Seven Myths Perpetuated by Missions People
Over the past thirty years I have noticed that many of us have a tendency to inadvertently promote half-truths that we think advance the cause of world missions. By half-truths, I mean concepts that are partially true or seem true on the surface, but in fact are myths.
At times, I have inadvertently perpetuated these false beliefs myself, for which I wholeheartedly repent. I offer this short article as part of my restitution. I believe that when we participate in spreading these myths, we unintentionally hinder the spread of God’s kingdom. While the myths may seem miniscule and inconsequential, over time, like being one degree off course at the start of a long journey, the negative outcomes increase in severity. Here are seven common myths perpetuated by missions people.
We frequently talk about the frontlines of spiritual warfare as if they are geographically defined (i.e., the mission field). As followers of Jesus, we are called to simultaneously participate in both the seen and unseen world. We are always on a potential frontline. When people use the word “frontline,” they imply there is a safer place, a place less dangerous.
Sure, some places can be darker, more evil, and more dangerous than other places, but let’s not falsely assume that the mission field is a frontline while your home church neighborhood is not. Let’s be prudent; spiritual frontlines cannot be defined geographically or by outward appearance. Scripture seems to imply that everywhere is a potential frontline (see 1 Peter 5:8-9).
What do we mean by calling? Many missions people think it means having a strong conviction or foreknowledge in regard to a specific place, people, path, or purpose God has for us. Our ministry niche, so to speak.
This notion of calling is overplayed and overemphasized to the point of being a myth. In my thirty-plus years of observing, even among the most exemplary and fruitful missionaries it is not the norm, not by a longshot.
Followers of Jesus almost always grow into (or fall into) their specific calling with lots of trial and error on the way. Most of us will understand our specific calling or ministry niche through hindsight rather than by foresight. This is because persevering through trial, error, and occasional ambiguity contributes significantly to our spiritual development and thus to our eventual niche. Watching people find their calling is not unlike watching people drive bumper cars; it is often full of jarring and jolting experiences.
I suggest our specific ministry fit/niche is discovered as we struggle to be obedient to God’s universal callings. Universal callings are what all followers of Jesus are called to do and be. For example, we are all called to: holiness (1 Peter 1:15), bear fruit (John 15:16), suffer (1 Peter 2:21), peace (Colossians 3:15), and make disciples (Matthew 28:19).
These “callings” never change, and apply to all of us. In doing them we discover our specific niche over time. As we pursue specific places, people, or roles, it is enough to say we are pursuing what we believe God put on our heart. Unfortunately, the way many missions people talk about calling creates false expectations about God and how he guides and moves people. Let’s not propagate a myth in the way we talk about calling.
Some of us talk about being called to full-time ministry/missions. Does Jesus call anyone to follow him part-time? Full-time is the only choice Jesus gives us. It is hard to imagine a scenario where the unreached will ever be reached just by full-time missionaries, pastors, teachers, and evangelists. It will just never happen. These roles are important, but they are not more important than followers of Jesus working full time in ‘secular’ workplaces. Andrew Scott, in his recent book Scatter, makes an elegant argument about this very point.
The most likely scenario is that the unreached will be reached by full-on followers of Jesus working full time as teachers, farmers, engineers, social workers, bricklayers, politicians, etc., in secular workplaces, augmented by pastors, missionaries, and evangelists.
Evangelists, pastors, and missionaries are more like the shaft of the spear than the point. They help support, equip, and sharpen the point (i.e., the congregation); they are not the point themselves. Congregations of full-on Jesus people, working in secular workplaces, are the point of the spear. Since non-Christians don’t normally come to church, and since most adults spend the majority of their waking hours at work, the workplace becomes our primary context to be salt and light to the world.
We should be promoting the notion of being full-on for Jesus in the secular workplaces (wherever they are) not the myth that full-time ministry is more honorable, strategic, or significant. It’s a myth.
I cringe when I hear mission speakers chastise congregations to do something significant with their lives and become missionaries (or something full-time). My wife has to hold me down so I don’t interrupt the speaker. She is more polite than me. Perhaps we have so many missionaries on the field still searching for significance because they were led to believe by our evangelical church culture that being a missionary is more significant than other work.
Being the object of Christ’s affection is what gives us significance, not whether or not we are missionaries. Lord, spare us from pastors and mission speakers who encourage us to find our significance in what we do. If missionaries think what they are doing is more significant or strategic than what God has called others in our sending congregations to do, we promote a myth.
Of course, we need to be proactive and strategic in positioning ourselves among the least reached, most of whom live in restricted access countries. It could be very strategic if more full-on followers of Jesus moved to places where the least reached lived. Yet, seeking significance and being strategic are different issues. Let’s strive to be strategic without promoting the myth of significance.
Go, Give, or Pray
A Google search on these three words produce over 100,000 hits about missions and will lead you to the homepage of practically every mission organization with a website. Mission organizations need to be careful not to propagate the myth that going, giving, or praying are the three main ways we participate in world missions. Like most missions people, I like the simplicity and clarity of the pray, give, go tagline. My own organization uses it.
While these three actions are important, they can also subtly perpetuate a myth by suggesting these are the main three things YOU can do. Scripture also calls us to WORK, THINK, CHANGE, BE HOLY, RISK, SUFFER, STAND, etc. These don’t fit nicely into a tag line, and thus their importance is deemphasized by silence. We promote myths when we oversimplify the complex.
Business for Missions (B4M) & Integral Missions
These terms can perpetuate another myth, depending on how we use them. We can indirectly imply that people in our sending churches who are engaged in ‘normal’ business or social action are not really participating in the Great Commission while those labeled B4M or Integral Missions are and therefore worthy of being financed by the church mission budget.
Why do we need special terms like B4M or integral missions to distinguish ‘normal’ Christian business activities from missional ones? Haven’t business and social action been part of advancing God’s kingdom for more than two thousand years? Yes, they have. Aren’t terms like B4M and Integral Missions the result of missions people rediscovering a theology of work and rejecting the dualism so prevalent in our evangelical church and missions’ cultures?
If we accept the premise that business and social actions have been integral to church growth since the first century, then it seems that we also need to question why we need new terms to distinguish missional sector business/social activities from what people in our sending churches already do (or should be doing). If we are not careful when we use terms like B4M/B4T and integral missions, we promote the notion that our work business/social activities are somehow more spiritual/missional (i.e. significant) than those practiced by the members of our sending church. This is a myth.
What do we really mean by the word missionary? The word is a construct of our own making, derived from the Latin word mitto, which is a translation of the Greek work apostle (Αποστολος). Apostles were followers of Jesus who had a special anointing and authority as sent ones. Today, we typically think of apostles as spiritual entrepreneurs—ground-breakers with a strong vision and multiple spiritual gifts.
I know hundreds of missionaries in many organizations and they are great people. However, very few (I guess less than five percent) are apostolic in nature or gifting. They are gifted, but not excessively, unless you count perseverance as a gift.
In other words, very few missionaries are apostles in the biblical sense of the word, so isn’t missionary the wrong word for them? Why don’t we embrace a self-identity as priests instead? It is clearly a biblical identity and a sustainable self-identity. Our sentness comes from our priestly obligation to represent God before people and people before God. As priests, we are sent to represent.
In addition, missions people have inadvertently created a quandary with the missionary identity. Over the years, it has become standard practice among some of the best missions organizations in the world for their overseas staff to operate undercover in nations that are closed to traditional Christian missions. At least half the worlds’ population live in such places, and almost all of the unreached are there.
While from one perspective this appears clever and creative, from another it appears deceptive and disingenuous, especially from the perspective of the host people. Certainly, the Bible promotes prudence and acknowledges that complete transparency is not always a moral virtue (e.g., 1 Samuel 16:1-13). But the fact is, missionaries who have adopted the undercover approach live in a state of paranoia about being found out.
This fear fosters behaviors, attitudes, and thinking patterns that hamper and disable these otherwise wonderful saints from being the bold and loving representatives that Jesus called them to be. Fear and love do not make compatible bedfellows. So why do so many continue to embrace a missionary identity when it is a stumbling block to both their audience and themselves … and is not a requirement for following Jesus? Is this becoming all things to all people in order to win some (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)?
What if we could start over and build frameworks and models that wouldn’t hamstring people who are eager to take up their role in the Great Commission? What would it look like? Would we build Protestant religious orders that have open membership for anyone committed to the Great Commission and to the universal callings of God? Would most of the members of these fraternities of people be self-financed by jobs they find on the market? Perhaps it would be full of bi-vocational followers of Jesus who are striving to:
- Embrace their God-given identity as ambassador-priests
- Understand their occupation/profession to be an important act of worship…not in completion with disciple making, but complementary to it
- Realize the spiritual frontline is wherever they are at the moment
- Recognize that their significance is sealed by being the object of God’s love
- Be strategic in their giving, going, praying, risking, staying, standing, working, waiting, etc.
- Be a full-on follower of Jesus at work, home, and community
- Team up with likeminded colleagues
That sounds a lot like being church! Could it be that simple?