When the great missionary Adoniram Judson wrote to his future father-in-law to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he did not mince words.
“I have now to ask whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world? Whether you can consent to her departure to a heathen land, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life? Whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean . . . to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death?”
Judson knew it was unlikely that his future wife would ever see her father again. The call to missions meant the sacrifice of hearth and home—not only earthly comforts, but also significant relationships.
In contrast, when I bought a one-way plane ticket to Romania nearly 20 years ago to enroll as a student at an evangelical university and to serve churches in the surrounding villages, I knew I’d be home for Christmas. I may have learned to go without some favorite foods and modern amenities—like chips and salsa or indoor plumbing in the house I lived in on the weekends—but I never faced deprivation or degradation. I was largely disconnected from the news cycle in the United States, but I could still email friends and family. I even bought a cellphone so I could keep in touch.
Five years later, when I left Romania with my wife and our first son, I was already hearing about a new site called Skype that would make it easier to stay in touch with the family and friends we were leaving behind. A missionary friend of mine told me in 2005 that we were likely the last generation of missionaries to do ministry for months and years without the capability of seeing family and friends back home via video.
Comfort and Connection on the Mission Field
Rachel Kleppen, a missionary in Taiwan, believes some of these technological advances may be making the missionary task harder, not easier.
Many people may hear the word “missionary” and think of the “burning call to some ‘dangerous’ or ‘poverty-stricken’ nation,” of someone saying “goodbye to the comforts of home and family.” Visiting her future husband in Taiwan, however, she got a different picture:
“He studied Mandarin in cafes by day and went to the base’s coffee bar a few nights a week to teach English and the Bible to locals. He lived in a modern apartment with air conditioning, Wi-Fi, and satellite TV and most of his furnishings came from the IKEA a few Taipei Metro stops away. Even though he lived thousands of miles from home in North Dakota, he could still watch Vikings football games online and call his family anytime he wanted to.”
Kleppen believes there’s both an upside and downside to our ability to maintain the comforts and connection of “home.” The upside is the “unprecedented ability to stay connected” with loved ones. The downside is the prolonged culture shock that results when the missionary can too easily escape into a Facebook feed or the Netflix queue. Because laptops and smartphones make it easy to maintain connections at home, the harder work of “incarnation”—where you learn another language, culture, and people—takes more time. The wound of “leaving home” takes longer to heal.
In other words, continued comfort and connection can become a distraction that makes cultural acclimation more difficult. Kleppen writes:
Like all Christians, missionaries can feel weak, homesick, and discouraged. In these low moments, it’s not uncommon to turn to binge-watching television shows or religiously following our sports team from afar.
Kleppen believes technology may hinder the missionary’s ability to get over the initial culture shock and become part of the community. Speaking from her experience, she discovered she needed her personal struggles to become catalysts for growth in ministry, not excuses for escape into familiar habits.
My husband and I locked our TV away in a closet for a season so that we could have more meaningful connections with each other and our houseguests. I stopped bringing my cellphone out in public so that I could talk with other moms at the playground rather than scroll through my Twitter feed. As I limited my connections back home, I found my connections in Taiwan began to grow. The pain of culture shock eventually eased and I found my less-frequent interactions with home were more life-giving rather than necessary for survival.
Sacrificing Inspiration and Adventure?
The nature of mission work continues to change, and technology can both help and hinder the missionary in his or her task. But this conversation raises additional questions for me.
What if we are the last generation of missionaries to have living memory of missions before Skype and FaceTime? Did missionaries ask similar questions when calling internationally via phone became available?
Does the ability to hold on to comfort and connection minimize the courage associated with the missionary calling?
Are we in danger of losing the danger of mission work, or of losing a sense of the sacrifice required?
Will missionary stories continue to inspire and challenge us if our connection and comforts remain intact?
You might think that new technologies would make it easier for more people to enlist. But we don’t see a surge of missionary applications right now, which raises the question: What if comfort and connection have the opposite effect, making people less likely to do cross-cultural missions because the inspiration derived from the adventure and sacrifice has been reduced?
These are questions I wonder about as we look to the future of missions in an increasingly interconnected world.