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Missionary: Impossible

You'll be surprised to hear that a discussion on Facebook about religion didn't go as planned. See, the other day I commented on a meme I saw on Facebook. This was the meme:

Initially, I made some comments about how it would feel to be the friend who was dutifully prayed for as opposed to being lovingly prayed for. (But, that topic is for another conversation.) Surprisingly, the ‘discussion’ didn’t go as planned, which is weird cos usually religious discussions always go smoothly on Facebook….

Anyway, it got to talking about missionaries and one lady named ‘Karen’ (yes, that’s her real name) had some good (although aggressive) points to make about her feelings towards missionaries. I’ll do my best to summarise them as they have since been deleted from FB.

When I shared I was working in a community in Colombia, and I reluctantly used the word ‘Missionary’ to describe our purpose here, she began to describe why she believed this was evil. A lot of the points she made were very valid and I agreed with one. She mentioned that missionaries were imperialists, colonialists, invaders and evil. I didn’t disagree with a lot of her sentiment based on much history and current practices of white missionaries across the globe, especially in developing countries.

Yes, we need to acknowledge that there has been a lot of good. For example:

“Missionaries have established healthcare, orphanages, education and built infrastructure. Like Albert Schweitzer and William Carey, they have been educators, philosophers, scientists, anthropologists and humanitarian workers. Like John Wesley, Count Zinzendorf, Olaudah Equiano and John Smith of Demerara, they were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement.”

But, we must also acknowledge there has also been a lot of evil at the hands of those calling themselves missionaries,

“There is a lot of evidence that the huge missionary movements from Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries displaced indigenous cultures and were little more than extensions of the military colonisation which left the inhabitants impotent when they finally withdrew.”

Unfortunately, like most things, it’s the negatives that mostly get the headlines and spotlight, not usually the transformational love and positive restoration that is going on.

As someone with friends from developing countries around the world, as someone from Australia, as someone who lives and loves in Colombia, I have heard, seen and been horrified at some of the stories and experiences of generational abuse at the hands of Christian Missionaries. It’s for this reason we hesitate to label ourselves as either Christians or Missionaries. Not because we don’t love, follow and believe the teachings and life of Jesus, but because of the deficit, reputation and block that comes with using these labels amongst people who have and are currently experiencing the negatives.

In Colombia right now, there are numerous churches under investigation. Many Church leaders have been exposed for horrendous actions and there are many secular and Christian organisations operating amongst the poor who are exploiting the very people they are meant to be loving. It’s a mess. For these reasons, among others, we don’t start with bibles and traditional preaching, we start with love, we continue with love and we end with love. Then, if those who we demonstrate love amongst want to know why we happily tell them it is because they are loved deeply by the God who made them and He desires to see them set free of the things preventing them from flourishing.

We have received a lot of criticism for our non-traditional methods.

”When will you start preaching the gospel?”

“How many people have you led to Christ?”

“What good is it to give practical support if their soul will perish?”

When we were initially planning to come to Colombia it was recommended we consult with Missions Agencies. Mission agencies, as far as I am aware, are an organisation dedicated to equipping, sending and supporting missionaries. When we met with a few and listened to their philosophies and theology regarding missions we realised we didn’t meet the criteria to be on their staff, and to be honest we weren’t disappointed by this. A lot of the expectations for missionaries were very different to what God has put on our hearts, much of what we heard in regards to ‘sharing the gospel’ both surprised us and worried us.

“In Latin America, we share the gospel of shame. The people need to know their guilt and how far they are from God. That’s how we begin the process of evangelism.”

“Our missionaries are only ready to leave when they have a certain amount of savings, a certain number of supporters and are willing to go where we tell them.”

“The process of preparing for our missionaries is at least 3 years before we are ready to send them.”

These are some of the statements shared with us during our interviews with some Mission Agencies.

When we shared what God had put on our hearts, the vision and mission, the place, the fact that He had called us to pioneer something new, we found these were not aligned to the visions and missions of the organisations and agencies we met with. Fine.

We came to Colombia anyway. We left our jobs. We left our home. We left our family and friends. We came not knowing what to expect, only trusting this was where God was calling us. For what? We weren’t sure. That was probably the hardest part. But, if we had known in advance what this journey was going to look like, maybe we wouldn’t have come.

So, what’s different with us? How do we avoid the destructive path many have taken before us? How do we transform and restore the places we set foot in and lives we walk alongside like so many others have done before us?

One good, but hard, part is that we came as pioneers. We didn’t come with anyone’s money driving our decisions or navigating us in the direction they wanted us to go. Just us and God. Of course, we have been tempted along the way to compromise when money has been offered. Having a young family means that financial uncertainty is difficult and exhaustive. But, God continues to remind us of His vision and mission and we refuse to compromise that.

Also, we have recognised and continue to recognise the subtle things at work in our hearts and minds from our culture, upbringing, class and religious experience. We need to continually be refined and have these issues brought to the surface so they can be dealt with. Things like, “I know all the answers.” “It is me and the – white Christian male amongst poor non-believers.” “I know the best practices for transforming lives and spaces.” These are yuck. I hate that they are in me, but they are. The impacts the way I view and build relationships with others, let alone the way I support those we want to demonstrate love toward.

I don’t like to take on the label “missionary” because for me it sends a certain message to the people experiencing ‘discomfort’ and a certain message to those remaining in comfort. It tends to give the message that few are called to this journey, only the weird and/or super-spiritual, whereas, in reality, this is the basic call for those who claim they love and follow Jesus. You see the spaces where “missionaries” tend to go are places where Jesus is already and where He is calling those who love Him to come into. A better label than missionary should simply be “Jesus followers”. There is no class or level amongst those who follow Jesus. They simply go where He is and where He calls them to. That’s us. Nothing noble. Nothing extraordinary. Not super spiritual. Weird though.

We want to beautify the name of God. We want to restore the reputation of the Church. We want to be who Jesus called us to be when he said, “you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Our vision here is to play a role in removing all the obstacles in the way of people flourishing. Another word for flourishing is shalom which means peace, wholeness, harmony. Basically, to be all we are created to be. We believe that all people deserve this basic opportunity to recognise the fullness of their beauty in and out and be able to share this with the world around them. Our world is incomplete without it.

Our mission is to remove these obstacles and we believe this can only start by building genuine, loving relationships with a community and its members. Now, these obstacles can be both internal and external. Poverty and oppression manifest themselves in many ways. When we are labelled “missionaries” people often think we are only focused on personal salvation, institutional religion, confession of sins etc. Only the spirituality of people we connect with. Therefore, any practical support is used as a tool for achieving these spiritual goals. That’s a problem for us because it looks nothing like Jesus.

Jesus loved His enemies. Jesus forgave, healed, fed and protected His enemies. Jesus even died on behalf of His enemies. And guess what?! He did it regardless of their response. Regardless of whether they became His friend, regardless of whether they said, “Thanks”, regardless of whether they accepted Him as ‘Lord and Saviour.’ We want it to look like this. We want to love like this. Why? Because we are His witness. Not a witness of our religion. Not a witness of our religious institution. We are a witness of Him and His love and we believe, because we have seen, that it is only His love that can transform and break the chains of oppression. Nothing else.

So, if you wanna create a label for us it needs to include the following. We are people who do their best to say yes to what Jesus says, but also people who struggle to obey and often get it wrong. We are people who attempt to acknowledge their wrongs and get back on the journey of demonstrating love to others. We are people who don’t have all the answers about God, how to love, how to journey with people facing oppression and poverty, but we are people who are trying to figure it out and won’t stop until we do. We might well be people who are non-traditional and likely to often come off as offensive within the traditional circles, but we are people who are committed to building the church of Christ as He intended it to be built. We are people who apologise in advance for any damage we will cause and who are open and eager to be rebuked when we do. We are messy, broken people who are in awe of the love of their God, believe He loves others unconditionally and who believe this love flowing through us can bring the transformation our world is crying out for.

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