I'm a Better Missionary Than You

Somewhere today a missionary (or a million of them) is going to wake up feeling insufficient. They’ll wonder if what they’re doing is good enough, brave enough, or enough sacrifice for the Kingdom and the King. They’ll wonder if what they’re doing actually matters or if there is somewhere else they’re supposed to be and something else they should be doing. Part of the problem is there is always a more impressive missionary out there.

Whether it’s a good thing or not, and it’s not, ministers often rank each other on some sort of imaginary scale. The guy who runs the slides for the music on Sunday mornings feels superior to the guy sweeping the church hallways the Saturday before, but he feels inferior to the worship pastor. The worship pastor in turn feels inferior to the adult pastor, who feels inferior to the administrative pastor, who feels inferior to the speaking pastor. The speaking pastor is almost the pinnacle. But every speaking pastor feels inferior to the other speaking pastors at the churches bigger than their own.

When I walk in to a room of pastors they’re all looking around and sizing each other up. It’s like a Jr. High dance where every girl is trying to figure out where they fit in the ranks of the prettiest. In such places I’m the weird looking guy who clearly doesn’t know how to dress well enough to be speaking in front of a large crowd. This knocks me down a few rungs, and certainly I can tell by initial interactions with people, before they know who I am and what I do, that this is the way I’m percieved. Clearly I am not a dynamic pastor speaking in front of thousands every Sunday morning. On the other hand, I can play the missionary card and see some immediate change of heart. Sometimes it’s like a trump card, the pastor all of sudden feels humbled, like he’s playing junior varsity. And other times it’s the opposite, real ministers are folks with the social skills to survive in their home culture. And it’s true, I’m probably a missionary at least in part because I’m very socially awkward. And then there are always some folks that have no box to put me in and simply move on without acknowledging my presence.

I’m not saying I’m above this behavior, if anything I’m always curious where I fall in these hierarchys. Nonetheless, we are all very aware this behavior is foolish. The Lord isn’t ranking us on awesomeness so he can line us up in heaven and show us who we were better than and who we were inferior to. Hudson Taylor and Spurgeon aren’t benchmarks by which we will someday measure ourselves and find out if we’re among the “elite”. But observing the behavior of ministers, you certainly wouldn’t be able to tell we think otherwise.

In a local church, the greater the percieved influence, the greater the minister.

In the mission field it’s different from the local church. It isn’t how many people you’re speaking in front of, because numbers are much harder to measure than location. Therefore for missions it’s the greater the percieved difficulty of the work, the greater the missionary.

So we, embarrassingly, have a similar hierarchy. The missionary from Dallas to Houston is inferior to the one from New York to the American Indian reservation. Again, we all know this is utter foolishness, but you can tell by our behavior and treatment of each other that we all sort of, nonetheless, believe this.

Then the missionary to Italy is inferior to the one to Serbia. Saying I’m a missionary to China still often times garners immense respect. This is most obvious when you look at missions finances. Western Europe is one of the places in the world most in need of the gospel, but because of percieved ease of life, no one wants to support missionaries to go there. Very few churches have said they’re partnering with France because people don’t get excited about missions efforts there. China increasingly is a comfortable place to live, but because of percieved difficulty, it’s way easier to raise support to go there. I have internet on my phone, I ride an air conditioned subway around town and can afford heat. I can have McDonald’s for breakfast, and as of recently, I can even buy pants at the Gap. But people don’t know this of China, or don’t think it’s relavent enough to overshadow how difficult they percieve it to be.

Therefore if you’re a prospective missionary, China is a little higher up on your list of possible places.

Say you decide to join an organization and move to China. One day you arrive in Beijing and the missionaries remind you that Beijing has international hospitals and Burger King. “Real missionaries are in West China,” they’ll say. So you learn some Chinese and move West only to be asked by other missionaries which of the five most common Tibetan languages you’re studying. Apparently the real missionaries live in Western China just so they can prepare to one day head to Tibet. But be careful, because Lahsa is way too comfortable, and once there, you’ll be convinced the real missionaries live in mud huts on the border of China and Nepal near Mount Everest ministering to a people group which commicates through a complex language of only six noises—two of which are grunts. Their only currency is unwrapped Twinkies from the seventies smuggled through India and your foreign money is no good here so you’ll need to herd cattle for a few years before you aquire enough Twinkies to buy your hand-made tent, wool blankets, and food. This of course, all will happen in your night-time-sleeping hours because during the day you’re doing ministry. No foreigner has ever lived there more than two weeks without being martyred by way of cannibalization. But it’s worth it, because now, you are a “real missionary”.

There is always a tougher missionary. Always.

Interestingly enough this doesn’t stop people from trying to be the toughest. And for most, there is a minimum threshold which they feel they need to cross before they’re worth something in the Kingdom of God.

“We’re miserable here,” I told a friend after a few months of living in a place which turned out to be much harder than I anticipated, “how are you guys doing it? Do you or your wife have any real community? How is she handling it?” This friend looked at me like I was missing the whole point.

“A missionary is supposed to suffer,” he said, “are you reading your Bible enough?”

Well. Good luck with that.

I’m not saying we should all go to comfortable places, I’m just saying if your goal is to suffer I can introduce you to a place with less foreign influence. I can find you a harder language to learn with pictographic writing where no one has ever even attempted a Bible translation. I can find you an even more muslim nation, or at least a neighborhood with more strict muslim customs. I can find you a place with food so awful you won’t eat for a month just to make yourself hungry enough to be able to get down (and keep down) the maggots and tree-grubs.

Somehow we forget that we don’t earn more in God’s Kingdom by way of suffering. It’s true some of us will be called to tough places where the primary food source is turtle toes, and we hate turtle toes—not to mention we find the harvesting process painfully monotonous. But most of us will go places and survive in places where the Lord causes something about the local culture to revive our spirits and encourage us. He will often give us a unique love for the place, even if we hate living there. We are not however, better missionaries the more miserable we are.

Sometimes I wonder how many of us are actually in the field because we’re called to be, or because we’re really trying to work off some of our old High School sins, and we think two more years in that awful place might be enough to earn our salvation. Hopefully this isn’t true, but it sure seems like a good number of us are merit driven individuals completely rejecting the gospel truths we make a living of proclaiming.

If Christ really is sufficient, and really doesn’t need us, then why do we rank each other in our heads like seventh graders at a cheerleading competition? I think it’s because so many missionaries aren’t where we are because of calling, but because of a profound sense of insufficiency. This isn’t to say God can’t use our insecurities for His glory. Of course He can. It is to say, spewing our insecurities all over one another every time we gather together is probably not building the Church.

Likewise, imagining ourselves in our heads as being people worthy of great honor because of the sacrifices we perceive ourselves having made is not doing us much good. Storing up pride for ourselves in our heads is not the same thing as storing up treasure for ourselves in heaven.

The Lord calls whom he calls to go the places he calls them, and we’re not greater because we stand in front of a church of more people. We’re not greater because we planted more churches in more cities in India than any other foreigner since Thomas. We’re not worthy because we don’t buy a heater for our cement house in Siberia. We’re not worthy because our language is better than anyone else on our team. We’re not worth something because we went further than anyone else dared go before us.

We’re of worth because of the blood Jesus poured out for us in the profound sacrifice of the cross. We cannot die on the mission field for our own salvation. Jesus died already for us and anything more we do in ministry or the mission field ought to be out of an overflow of a love for Him. Not because we believe it makes us more awesome. Not because we want to be the prettiest cheerleader. I wish I didn’t have to preach the gospel to gospel preachers, but the truth is that we forget it as easy as those around us. The problem is, they will never understand the gospel if we don’t live it. And if we’re in the field out of a profound sense of self-salvation-by-way-of-suffering, our disciples will never see Jesus.

Christ, and Him crucified. That’s all that really matters. Your spider-ridden mud hut does not.