for 2 weeks. I’ve been meeting once a month with a small group of others who also want to be short-term dentists, and we have our t-shirts printed and we’re ready to come.
PS. Can you drive us around, translate for us, and help take cool photos for our Facebook pages?'”
– Craig Greenfield, Stop Calling It Short Term Missions
While his point made me laugh, my point is not to say short-term missions (STMs) trips are a joke, but rather to invite you to think about their potential.
Short-term missions trips (which we will redefine later) are a useful component in discipleship, but are not themselves how we create the world to come.
“Many short-term missions programs are not part of a comprehensive, holistic discipleship process, many participants do not experience lasting behavioral transformation in their lives. Once the experience is over, participants slowly fall back into old habits as they lose their desire to make changes in their daily routines. It is important to establish ongoing relationships with mentors and connectivity with a community…
…Effective learning happens within the context of a practicing community.”
– Dr. Westfall
Experiences during STMs have value, but STMs, at present, are misleading because they carry the false impression that they are somehow a truncated version of long-term missions. They are not.
What’s more, our missions rhetoric is inconsistent with the life of Jesus. The very definition of the word is problematic:
mission \ mis·sion \ˈmi-shən\ noun
a task or job that someone is given to do
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Tasks and jobs have end dates, you can complete a task and a job.
So, what is our task? Our job?
And, when is the mission over? What does a completed mission look like?
These questions stem from our incomplete portrayal of Jesus’ life and even carry into how we discuss long-term missions, those of ‘full-time’ Christian ministries or missionaries.
Where in Scripture does it say you can be a ‘part-time’ follower of Jesus? Exactly!
Thus, there is no entering or leaving ‘full-time’ ministry. If you claim to be in Him you must walk as Jesus walked. Period. Which continues, we are all FULL-TIME Kingdom workers. It was your call from day one.
Now, we all have different skill sets. We all have unique experiences and training. We are diverse by design. Yet, we are ALL called to have the SAME eyes to see and ears to hear.
The fact that you can skillfully build a car, or seamlessly tailor a suit, or elegantly cut a hanger steak, or gracefully preach a sermon, or carefully bandage a wound, or whatever your skill and gifting coalesce as, means little if they are not oriented toward the refugee, the orphan, and the widow… your neighbors.
We are blessed to be a blessing to all nations.
It is my belief that how well you perform your craft is not what glorifies God the most. God is best put on display, glorified, hallowed, honored, and set apart in our culture by the means with which you carry out your craft.
Let’s redefine missions (short- and long-term) and place them in context of the larger narrative.
Renaming STMs trips, like Craig Greenfield suggests, will help us understand we are not going as consumers. I mean that in a very literal as well as abstract sense. Your goal is not to go into slums and impoverished remote villages to extract the already limited resources like food and water. Neither is your goal to go and extract affirmations or kudos for your good deeds. On the contrary, the folks you think you are going to serve have wisdom to share.
What if STMs trips became a time for “vision or exposure”, in which, as Craig states, our hearts are finally able to mourn because “what the eye has not seen the heart cannot grieve over.”
Or, what if STMs trips became a time for “exchanging learning”, in which, people come as learners rather than Western saviors with solutions. We exchange our skill sets, but we are also willing to let God deconstruct our theology through engaging society’s most vulnerable populations.
Or, what if STMs trips became a time for “discernment”, in which,
“we discern(ed) our [career] more deeply on the margins…
…To pursue any [career] field without the perspective of the world’s poor [, where God’s heart and good news is centered] is folly. How can we be a banker for God, if we don’t know how the financial services industry affects the poor? How can we be an architect or planner for God, if we don’t know how the design of cities affects the houseless? How can we be a teacher, if we don’t bring the reality of the world’s poorest to our students?”
– Craig Greenfield, Stop Calling It Short Term Missions
Exposure, learning, and discernment have important roles to play in transforming hearts. Their roles fit within a bigger context… discipleship.
In order to live out Jesus’ final positive commandment (the Text at the top of this post) we might need to understand what disciplining is all about, or how one “makes” disciples, or even where we should look for examples of disciple making.
You need not look any further than Scripture to find examples of discipleship. In reverse chronology, Jesus provides an excellent example, a discussion about Moses and Joshua sheds light, and differentiating the character of Abraham and Lot provide further foundation.
What does that, discipleship, look like practically?
As alluded to in previous posts (Here and Here), our Scriptural examples of discipleship are rooted in deep relationship with others. It is only through those daily relationships that positive and lasting influence occurs.
Discipleship is about modeling how to live out heaven on earth.
Relationship is critical to bringing shalom into chaos.
Relationship leads to discipleship.
Discipleship teaches observance of God’s story. God’s story involves the surrender of comfort. God’s story involves stopping in your tracks and opening your home to strangers. God’s story involves being a refuge from the wind and shelter from the storm.
Living out God’s story is not a task, it involves an unwavering commitment to relationships and doing life together… with your neighbors.
Is discipleship the same as going on mission or the work of missionaries?
There are missionaries who endlessly support raise so that they can be on mission for decades in countries that do not allow non-citizens to work for pay. I struggle to understand why someone who thinks they were “called into the mission field” as a ‘full-time’ missionary does not take whatever steps necessary to become a citizen/resident of that city or country, and work alongside the local people. Where is the unwavering commitment to do life together?
Now, was Jesus’ final positive commandment to go on mission and become a missionary, or was it to make disciples of all nations?