The Consequences of Making Missions Sexy by Moriah Rose Hall

Imagine this: you walk into a local coffee shop. This coffee shop has a partnership a missions organization, so on every wall, photographs are plastered of children. African children. Their faces, dirty and gaunt, stare at you expectedly. They silently plead for help, for love, for you. Captions accompanying the pictures read, “Their hearts are crying out for someone to bring them hope. That someone can be you” and “You were made for something great: now is your time.” As your eyes scan these heart-wrenching pictures and read these convicting words, something stirs within you. There is an urge to go, to make a difference, to really make your life count for something. Perhaps you had never considered missions before, but after this experience in the coffee shop, you think, “You know what? I really feel a burden for those African children. I feel called to do something about their plight. I could make an impact and change lives by going.”

This experience might be familiar to many of you. It is normal to hear language used about missions that is infused with passion and zeal. It is not uncommon to see saddening pictures of needy people on TV commercials, missions brochures, and posters. It is expected that those going to be missionaries will truly make a difference. However, why does our culture paint such an alluring image of missions work? Is how we speak of missions work accurate? Does the language we use about missions work affect the mental framework we construct and likewise impact our participation in it?

This article will briefly examine our culture’s idea of missions, common jargon associated with missions work, and how this language influences our idea of and actions associated to missions work.

Look around America, and you will see a culture that is obsessed with love. We savor sappy love letters, cheesy romantic flicks, and sentimental songs. There is something so romantic and exciting about expressing one’s heart and passion. The communicated emotions of the heart are mysterious, deep, and seductive. Likewise, in our Christian culture, we focus on the emotions of a person in relation to missions work. We stress the importance of feelings and desires. We encourage people to “listen to their hearts” and see if there is some stirring to be a missionary. It seems as though in an effort to distance ourselves from Pharisaical, judgmental Christians, we accept at face value the sentiments, whims, and passions of everyone. We refrain from challenging one’s emotions, for fear of being labeled judgmental and critical for not focusing on the heart.

Our surrounding Christian bubble often sees missions as an outlet for passion and an opportunity to do something “great.” We idolize missions work, making it sexy to be controlled by one’s emotions and obey the movements of one’s affections. Missions is displayed as a chance to be heroic and be involved with a noble task. Our Christian culture presents missions work as a glorified and exciting profession.

The way the American evangelical culture portrays missions affects how we speak of it. Ponder with me for a minute the language that people often use when speaking of missions. “I’ve always had a heart for Africa,” and “I have a passion for the lost.” These phrases I have heard time and time over, often being guilty of using them myself. However, we do not question the statements like these. Rather, we celebrate those who are riding vicariously on the fleeting feelings of the heart. We praise those who have any sort of inclination to do missions anywhere, without ever stopping to consider their motivation for doing so.

How correct is this language that we use concerning missions work? Can you feel so many enormous and compassionate emotions for the lost in Brazil, when you care not for lost in Spokane? Will you be magically transformed into a confident evangelist once your foot descends in Africa, if you do not live as one now? It is easy to be passionate about mission trips and foreign cultures, but why is harder to be passionate about journeying into secular job environments and becoming a missionary there?

This language we often use regarding missions work is not correct. It infers a false dichotomy between the future and the present. This language portrays the future as some nebulous although enticing entity which frequently leads to the neglect of the present. When we speak of missions in this way, we subconsciously are placing immense expectations upon ourselves for what we will accomplish in the future. We get stuck in a perpetual cycle of dreaming of possibilities and plans without realizing the significance and value of the “now.” C.S. Lewis spoke to this natural human tendency in his book “Screwtape Letters.” Speaking from the perspective of a devil, Wormwood states “We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.[1]” What is the answer to this affair with the unfamiliar whilst depreciating that which is closest to you?

Take steps towards your goals. Fight to achieve your objectives. If you want to work with Koreans and can easily ramble on about how passionately you feel for them, then start learning their language. Read books about the place you are interested in. Start praying for them regularly. If you are planning on being greatly involved with a local church in a third-world country, start pouring yourself into a church where you are now. If you are expecting to be an evangelist in Brazil, start being one here in Spokane. If you love the idea of being a light amongst darkness, then get a job at a fast food place and begin witnessing. Do not proclaim your great masterpiece vision if you are not taking the time and energy to paint the brushstrokes of it daily.

Perhaps our language about missions work has been heavily influenced by our culture’s sexy view of it. Maybe we have been so dominated by our environment’s infatuation with feelings that we have not thought through the logical implications of our favorite missions jargon. Not only does our culture’s alluring portrait of missions affect our language about it, our language dictates our thoughts.

Because of how we speak of missions, it is only natural that our language directs our mindset and actions regarding it. Likewise, our perspective of missions work affects our motivation for participating in it. Think of a knight in a storybook. He sees the mission of slaying a dragon and rescuing a damsel as daring, gallant, and thrilling. He wants to be seen as a hero. He wants to save the distressed damsel. His love for the maiden motivates him to face the daunting task. Because this knight views this assignment as a valiant and worthy cause, he is motivated to accept it in hopes of it satisfying his longing to be noble and adventurous.

In the same way, missions is viewed much like a heroic and heartfelt task. Souls must be saved, dark forces must be destroyed, and peace must be obtained. Although a seemingly overwhelming job, there is a sense of exhilaration and adventure when one commits to serve as a missionary. Since many have this mental construction of missions work, their motivation to partake in it is greatly affected.

There are many common motivations to do missions work that swirl around our current Christian culture. One is a desire to see the lost come to Christ. A second one is material success, whether that comes in the form of increased education, improved healthcare, or clean water. Do not these all seem like worthy motivations for being a missionary? Is not it good to be driven by a desire to see the lost come to Christ? Should not missionary’s driving incentive not only be the spiritual, but also the physical betterment of others?

I think that these popular motivations for participating in missions work are compelling, but not right. If one’s ultimate goal is the salvation of others, what if they never see anyone come to Christ? What if one spends thirty or forty years of their life seeking to improve the living situations of those in Indian slums, but all their plans and methods do not work? If we set our hopes expectantly upon a desired result, but see not that result, then we will view ourselves as failures to be the kind of missionary we thought we ought to be.

I have repeatedly heard stories of missionaries who got burnt out and left the mission field after only a few years, due to their barren and unprofitable labor. Because they saw missions work as an exciting and noble endeavor, and found out the difficulties and struggles wrapped up within it, they grew weary and quit. Because they expected certain exciting outcomes, they were disappointed when they did not see them, and felt too discouraged to stick around. Their romantic view of missions impacted their motivation to be involved with it, but when reality did not match up with their assumptions, they left the field disillusioned and disheartened.

I think that above all, our motivation for participating in missions work must be obedience to Christ. Our focus should be the glory of God, not ministerial success. If one chooses to serve selflessly and tirelessly on the mission field and sees not one convert, they are not a missionary failure. Missions is about the proclamation of the Gospel and reflecting Christ amongst unbelievers, not demanding the conversion of a certain amount of Christians within five years. If you make your definition of a “good” missionary contingent upon the results you see, you will be disappointed. I challenge you to instead consider obedience to Christ and the glory of God as your driving motivation for doing missions.

In this article, we have reflected on our Christian culture’s emphasis on emotions and passion, the language we employ to speak of missions, and how both of these areas greatly impact our view of missions and our motivation for involving ourselves with it. The American evangelical sphere encourages people to “follow their heart.” Our language therefore involves many lofty aspirations and passionate ideals when speaking of missions work. This language infiltrates our minds and how we view missions. This specific view of missions dictates our motivation for participating in it. Lastly, our motivation for doing missions work is often faulty and misguided.

My challenge to you, reader, is to evaluate your desires to be a missionary, the language you use to speak of those desires, and your motivation to be involved with missions work. Are all three heavily influenced by our culture, Christian and secular, and its obsession with romanticism? I want you to test yourself, to interrogate your mindset about missions and the words you use to speak of it. Fight to have a correct, good, and true view of what it truly means to be involved in God’s global mission to save the lost.

 


[1] Lewis, C. S., and C. S. Lewis. “15.” The Screwtape Letters: With Screwtape Proposes a Toast. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Page 78. Print.

Advertisements

7 comments on “The Consequences of Making Missions Sexy by Moriah Rose Hall

  1. Rebecca says:

    Moriah, you did an extremely effective job of displaying your frustration with the overly-emotive sales of missions; I have noticed this trend before and have felt great frustration over it. However, in your article, the use of the term “sexy” not only is misplaced in what you were saying–leaving it at “romanticized” would have worked better as far as actual word meanings go–but is also using the exact same pathos based argument you are fighting against in your article. That is a little self-defeating. I completely agree with what you had to say, but consider that it would be more effective if you, already having ethos established to this audience, used a more logos based appeal. “Sexy” is attention getting, but so are haunting pictures of children–neither accomplish the actual desired end.

    • Well said Rebecca, thanks for bringing that up.

    • Moriah Rose says:

      Rebecca – I agree with you. Some synonyms of the word “sexy” are seductive, alluring, and inviting. I wanted to demonstrate that much like how we can be immediately drawn to the outward, flashy appearance of a person, we can be attracted to the exterior packaging of missions. Yet we rarely stop to consider if what we see on the surface is a true reflection of deeper content. This was my reasoning for using the word “sexy.” However, I understand how other words I could have chosen would both better express what I was trying to say and also be better suited to their historical and literal meaning. I likewise realize the title is self-contradictory. Thank you for carefully analyzing the words I chose and pointing out weaknesses in my article.

  2. gregoryfritz says:

    Great thoughts Moriah! I agree that obedience to Christ and the glory of God should be our driving motivation for doing missions. Therefore, I agree with you.
    However, there is more to be said. Even though I am personally put off by “romanticized” missionary appeals, I know that some people are motivated to become involved as a result of this approach. The “sexy” appeal to missions involvement reminds and motivates some people to do the right thing. Just because they respond to this kind of message does not mean their motives are less genuine. Said differently, shouldn’t we be just as culturally appropriate in presenting our missions mobilization message as we attempt to be in presenting the gospel to those who have never heard?
    Ironically, the issue I generally have with the use of romanticized appeals is that they tend to promote organizations that I believe have insufficient strategies. I have not studied this, but it appears to me that often the organizations with the best marketing strategies have the weakest missiology and the organizations with better developed missiology, have weaker marketing.

    • Moriah Rose says:

      Greg – There is more to be said! There often seems to be :). For those who commit to missions work as a result of “sexy” appeals, maybe sometimes their motives are not less genuine, just less grounded. Since missions has not been presented to them in a proper way, they have no strong moorings from which to tie their excited emotions and passions. They may have an honest, true desire to obey Christ and glorify God, but since they only have an idolized view of missions, they are easily swayed by the throes of the typical missionary career. I feel as though we are doing no good to prospective missionaries by lassoing them in with emotive advertising and then letting them flounder when they realize the real thing is nothing like they imagined.

      Very interesting point on being culturally appropriate when presenting our missions mobilization message. I limited my thinking to how the culture has affected our language and mindset regarding missions, but did not venture to analyze how the culture SHOULD affect how we present an appeal to missions. If our culture is heavily cloaked in romanticism, maybe we ought to properly adapt our methods to engage accordingly with the culture. I need to think more extensively on this point.

      Finally, I would like to investigate this pattern you have noticed between marketing strategies and missions organizations. Along the same lines of your logic, it’s interesting to note the abundant advertising for short term missions trips…

      Thank you for contributing Greg! I know you have years of experience in faithful and enduring missionary service, and I am so thankful to have your input and wisdom. Hope to see you and your family again sometime!

  3. Angela says:

    Moriah! I love this article! Your emphatic statement that a missionary’s primary motivation must be obedience to Christ ought to be the winnowing fork all missionaries use to sift through the reasons within their hearts. I would clarify that the obedience to Christ stems from the unshakeable and clear knowledge and love of the Gospel message. When Christians consider missions in any way (from supporting to leaving), they should already be dumbfounded by the love of our Savior Jesus Christ. Christ left his honored and majestic throne; and he humbled himself to live among and die for us, the wicked cockroaches, he created. Christ performed this epic work to demonstrate love, regardless of feelings or results. If that’s not culture shock, I don’t know what is. Missionaries mimic Christ…except its like cockroaches ministering to other cockroaches. We demonstrate the love of Christ….regardless of feelings or results. Missions isn’t glamorous. It’s hard. Missions isnt sexy…and neither is the Cross. You nailed this Moriah.. Get it gurl

    • Moriah Rose says:

      Thank you Angela! Yes, in ALL that we do, missions work in a foreign country or not, we ought to be seeking to do it heartily, as unto the Father. May we seek to ascertain what it means to have the “love of God control us.” We should fix our eyes upon Christ and ask Him to empower us to love like He does.

      Thank you for adding in your thoughts Angela!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s