In many places missionaries fit into the same social category as politicians and car mechanics. They’re received, whether at customs or the local coiffeur, with suspicion. Their words are rarely believed. That’s because more and more kingdom ambassadors are going into areas that are increasingly nationalistic or hostile to the gospel. Even when the locals aren’t opposed to Christianity per se, they may simply distrust foreigners.
The fact is, missionaries face an uphill climb for relational credibility. They can’t always control perception, but they can control reality. And the reality is that missionaries must have identity integrity.
This is especially significant because we preach a message that depends on credibility. The gospel summons trust. So if missionaries forfeit personal or occupational integrity, they’ve essentially forfeited the ability to do their job. After all, if someone doesn’t believe you, they’ll never believe what you have to say.
I distinctly remember the first time I met my landlord in Central Asia. His first question was, “So, you work for the CIA?” Taken aback, I replied in the negative while chuckling uncomfortably.
But it would be naïve to suppose he blindly accepted my answer. It didn’t take long to realize that he had verbalized an assumption many of my neighbors shared. I had come to infiltrate their community and subvert their government. They had me pegged from day one.
As missionaries go abroad—whether to a closed Muslim country or even a secular nation tightening borders—they’re often forced to use nontraditional ways of obtaining entry and securing residency. Some go as tourists. Others as students or teachers. Many operate a nongovernmental organization (NGO) or some other business. But few obtain religious worker visas.
Missionaries must have identity integrity.
Herein lies the struggle—one that plays out first in the innermost parts of a missionary’s psyche. It’s the stress of personal identity. And I was keenly aware of it every day of my seven years overseas.
Who am I? I know I’m not a CIA agent. But what do I say when my neighbor, or the police, asks if I’m a missionary?
I’ve dealt with that question on many occasions. And I’ve witnessed my co-laborers respond in various ways. They said they were authors, educators, developers, consultants, artists, and designers—just to name a few. In some cases, they actually were. But in others, they most certainly were not.
Sadly, some missionaries don’t do any of the work they say they do. Or they do it so infrequently—or consistently operate their business in the red—that no one could ever hope to live on their salary, much less support a family. So whenever the question comes, “Where do you get your money?” they have no comfortable or forthright response. Unless, of course, they claim to be independently wealthy.
Before you jump all over these missionaries, try on their shoes. Many weren’t inspired to leave family or the comforts of home by the prospect of teaching double negatives in English. They didn’t pay much attention to balance sheets in business class freshman year, and they certainly have no interest in filling them out now. No, they gave up everything to take the gospel to the nations. They’re even willing to risk their lives for it. So the prospect of “wasting time” doing another job just to gain access can seem like it gets in the way of the main thing.
So we strategize for ways to get by, then call it a platform. We work hard to gain access to a place, but we don’t actually work hard vocationally once we get there. We pack up and move our family halfway around the world, then tell our neighbors we’re not going to start working for a couple years until we’ve learned the language.
I know, because that’s what I did.
But most grievous to me is that I fear our foreign neighbors can see right through this façade. Every other breadwinner in the community has a long work week while I seemingly do nothing. What sinister work must I be plotting each day behind my computer and within the confines of my apartment? I mean, wouldn’t you be asking those same questions if a Saudi man brought his family to your neighborhood but didn’t seem to work or have a source of income? And if you ever dared ask, what if he stuttered about some nebulous plan for the possibility of future employment?
Missionaries must concern themselves first with their own occupational incongruity, which is of foremost concern to the family next door.
So it is for many missionaries. They face the day-in-day-out dilemma of governmental scrutiny. But far more significant is the perception of the local community. It matters little what a pencil-pushing bureaucrat in the foreign office thinks. Missionaries must concern themselves first with their own occupational incongruity, which is of foremost concern to the family next door.
Trust the Messenger
To be clear, I’m not suggesting these missionaries are liars. In fact, I think in most cases they’re saying factual things. I’m also not opposed to the use of platforms. Provided they’re legitimate, platforms have wonderful potential. But that’s the issue. Are platforms—and the way we explain ourselves—ultimately credible? Or are missionaries undermining the message they proclaim by being unbelievable themselves?
I think we can and should be sending missionaries to hard places. But I also believe those missionaries must be who they say they are and do what they say they do—even if it’s not all they’re being and doing. In many cases, this will mean a sacrifice in hours given to ministry or the mission agency. It’ll mean being willing to do the obnoxious and mundane for the sake of building trusting relationships and a credible witness. It’ll mean they can’t always be doing the “main thing.”
Far too often we in the missionary community have focused on creating access without building credibility. We’ve been doing business without personal or organizational integrity. And as the buzz swirls in the missionary community around the trending model of business as mission—which I do believe presents limitless possibilities—we must acknowledge that it’ll only work if those involved actually do their business and do it well.
Such is the cost of modern missions. It may not mean persecution or martyrdom, even in the most dangerous locations. Instead, it may mean endless hours of humdrum labor to the glory of God. This is the non-negotiable price of personal integrity in missions. We must recognize that people will only trust our message if they can trust its messenger.
- May Christians in ‘Closed’ Countries Stay Undercover? (Elliot Clark)
- 5 Ways to Be Missional in Your Move (Elliot Clark)
- A Revolutionary Approach to Missions (Elliot Clark)