The Challenge of Missionary Biographies

I am presently putting together a “max-flex” course on Missions History for a Bible College in the United States. I am using “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya” by Ruth Tucker (2nd edition). It utilizes a biographical approach primarily, with themes and chronology taking on a secondary role. I have mentioned my concerns about biographical histories— especially the risk of supporting the “Great Man Theory” of History. And then, even if that is avoided, there is the risk of “hagiographic” biographies— idolizing and idealizing missionaries. Ruth Tucker avoids both temptations quite admirably. That is one of the main reasons I want to use her book.

But it also got me thinking. I really love Missions History, but I rarely blog about missionary lives. I also don’t give a lot of reporting or commenting on missionary news. It got me thinking about why that is.

I guess that there are several reasons:

#1. I don’t want to violate confidentiality or private matters. The most interesting things about missionaries are not typically the things that show up in newsletters. They are rarely the “Praise God!!” moments. They are usually the “Oh my God…” moments. These however are private and are not really to be shared.

#2. I don’t really want to disrespect other missionaries. I don’t really want to judge their behaviors and strategies generally, just as I don’t really want them to judge me or what I do. I rarely know the whole story so not only should I not be one prone to judge (as Jesus has stated), I am commonly not competent to judge. Consider the case of John Allen Chau who was killed going to North Sentinel Island. In my mind, it was an ill-conceived plan poorly carried out. On the other hand, I respect his passion. And (who knows?) perhaps God was calling him to go to North Sentinel Island and he was faithfully doing so just as God wanted. Success is not necessarily the proof of faithfulness. I may or may not be competent to pass some cautious judgments about certain aspects of his mission, but I am most definitely not competent to judge him. (And, frankly, I would refuse to take seriously any attempts by John Chau to judge my very much non-pioneering mission work if he was still alive to do so.)

#4. Biographical writings on missionaries is not always helpful. No missionary deserves to be a superstar or celebrity (including/especially myself). Their message is to point people to God, not themselves. Paul may have said to use his own life as an example, but I am certain that did not imply to look to himself rather than Jesus. Missionary stories can be inspirational, but the ones that get shared often are atypical, or misleading. Most missionary stories probably would not be that inspirational to the average person. Focusing on success stories can give people the wrong idea. At the other extreme— organizations or publications on the struggles of missionary don’t always do a service. Ones that focus on those who have been killed in missions or church planting work, can cause people to lose focus on what the story is supposed to be about. The martyrdom of Christ was a love story to all mankind, and yet for centuries far to many Christians used that story to figure out “Who’s to blame.”

Anyway, I hope you do take time to read up on missionaries and what they have done in obedience to the Great Commandment (and to a lesser extent, the Great Commission). And I hope to share some more biographies in the future… but I think I will always (and wisely) be cautious.

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