Everyday Missions: How Ordinary People Can Change the World

Written by Leroy Barber Reviewed By Scott Zeller

Youth in our age are at great risk of living listless and wandering lives. Today's norm seems to be either a future of living with their parents for years after they could be pursuing a healthy independency or else adrift in a job market that does not seem to offer the fulfillment they desire even if it does provide the finances. Today's youth need a vision of using their life for more.

In Everyday Mission, Leroy Barber sets out to provide just that.

Barber shares many inspiring stories. For example, Juan and Marcheeta in Argentina used their home as a community center in an impoverished neighborhood (pp. 25-28); Tom and Mary voluntarily served for a year in an inner city context (pp. 37-39); Rob helped his employees find significance in their janitorial workplace (pp. 78-80); and Clay lived a homeless life for a weekend (pp. 100-102). And Barber weaves his own engaging story throughout. These lives devoted to serving others are encouraging and uplifting. They frame a dynamic picture of the type of person that today's youth could aspire to be-a type of humble and loving person actively working for the good of those around them. Indeed, much of Everyday Missions points to the kind of “ordinary radicals” Shane Claiborne called for in his well-known and similar 2006 publication, The Irresistible Revolution. Adding to helpful personal anecdotes, Barber also presents his vision through the lens of biblical characters like Moses, David, and Esther.

Distilling the story-telling into the thesis, Barber claims that today's youth have “a desperation to be involved in something that connects us to God” (p. 12) and the reason for that desperation is that without God we are ordinary and lack significance, which can lead to breakdown (p. 34). So to avoid breakdown we are encouraged to experience God because, “We inhale God, and we exhale significance” (p. 13). Experiencing God happens when we do something: “This is the call-the moment when you realize God has chosen you for some work” (p. 47).

Essentially, in statement and in story, Everyday Missions champions the solution for the mundane life as finding personal significance by connecting with God through engaging in a variety of activities that are abnormal to twenty-first-century suburban Westerners.

Certainly this is a noble call, and one that is written in way that will be palatable to many young people-perhaps particularly useful for new believers or seekers who could be more attracted to the mission of Christianity as an entry point to discipleship rather than a salvation experience.

And yet on that point we need to linger. Shouldn't we consider it to be something other than distinctly Christian mission if proclaiming charity fails to emphasize Jesus Christ? Should Christians really invite someone to participate in good works and point to those actions as the provider of our lifelong desire for significance? Do we risk a hamstrung disciple if we advocate only to the implications of the gospel without emphasizing its core components?

The lives Barber shared about reminded me of a good friend I work with. Helping with our organization to deliver tutoring to slum children, Adiyat (not his real name) is a favorite volunteer among the staff and kids. His devotion exhibits a testimony of bucking the culture of discrimination that keeps many of his peers from serving the “least of these” among them. This kind of work is a good example of what Everyday Missions envisions as normative for Christian witness.

However, my friend Adiyat is a Sikh, a follower of the Ten Gurus (teachers). For a Sikh, the ultimate aim is to discipline one's thoughts and actions so that lust, anger, greed, materialism, and ego are dispelled and the soul is united with the One Immortal Being.

My fear is that, were Adiyat to read Everyday Missions, he would find much that confirmed the worthiness of his daily life and little that entered his worldview and pointed him towards the Savior.

The pursuits Barber points to as affording an extraordinary life are drawn exclusively from the realm of social justice, such as working for racial reconciliation (ch. 8) or volunteering for secular organizations like Teach For America and Americorps-both of these organizations unfortunately described as those which in themselves inspire “young people by pointing them to the extraordinary purposes God has for them” (p. 18). Throughout the book the place of the local church in the world is also somewhat diminished (ignored?), and the Great Commission of Matt 28 goes unmentioned. Much more room is given to introducing a quote from Wikipedia (p. 83) than to explaining the gospel that both saves from sin and calls believers to journey together on mission.

Since JFK formed the Peace Corps in 1961 (and surely long before that) investment by youth in the social issues of our time has been a matter of public discussion. Our youth need to know what is it that is so unique about Christian missions. What sets a Christian aid worker apart from a Sikh aid worker? Does Christian mission involve only social action, or does it also contain a message or truth to be proclaimed? Unfortunately, these questions and others remain unanswered in Everyday Missions.

The limited scope of Barber's presentation of mission practice and absent articulation of gospel-motivations leave me concerned the book could aid and abet a view of Christian missions that makes social justice an end in itself.

We need resources that will call the Adiyats to become the Pauls, not books that will make him feel comfortable doing what he is doing without Christ. We need resources that call youth to Christian mission that embraces full participation in the apostolic ambition for the nations to worship and serve Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We need resources that show that this work is accomplished through self-denying workers who labor not for their own significance, but for the joy set before them in eternity.

By themselves, ordinary people can't change the world, but if they are changed by the grace found in Jesus, they can participate in spreading the kingdom of the God whose everyday mission is making all things new.

Scott Zeller

Scott Zeller
South Asia

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