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