Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Troubled by a Missionary

I taught an adult Sunday School class once on material provided by the Salt and Light Fellowship, then a ministry of the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary. The lessons focused on helping people understand that wherever they were was their ministry, and that God saw their work – at home, in offices, behind the wheel of a delivery truck, in a grocery store, wherever – as just as important as any other kind of work. This is also the idea behind The High Calling, where I’m a contributing editor.

One day, I told the class that all work was important to God, and repeated something Jerram Barrs, director of the Francis Schaeffer Institute, had said: that your work and how you do it is just as important to God as the work done by missionaries and pastors.

Heck broke loose.

It was a rather radical thing to say 20 years ago. People were offended; people thought I was somehow downgrading the value of missions and pastoral work. They didn’t realize the attitude of some work being “more important” or “holier” than other work was a product of modernism, a cultural influence that had segmented work into degrees of importance. It wasn’t Biblical. You’re a missionary whether you work in an office cubicle or a remote Third World village.

I thought about this class as I read chapter one of Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis and Beth Clark. Led by Sarah Salter and JasonStasyszen, we started an online discussion of the book last week. The story is about a young woman who forsakes college and her “American way of life” and becomes a missionary in Uganda.

The writing is youthful and energetic, and that’s due to the fact that Katie Davis is in her early 20s. It’s an exciting story, an interesting story, but parts of it are making me uneasy.

There’s an assumption at play here – the same assumption I encountered 20 years ago in that class – that full-time missions work is “higher” than other work. I see it in comments about how the hometown in Tennessee is a “self-serving” culture, with its suburban homes and manicured lawns, or the implication that the poverty of Uganda is closer to Jesus than the “beyond comfortable” lifestyles in the United States.

Intended or not, this suggests an attitude of superiority, a kind of reverse snobbery. Even in its most sympathetic light, it is still judgmental. I’m expecting this to change. After all, Uganda is the country known for violence, brutality, “child soldiers,” kidnappings, tribal murder, AIDS, mothers and children abandoned by fathers, children abandoned by parents. It’s not all “happy people and smiling children.” Katie Davis knows that, and is living that, and I’m hoping that she’s setting up a story of contrasts.

To serve there as she is doing is a testimony to God’s love, but it doesn’t make one culture or people superior to another. Both cultures need missionaries.

And then there’s the (so far) unnamed boyfriend, the one left behind at home, the one she loved and thought she was going to marry. I’m wondering what happened to him, and if his heart was broken. The choices we make are not all about us and Jesus. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make them, but they can affect others as much as ourselves, and they shouldn’t be dismissed as part of that materialistic culture left back home.

I’m hoping to find more of this understanding as we continue to read and discuss.

To see more posts on chapter one of Kisses from Katie, please visit Sarah Salter at Living Between the Lines, who’s hosting the links today.


David Rupert said...

How we have changed in our thinking over just a few years. It's amazing how the workplace has been empowered to do the work of a missionary.

While I would never denigrate those who give their lives to full time work, for too long they were my scapegoat - my excuse for not getting involved myself.

diana said...

Thank you, Glynn, for this thoughtful post. I've been troubled with the same rumblings of concern as I've read about Katie and her decisions. On the one hand, I'm moved, even convicted, by her commitment. On the other hand, I also feel concerned by what you have pegged as 'reverse snobbism.' and also by what sometimes appears to a more-than-youthful enthusiasm that sometimes cuts people (like the boyfriend) right out of her life. I will be interested to see your further thoughts about it all.

Anonymous said...

i kindled this book. if i can get the book started soon, then i may be able to read along with your posts.

H. Gillham said...


Thank you for putting this out there.

I had some one tell me once when I was feeling "guilty" for not feeling the urge to leave this country for mission work that my mission field was the public arena classroom where I spent thirty-three years.

Thanks for saying this again.

Megan Willome said...

I went to a church with a lot of people like Katie. On one hand, it was exciting--God's work being done in the nations. On the other, well, let's just say my work at a lifestyle magazine is probably not valued as God's work (although some of those church members do pick up the magazine and read it).

caryjo said...

I love Uganda. Dave and I have been involved with that country, whether here or there, for 22 years. And I am so comfortable there. Many have such caring hearts, such desire to serve the Lord. The other bits ... war, AIDS, and orphans ... are very realistic. But the huge sharing hearts of the Ugandans and the missionaries we met from various countries just exploded the joy in our hearts/lives.

[I've been writing a book re: Uganda for a stretch of time -- fictionalized non-fiction; don't know what to do with it.]

jasonS said...

Hopefully, I can get the comment to go through this time. :) Here it goes: I hadn't noticed those themes, but I thought maybe it was because I hold the same views as you: all work glorifies God. The reason I'm drawn to the story is her willingness to follow God's path for her no matter the cost & that she has found her fulfillment there, no matter the difficulties. It is interesting to consider the 'collateral damage' like boyfriend and family from following God, but I have experienced some of that myself. Anyway, great post and very thought-provoking so thank you!