Last Friday in our leaders huddle, our team leader Mark Burgess said something in passing that I’ve been giving thought to. He mentioned how a lot of people from outside, such as visitors or people who are friends of ours on Facebook think what we’re doing down here is awesome.
This encouraged me, and not just because it’s nice to hear people say things to confirm what I already think. Rather because I was getting discouraged at what I have sometimes struggled with thinking was a lot of investment into people’s lives and very little fruit in return.
Sometimes, even in foreign mission, the grass can be green on the other side of the fence. Through comparing yourself to what others are doing, you can think of yourself as a failure and that others are more successful because what they’re doing is sexier than what you’re doing.
However, sometimes the people who seem like a success are actually not, and the people who don’t seem like they’re productive, are doing far more valuable things for eternity. [Check out the Fire On Your Head Podcast Episode "Productive or Just Busy?"]
When Mission Is the “In” Thing To Do
I was fortunate enough to attend FIRE School of Ministry, which at the time I was a student had such a strong mission focus, that it seemed everybody who graduated wanted to be a missionary or a pastor. I remember during my second semester, we had a missions emphasis week, and there was an altar call inviting people to come forward who were called to missions, and I remember at least two thirds of the student body went forward. I was not in that group. I remember feeling the odd one out and that I would get judged by others (nobody said anything, but I merely felt in the minority). This might seem odd now, considering nearly 11 years later I write this from the mission field itself, while many of those who I felt inferior to when they went up forward to get hands laid on them, have never gone on any long term missions — at least not yet.
I don’t make that remark as a snide way of judging people who are passionate for Jesus in the midst of an altar call or missions conference but don’t ever go on the field, because, well, I never wanted to go but yet God called me and I felt I had no choice but to obey or life would suck for me.
When I was in school, the ‘in’ place to go on a short term mission or an internship was with the team of graduates and third year students based in Holland in the early 2000s. The people who were ploughing and pioneering a new work there would come back to the USA (where I attended Bible school) and share testimonies of seeing entire auditoriums of teenagers repenting and giving their lives to Jesus en mass.
I remember the different thoughts and perceptions I had as a student sitting back and hearing all that was going on over there at the time, and I now I laugh
a bit quite a lot to myself. I imagine my thoughts were a lot like the thoughts of other “new” missionaries I hear from and of whom I read newsletters before they head on the mission field for the first time: that we’re something special and the mission field needs us. Especially if you’ve been fed a steady diet of how we’re a “special last days generation” and “called for such a time as this.” The harvest is ripe and the labourers are few, so yes, the field does “need us”. But I am referring to the arrogant attitude that we’ve got something so special that everybody else doesn’t have and we ourselves are going to start a revival that changes the nation. The attitude that some who’ve already been on the field for years already, faithfully serving and building trust and relationship and understanding how the culture works, are failures until WE come and join them and give their ministry our badly-needed contribution.
I co-ordinated with Gregg Montella, who was the leader and founder of the FIRE Holland base there at the time. We planned that when I finished Bible college I’d come over for a 3-6 month internship. Over 50 other interns had gone through in a period of 2 years, and in a sense I always felt like I jumped on board when it wasn’t in vogue anymore. Through lots of circumstances, the work changed and many of the people I interned with moved back to the USA and I felt the Lord lead me to move to Rotterdam, another Dutch city, and work closely with a national who also had attended FIRE.
I would love to say that it was awesome, but in some ways it was very hard to be almost alone after a really chic ministry ended and transitioned into something else. It was hard to be in the shadow of something that was awesome.
Pioneering Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
I also learned a lot of lessons during that season of my life and one of them is that pioneering something is difficult. Everybody loves to jump on board once something is established and is producing fruit, which you could say, is exactly what I did the first time I went to The Netherlands. I joined something as it was ending, and now I was a part of something else that was not in vogue yet or the in thing to be a part of which eventually grew and became very successful in a way I can take absolutely no credit for, since it largely happened after I left and moved to Peru.
I remember when I came home from my 5 month internship in the Netherlands in 2005 and had a sit down with my pastor. He listened to me for maybe an hour while I explained my experience and shared my disappointments and frustrations. I remember he didn’t say much other than asking me clarifying questions. When I finished he gently but bluntly asked me if the Dutch find graduates from my Bible school or missionaries/interns to be a “flash in the pan”. I was stunned and a bit offended, but as I processed it I realized that after sharing with him my experience, I had revealed my own lack of long term vision and naive expectations I had before going. I’ve since learned about myself that millennials like me — or at least twenty-somethings my age — we may expect results too quick and not be as prepared for the long suffering and patience that might be required to build a ministry and see revival take place in any community.
What Nobody Prepares You For
As great as my education in Bible school was, nobody really prepared me for how hard some things would be. Nobody warned me that things could take years. Nobody warned me that sometimes you pour yourself into individuals who you are called to disciple, and they backslide or fall into major obvious sin and no longer make a good poster child for your cause to your supporters back home. This is obvious, but you think it won’t happen.
Sometimes, things don’t go as glamourously as you had hoped. Sometimes you begin projects or outreaches that you know the Lord has spoken to you to start, but you have to give up on after 6 months because of a lack of finances or commitment from volunteers. Or sometimes you start things the Lord has not called you to start.
Been there done that, bought the T-shirt.
Sometimes, support dries up and you need to find creative ways of “tentmaking” on the field. The next year after my internship, when I became a missionary full time, I spent many of the days during my first four months helping my leader/boss lay wood floors. How do I explain that one to my friends back home who want to know why I went to Holland and how I’m serving there?
Sometimes you have a fight with another believer (nowadays, this only need be on social media) and they spread false rumours about you back home. Sometimes the people whom you thought were sold-out-Jesus-loving-sin-haters on the foreign mission field are the most jacked-up ego maniacs with daddy issues that you’ve ever met and once you met them or worked with them, you wondered how any mission agency or denomination ever credentialed them. I’m not speaking form experience, of course, but I’ve met other people here and in Europe and wondered how they hoodwinked people into supporting them when they have serious issues and need some
Nobody’s Perfect, Even Those Who Pretend They Are
I just thought that everything is more “anointed” on the mission field and that missionaries walk in some kind of double portion anointing, but I’ve repeatedly learned that that’s far from the truth.
It’s very easy to assume that because you’re only hearing all the awesome testimonies of God doing wonderful things in peoples’ ministries, it becomes easy to assume nothing difficult or bad ever happens. Then, we’re surprised when people come off the mission field and get divorced or have an affair. We are surprised when people’s lives fall apart because somehow in the facade and well-written newsletters and Facebook posts, they never found a place to be themselves and have someone to admit to that they had struggles in their lives and were not perfect after all. As someone recently wrote to me, missionaries can have the largest support networks for money, but be the loneliest people when it comes to having people to share their “junk” with.
In fairness, I’ve seldom felt lonely like that in my own time abroad. In fact, the Fire On Your Head Podcast started as a result of a nightly accountability skype call with my friend Dan who was a missionary in a city a few hours away from where I lived.
There seems to be a point in time, maybe months, maybe years, where life abroad — especially if you’re living in a foreign culture — gets frustrating and you ask yourself “why did I come here”? I didn’t feel like I was truly finally doing what I came to Peru to do until I’d already been here over three years. Other missionaries have told me they felt the same during a similar time frame after arriving. On the road to get to that point, without vision or confirmation from the Lord that you’re where you’re supposed to be, I suppose it’d be harder to hang on.
I never judge when I see other people spend a short time on the field, but deep down in my heart when I see people come for just a year or so, I can’t help but ask deep in my heart what a person produced in such a short amount of time. I know I was learning the culture and language and had some speaking engagements and that would’ve have been it if I returned home after that short of a time. Yet, I hear younger twenty somethings tell me all the time “oh, I’d love to go on missions long – term, like a year or so.” That’s more like an internship than “long” term mission, in my opinion.
This past March marked my 4 year anniversary of living in Peru and I only now think I can predict and understand behaviour in the locals. I only recently have felt like I’m “home”. I only now feel like I’m truly producing fruit and seeing disciples made. It doesn’t happen over night.
To get back to the comment I made at the beginning about our huddle; I feel again like I’m a part of something missional, which itself is kinda “trendy” right now and makes me wonder if people truly understand that living in community is not fun and games all the time but is hard work. The fruit and the excitement has come with a lot of sacrifice, disappointment, frustration and hard work.
Can you stick with what you’re called to when it’s not going to be exciting all the time?
If you can, then I think you’re off to a good start and can survive the long haul.