Where Should The Missionary Go?

Yesterday was crazy busy and I missed the #royalwedding. Don’t spoil it for me because I’m going to try to watch it in clips sometime this afternoon. Dubious about the breathless accounts of how awesome the sermon was. I’m sure it was smooth as silk, but I’d be mighty surprised if it was actually #thegospel. You may expect Full Podcast Coverage tomorrow, three days too late.

In the meantime, and not that tangentially, I’ve been catching up on some of @kouya’s blog posts. He has years and years of experience in Africa and has been writing about mission and the changing face of the English religious landscape. He is particularly interested in mission structures and whether or not they can, or should, carry on as they always have.

I don’t live in England, as you may have noticed, and am not from Binghamton either. I wasn’t here twenty, fifty, or a hundred years ago when pleasant charming churches popped up all over the Southside. The only sense I can get for the past is to tiptoe through any church buildings that are still open, when I can muscle my way in, and stand around in the still quiet of old dusty parish libraries. I stand idly curious, peering into the face of Jesus fixed eternally, his hand poised in mid-air, his long hair and perfect beard untouched by the wind, ready to knock on a big wooden door which is supposed to represent my heart. I look at him and then turn to read over the names of a hundred years of pastors staring back at me, some dour, some cheerful, following stolidly one after another through a century of tumult and upheaval.

What’s interesting to me is the necessary transformation of the local church from a reasonably comfortable institution, supported by and useful to the culture that surrounds it, into, well, practically a missionary endeavor.

I was recounting to someone, against her will, I think, my ancestral heritage. Not my ethnic lineage—I’m sure I could find all that out if someone handed me one of those tests, but I prefer to rely on lore and hearsay—no, the lineage of mission. On one side, great-grandparents, grandparents, parents first in East Africa, then West Africa, but now back in the East. And on the other side, grandparents and then parents in the West and now East. “Why didn’t you go to Africa,” she asked, clearly un-desirous of any too long explanation. But then, before I had time to say anything, she answered herself, “Oh right, well, this place needs missionaries more than anywhere.”

Which answer, pithy and to the point, is totally true. This place needs missionaries. And frankly, I think anyone who attempts any mission endeavor around here would do well not to rely on the crumbling, struggling institutions moldering along the Susquehanna, nor mission organizations with tried and true statements of purpose and well-calibrated financial structures. Rather, more than anything, one element is needful—the attitudes of two millennia of missionaries who dropped everything and just went.

They went everywhere. They went into the smallest most unknown villages. They went into cities and slums. They went into hostile places and friendly ones. They went as strangers into strange lands. They expected a hard time, a language and culture that might never accept them. They went, more than anything, to stay.

This posture passed out of fashion, of course. In my teenage years, I heard stories of young missionaries who had the misfortune, upon arrival, to visit the Bamako market even before the heaviness of jet lag had had time to lift. The shock was often too much and within a year or two they would be back at a desk job somewhere stateside. The risk, the foolhardiness, the wonder globally dissipated and in its place came social media, reduced missions budgets, and the “attractional” church.

In America, the pews were pulled out and replaced by coffee bars and Jumbotron screens. And in Africa, well, in lots of places the local church is burgeoning. But also persecuted. And sometimes impoverished. And beset by trial and tribulation and heresy and tumult and war. But at least it’s there. This morning, here, I will drive down deserted streets and wonder if there is any use.

The missionary goes expecting to have to learn the language and to get to know the people. He finds somewhere to live that is comfortable enough to do the disappointing and discouraging work of each long day. He has to figure out how to shop and what to do during a power cut. He has to navigate labyrinthine bureaucratic nightmares. He is constantly interrupted. He never has enough money. I say he, but many times it was she—oft times single, usually isolated, replete with dark humor and cutting wit.

‘Go into all the world,’ said Jesus, ‘and preach the gospel, making disciples and baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ It’s not hard to understand, but it is terribly hard to do. The first step is to get up and go to church, wherever you are, and to trust in the one whose mission it is. You don’t need much else, though you will want a lot more.

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