Missions vs. Missionaries

This post is the first in a series. Be sure to click through all related articles linked at the bottom of this one.

They say smell is the sense most closely tied to memory.

For weeks, months even, after returning from Bosnia, I would wake with the smell in my nose. It wasn’t anything I could identify specifically; it was just … the smell of Bosnia. Echos quickly followed. In my subconscious, almost awake state, I would smell the mountain air and the bread slowly cooking in buried ovens. I would hear children running outside my screen-less window and neighbors laughing over coffee. Then I’d wake up. It would take a moment or two to realize I was actually in a bed and not crashed on my host family’s couch. Like cold molasses warming, I’d slowly remember.

Yes, I now have a toilet that flushes. Oh, and I can take a shower again today, even though I had the luxury of taking one yesterday! I am home. I am in New Jersey.

Then I would roll over and try to return to that place that seemed so much richer, even without the luxuries.

I slept a disproportionate amount of time after returning state-side. I don’t want to say I was depressed; I wasn’t. Part of it was jet-lag  but most of it was simply feeling overwhelmed. Life had gone on without me, as it should have, and No one wanted to hear about the tragedies of poverty or the difficulties of living in a post-war nation. They wanted a postcard, but not a 3-D depiction. No one really cared about the foods I missed or the stories I had to tell. They had more important things to do, like finish studying for exams or finish collecting Christmas gifts. Come to think of it, I had important things to do, too … like finish planning my wedding. All this “normal” attacked me too abruptly. It left me weary.

Yes, life had gone on, but I had gone beyond it. I had stretched outside of “normal.” No one had gone with me and, as a result, life left me isolated. Misunderstood. I felt very much the outsider. I felt like an outsider and yet very much on display. Kind of like an exhibit at the zoo.


This week I want to spend some time talking about missions and what it actually means. What does it require of you? Of others? And how can we bridge the gap between those there and those here?

There exists quite a debate about the very definition of missions. Can you really “be a missionary every day” (as the old Sunday School song claims) or do you need to go somewhere to warrant the title? Some even spout theories on the length of time you must spend “on the field” and how difficult your situation must be. After all, we don’t want to mislabel your vacation as an actual ministry*. Let’s look at that Great Commission again.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” — Matthew 28:19-20 (ESV)

When we look at these verses, what is more important — the GO and ALL NATIONS part? Or is it the MAKE DISCIPLES and TEACHING THEM TO OBSERVE parts?

Let me ease your suspense: It’s both. If we don’t claim both parts to be valid, then we’re truncating Jesus’ instructions. It is all important!

The next question then becomes: Can we separate the two or must they be done together? This seems a silly question because, OF COURSE, we can teach people to observe Jesus’ commandments without going to another nation. Parents do it with their kids without even leaving their homes. Pastors do it without leaving their churches. Teachers do it without leaving their hometowns. We know that going isn’t required to make disciples, so then why do we create such a distinction between the high and exalted missionaries and ourselves? Or our believing neighbors?

Maybe this all comes back to labels.

I hate labels. I do! Humanity, however, loves labels. It is far easier to smack a brand on someone than to take the time to really interact with them and get to know them. I understand generalities exist and that some stereo-types simply are true, but when we talk about individuals, I believe labels do more harm than good. They create division and assumption.

So what labels have we employed? Missionary. Evangelist. Christian. Layperson. Are there distinctions between these? Sure! Should there be? Well, now there is the $10M question. What do you think?

Throughout the rest of this week I’ll share thoughts from those who fall under the “missionary” label.

WHO: I queried over 20 different missionaries from a wide spectrum of experience. Some serve stateside while others serve (or have served) across several continents. (I believe the only continent not represented is Antarctica. None of the penguins responded to my letter.) Some were raised by missionary parents and are now “laypersons” in their local churches. Some represent generations of missionaries all in the same family. Some were single during full-time ministry and some were/are married. Some have children; some do not. Like I said, even though the sampling is low in number, the experiences are vastly represented.

WHAT: I asked only one question: What do you wish people back home knew about life as a missionary?

Come back tomorrow to read more.

If you can’t wait until tomorrow, check out these links:

Talk to me.

What are the distinctions between evangelists, missionaries and just ordinary Christians? What do you think about the relationship that does or should exist between those going and those sending or staying?

Missions vs. Missionaries: The Series — This is the first post in a week-long series. Check out the following articles that continue the discussion.

*While it my sarcastic tone may imply disagreement with this post, I actually really liked it. I thought he made some excellent points that were even more fleshed out in the discussion that followed it.



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