I felt a call to be a missionary when I was 17yrs old. It started with a concert put on by an organization called Operation Mobilization. I read a book written by the guy leading the organization (George Verwer) and I started filling out an application to join them. It was part way through the application that my heart sunk right to the floor…
They wanted to know if I’d ever struggled with depression.
Bummer. I had and I did.
At that point I actually allowed the question to stop me from moving forward. I can’t remember if I thought I might ‘get better’ and be able to apply later on or if I just lost hope in fulfilling this great calling.
Four years later I went to Bible college for a year because I thought maybe this would be the preparation that I needed to finally become a missionary. Unfortunately, I didn’t do very well academically. The only class that I passed the second semester of my freshman year was Christian Missions. It was in that Christian Missions class that I began to understand a little bit more about what missions might actually mean… but it was a strange lesson. A few books I read informed me about the experience of past missionaries; From Jerusalem to Iryin Jaya, Bruchko, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, and a book that pertains to ministry, A Man Called Peter. There were others, but these are the ones that stick out to me….
I gathered a lot from these books- some helpful and some unhelpful. One theme in From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya that stood out to me was that many of the missionaries over the centuries have struggled with some form of depression or problems with mental health. This was both encouraging and discouraging to me. I was encouraged to think that even I, broken as I was, could be a missionary. At the same time, I had hoped that becoming a missionary would somehow alleviate that particular struggle.
There’s so much I could say at this point concerning depression but I’ll try to keep it succinct. First of all, there is no job or title within the Christian life that will magically erase our problems and our issues. Secondly, it is coming to know God himself better (something anyone, in any job can do) which addresses the struggles we have. This is not to say that if you struggle you don’t know God well enough because there are so many things that factor into mental health…. but I am saying that it is within the context of my ongoing relationship with God that I discover skills, practices, hope, love, perseverance, grace… things that are necessary for being alive and not just surviving.
It’s also quite possible that the large number of stories about missionaries who break down has to do with a value I will address next.
Another theme I noticed in that same book and also in A Man Called Peter was this idea of “burnout for Jesus.” It wasn’t spoken of directly, but within the stories of these men and women, there seemed to be a value of leaving everything (even spouse and children) behind to work past ones own physical ability in order to serve God.
After reading A Man Called Peter I decided I would not marry a pastor because, if overwork and family neglect were the standard, then it would be better for me to stay single. Why even start a family if you intend to work 80hrs a week in ministry? Are family members less important than those being ministered to? If you neglect the family you chose to start, are you not just creating more broken people as you break yourself to minister to those outside of your home? Is it possible to do ministry as a family?
I had a lot of questions after reading that book and then looking around at the people I knew working in Christian service.
The first person to change this perspective for me was a missionary I met in Thailand in 2003. I sat and talked to him for a long time and I don’t remember a lot of what he said (or even his name), but what stuck out to me was his current love and need for Jesus. He hadn’t hit some level of Christianity which made him independent of God, but he continued to cling to the source of his very life. He didn’t seem to have it “all together,” but he did have a kind of humility and passion that were both surprising and inspiring.
This week in class we’re hearing on the topic of Missions. Bevin Ginder is teaching so much good and necessary stuff that I wish I had heard 18 years ago when I first felt called. Today he said;
“If we think missions is about God using us- chewing us up and spitting us out for the nations, we have missed the Father’s heart.”
And what is the Father’s heart? Do you know?
The very point of missions is to introduce people to a real and loving God and then to teach them how to walk with Him. If we don’t know ourselves how deeply we are loved, then what do we actually teach people? We introduce them to a set of rules and religious rituals. We hand them guilt and tell them to wear it with a smile.
With love, we learn to really live in the joy of who God has created us to be, we pour that love out to those around us in our houses and to the nations. With love, we learn ever more deeply who God is and we rejoice in Him with worship.
I’m so grateful that God has dispelled these myths (and many more) concerning what it means to be a missionary and I am longing for you, too to know how worthy He is to be known and adored. I long for you to know how deeply He loves you and that while following Him is not an easy way out, it is where real life and love is given and received.