Last year after applying, interviewing, and accepting my role at African Christian College, I had several conversations with ACC leaders about “finding my missionary support”. True, we were uprooting our family and moving across the globe to work with an important Christian ministry, but I did not see myself as a missionary.
Not that missionaries are bad. I often referred to my work in faith-based community development as ‘domestic missions’; and my staff and I as ‘missionaries’. But something wasn’t right about calling me a “missionary to Africa.”
- I wasn’t doing intense cultural training or learning siSwati (the local language) before leaving. My primary work would be with English speakers from diverse African cultures.
- I wasn’t making a life-long commitment. We just committed to three years (with room for more).
- I wasn’t going primarily to plant churches or evangelize unreached peoples. I was going to help take a growing college to next level in its vision to equip Africans for this type of work themselves.
I was simply going to a new place to use my skills, experiences, and knowledge from working in academia, church planting, and organizational leadership. That didn’t make me a missionary.
Mission Marm and Apple Guy
Since arriving in Swaziland, I read Fritz Kling’s The Meeting of the Waters, a book charting the changing currents of the global church and missions. I quickly found myself in Kling’s introduction.
In one night in a missionary bunkhouse, Kling encounters two “missionaries”. One he calls Mission Marm (honestly not intended to be derogatory): a tough woman who has spent 40+ years in the Brazilian mission field. The other he calls Apple Guy (not intended to be praise): a “typical twenty-first-century young adult” just coming to Brazil. He writes…
The two visitors could not have been more different.
- Mission Marm was single. Apple Guy would soon fly his family down to join him.
- Mission Marm was a lifer. Apple Guy had committed to three years, with an option to re-up.
- Mission Marm had responded to a life calling, and she had just this one career in her life. Apple Guy was on his third — and almost certainly not last — career, purusing a change of vocation for a time.
- Mission Marm had studied and trained to be a missionary, and her whole working life had been in Christian service. Apple Guy had spent his working life in the secular workforce and expected that his mission stint would utilize the skills and vocational experience from his stateside job.
- Mission Marm had given up all of her Western accoutrements and conveniences to serve in any way or place that she was needed. Apple Guy brought his gadgets and toys with him to a place he had chosen.
- Mission Marm had begun her career taking furloughs back home a few times every decade. Apple Guy expected to return to the States every year, probably retain ownership of his house in the States, and certainly remain in constant email and phone contact. He and his family also knew they would be visited, annually or more often, by relatives and various short-term mission groups from back home.
I stopped reading and interrupted Rachael with “Listen to this … I think this guy is writing about us.” And I realized I wasn’t alone in this. And I felt like someone understood my discomfort of being called a missionary — not because missionaries are bad or “uncool” but because the church is changing. Kling continued:
That night in Manaus, I glimpsed the future: The global church was undergoing a generational changing of the guard. In a world of widespread upheaval of every kind, the global church was drifting between a storied past and a rapidly morphing future.
In coming years global church leaders will be able to employ some traditional approaches from the past, but they will increasingly need to try out experimental, innovative, and even uncomfortable ideas. A generation of Christian workers like Apple Guy will depart from Mission Marm’s methods at almost every turn, which will lead the global church into unchartered waters.
He continued pegging me pretty squarely. I’ve already ruffled a few feathers for my departures from the methods (maybe not a bad thing after all?).
However, it was as he was closing out the chapter that he really helped me understand my reluctance to being called a missionary:
Between the extremes of Mission Marm and Apple Guy is where most Christian workers reside: They seek to be relevant and orthodox, prodcutive and faithful, current and grounded, innovative and contented … and often they simply end up feeling overwhelmed. Many followers of Christ who identify with Mission Marm sense that the global church needs to change, and many Christian workers who relate to Apple Guy have the nagging sense that they are not fit to carry Mission Marm’s bags.
This captured perfectly my discomfort about being called a ‘missionary’: unfit to carry their bags. You trailblazer missionaries out there should know of my utmost respect, love, and admiration. The changing church and Africa still needs you and your wisdom.
Thanks for sharing your passion, wisdom, knowledge and experiences with me. Some of you taught me before I ever dreamed I’d serve on the continent you deeply love and served (Wendell, Janice, Gailyn & Becky, Sonny, Richard). Some of you I’ve only recently met and befriended (Henry, Fielden & Janet, Bob & Annette, Hilton & Avanell).
And to my contemporaries I’ve joined in Africa — I need your help and we need each other. Let’s connect.
To the wonderful team at African Christian College, let’s keep moving forward where God is calling us.
To my friends and soon-to-be friends, I need (and the church needs) you, too.
I hope to return to Kling’s currents in future posts. And to explore other observations with you.