Whether you’ve always dreamt of being a missionary or never even considered the thought, New Vision Week can be a pretty high intensity week. Personally, I loved New Vision Week, but I know there are lots of people who probably had the opposite reaction. I totally understand where you’re coming from. The history of missions leaves much to be cynical about, no matter how you feel about contemporary approaches. However, I think much of what people dislike about missions today comes from a few unfortunate misconceptions of what “missions” really means.
When you think of missions, you might think of a young person or family uprooting and relocating to live in a hut in Africa. Although the world’s most unreached people groups will most likely be found in countries other than the United States, there is still plenty of Kingdom work to be done right here. When Jesus said to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), surely he didn’t mean to imply “except your own.” You may even have family members or close friends who have rejected the gospel. I know I do. For the past two summers I worked with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks (ACMNP), which sends teams to serve and minister to the people they encounter while living and working in national parks around the country. Just think of all the other church plants, discipleship programs, and everyday interactions that are happening around the country, or even in your own neighborhood in order to bring people closer to God. There are mission fields across oceans and across borders, but we shouldn’t forget that our mission field may be just across the dinner table.
This doesn’t mean that the non-Christians in our lives are to be viewed as our personal projects. It is extremely detrimental to reduce a person to any one aspect of their identity, such as race or sexual orientation, and the same goes for religion. When we form friendships with people, we do so because we love them as complete people, not because their religious identity is “interesting” or because we hope to “fix” them. Meaningful relationships are at the foundation of everything that missionaries do, so the same concept still applies.
If spiritual conversion was the only goal of our interactions, not only would it reduce a person’s identity, it would reduce God’s identity. Missiologists have a lot of different ideas about how God works in the lives of non-Christians, but one thing is clear: missionaries don’t grant salvation. To use some common metaphors, a missionary might be responsible for “planting the seed,” “watering the soil,” or “bringing in the harvest” of a person’s faith, but ultimately the power of granting salvation rests with God, and with God alone. There is no way we can know all of the people or experiences God might use to draw someone closer to Himself. The best a missionary can do is work to represent Christ to the people around them.
Lastly, this doesn’t to mean that missionaries don’t have anything to learn. When people think of missions, they might think of well-meaning people who really just want to share everything they know with others, without any interest in letting others share with them. However, we all know those kind of one-sided relationships are not sustainable. Missions requires a strong heart to teach and to serve, as well as a heart to be taught and be served by others. Whether they are in a completely new culture or in their hometown, missionaries are constantly learning from the people that they minister to. When I was working in the parks, I met so many complicated, beautiful people with a wide variety of religious identities. I learned so much from them, not only because of the challenging questions they asked me about my faith, but because of the knowledge, ideas, and passions they shared with me from their own life experiences. Some of them even taught me how to be more like Christ.
Of course, these misconceptions about missions survive because there are people in the field who perpetrate them, and there are certainly more I could’ve highlighted. Our approach to missions has never been perfect. Even when we are doing a good job, some adjustments need to be made in how the Church presents the idea of missions to people. Ultimately, I believe missions is about learning to love the people around us, no matter how different they are or where they come from, with the hope that God will work in them when and how He wills. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: the calling to missions is for all Christians. By shedding some light on these common misconceptions, I hope we all can more fully embrace this calling.
Gabi is a junior majoring in English and intercultural studies.