Am I A Real Missionary?
"And now will all the missionaries here for the missions conference please stand up?" This is a familiar question at the missions conferences my husband and I have attended. Seated throughout the audience, or grouped on the front row or even on the podium, we special ones are asked to stand so that all the adults and children can see the "real missionaries."
There is a certain curiosity about what a fabled missionary looks like in the flesh. Even an admiration with a bit of the incredulous mixed in. This happens regularly at most missions conferences we have attended over the past 32 years.
I suppose for most children, missionaries are talked about with the same far away, surreal quality that Abraham Lincoln is. Someone they can never hope to meet, or get to know. As people mature, their understanding of missionaries also matures and there is a realization that missionaries are simply God's people doing a job overseas.
Ah! there is the mystery. "God's people doing a job overseas." It takes crossing an ocean to become a missionary. Or does it?
Recently, we were attending a missions conference at a well known church on the east coast. During an informal gathering around a welcome coffee pot, a member of the church noticed my special name tag and asked me if I were one of the missionaries there for the conference. When I responded, "Yes, my husband and I are missionaries working with Native Americans," there was a look of disappointment on the person's face. "But are you a real missionary?" was the second question.
This is not an isolated question. It didn't just happen at that one church on the east coast. It has happened many times to us throughout our 32-year careers as missionaries to Native Americans (12 years) and international students (20 years). It indicates the attitude stated above that "you have to cross an ocean to be a missionary, or at least to be a real one."
So am I a fake missionary? Am I assuming a title that does not belong to me? What is a missionary anyhow? Scripturally, a missionary is a "sent one." I have been sent by the Lord and by a mission board to minister to Native Americans. As taught in the Perspectives course, a missionary is one who crosses cultural and linguistic barriers to plant the seed of the gospel in a group that is unreached. If I were a nurse and were sent by a mission board to Kenya, there would be no question about my being a real missionary because I would be working overseas, even though I may be working in a reached group. If I were a nurse and were sent by a mission board to an Indian Hospital in New Mexico, am I just a nurse working in New Mexico or am I a missionary nurse? In both of these cases the most important factor in people's attitudes seems to be geography and not the nature of the work.
What difference does it make? Is using the title "missionary" just a matter of semantics?
The answer is first discovered in an understanding of cross-cultural missions. As a person reaches across cultural boundaries to achieve a relationship, to develop an understanding of a "foreign" worldview, to try to communicate God's love in a culturally relevant manner, barriers are encountered that are not met when ministering in the neighborhood or community in which the person grew up. Special skills, training, and motivation are needed. The comfort zone of known methods is stretched and gone beyond. This is certainly the case with ministry to Native Americans and simply working in the US does not make it any less true.
The answer to our discussion is discovered next in a practical realm. A missionary nurse in Kenya would not be able to work at another job to earn her living. Neither would a missionary nurse in New Mexico. Since they are "sent ones," they are working for the Lord as representatives of the sending mission and the people behind them financially. Likewise, as a missionary doing research concerning Native Americans and also doing mobilization, I am a representative of the sending mission and the people behind me financially. Thus, I am a sent one…a missionary.
It is not necessary for me to use the title "missionary" to keep my self image intact. I would be willing not to use it at all. But the absence of the title presents problems. Imagine the nurse going to her home church to find support. "You want to work for someone else (on an Indian reservation as a nurse with time for witnessing and leading Bible studies), and you want us to pay your salary?" Compare this with simply asking a church to be part of your support team as you work as a "missionary" nurse. It just puts the whole question into a framework that is easy to understand.
Back to our question. Am I a real or a fake missionary? If I am a "sent" (paid) missionary ministering cross-culturally, but am out of fellowship with the Lord, then I am a fake missionary.