How Does God Use Deeply Flawed Servants?

One of my favorite books in the Bible is Habakkuk. In it, the prophet (Habakkuk) is trying to figure out when is God going to take care of all the evil that is happening in the Kingdom of Judah. God responds to the effect that, ‘Don’t worry. I am sending in the Babylonians and they are going to destroy everything.’

Habakkuk is, not surprisingly, not happy about this. He was a Jew as were the people of Judah. He wanted repentance and revival. He did not want them to be destroyed. And… he certainly did not think it was fair and righteous that God would use a people who were (seemingly) worse than the Jews..

God’s response is a bit… poetic… roundabout. However, the argument seems to be something like, “Don’t worry. I will use whoever or whatever I want as my tool of discipline. The Babylonians may be useful in the moment, but I will replace and judge them when the time is right.

But is this a general principle? What about people who are God’s servants by intention rather than merely by sovereign circumstances. What if a minister— pastor, missionary, and such— was deeply flawed. Will God use them? I have heard ministers, such as televangelists, who seemed to be horrible horrible people supported by the argument that their success and at least some of the fruit of their labor proves God’s favor.

An example that comes to mind is someone I will call Bernard. That is most definitely NOT his name. Also, he died decades ago so I am definitely not talking about you, the reader.

Bernard was a minister and a missionary. I won’t give too many details on his ministry. His primary role is in training no Christian servants. Bernard and his family were sent as missionaries by their denomination to Asia. His wife worked with local women, while Bernard established a training program for Christian ministers. He did this for 4 years. After that, however, he and his family had to leave. Bernard had been acting out sexually causing deep problems where he was serving.

Going back to the United States he found a position that would not be described as missionary work, but still essentially doing the same thing. He served there for awhile, but the same problems sprang up and he and his family had to move again. Bernard did continue to do ministry work, but in (relative) obscurity for a few more years.

This sounds like failure to me… but it is a bit more complicated than that. Bernard became known as the founder of the training program in the mission field because his first trainee (I will call him “Ben”) took the mantle of the ministry and ran with it successfully for decades. Now, this program is successfully being implemented where Bernard served in the field, as well as many other sites in Asia. Ben is commonly seen as the “Father” of this ministry, even though Bernard is still seen as the initiator.

In the United States, the place he worked was with a young colleague/trainee who went on to be a major leader and innovator in this minister training movement.

I chose to be very vague here. I have a friend who likes to tell stories where he changes the name but keeps enough details that those who are in the know… well, they know. I don’t like to do that. I am focus on principle here, not personality.

In principle, God used Bernard to jumpstart the work in Asia, and continue the work in America. You might say that God used him to plant the seeds. Others, however, cultivated and harvested the fruit.

I think God uses who God uses. God uses the best and the brightest. God uses the humblest and the most servant-minded. But sometimes God uses the most flawed. God used Balaam in the Old Testament and God used Judas Iscariot in the New. The former appeared to have a divine prophetic gift, the latter was a miracle worker. God used them when he needed them, and then set them aside for others who were motivated by love for God rather than adulation, money and other things.

I still think this topic needs more consideration… but I think this is a good start in my reflection. For now.

Book Review: Thriving in the City, by Aaron Smith

I recently finished reading “Thriving in the City: A Guide for Sustaining Incarnational Ministry Among the Poor,” by T. Aaron Smith.

Aaron and his wife Ema serve as missionaries to the urban poor in Manila, Philippines. Even though they serve in the Philippines as do my wife and I, we have actually not met in the Philippines, only in the US. They work with Servant Partners, which is a mission organization with focus on incarnational ministry to the urban poor.

I truly enjoyed the book. Part of it is because of its topic. Ministry to the urban poor is a vital ministry in pretty much every age, but even more so in this time. According to the World Bank, approximately 56% of people today live in cities, and by 2050 the percentage is estimated to increase to around 70%. This alone should lead missiologists to reevaluate strategies. For at least 5 decades, the focus in Evangelical (at least) missions has been on Unreached People Groups (UPGs) with the assumption that ethnic and language groups are the final frontier or “wave” of missions. This does not seem to be true, however, with some saying that we are in a new “Global Wave” of missions (to all from all). In my view (for what it is worth) the great wave of missions surging up right now is the Great Urban Centers (GUCs).

So how do we reach out to these Great Urban Centers around the world? The countless hours tracking different languages and people groups don’t have much meaning in this environment where class, sub-cultures, and unofficial castes have greater impact.

Aaron Smith puts forward his perspective of Incarnational Missions, following the guidance of Viv Grigg and others for reaching the urban poor. The book is heavily autobiographical and biographical as it explores the opportunities and challenges of living and ministering in slums and informal settlement communities.

I found the book both inspirational and refreshing. It is inspirational as one hears stories of changed lives and communities through individuals, families, and teams living with and ministering with the poor and the destitute in major cities. Although most of his work has been in the Balic-balic and Botocan communities in Metro Manila, he includes experiences of others both in Manila and in other major cities around the world. This broadens the usefulness of the book, as well addresses unique situations that are outside of the experience of the author.

The book is also refreshing. Some mission presentations focus on the “Praise God” aspects of missions while underplaying the “Oh my God” moments. Smith gives balance. In fact, some parts of the book almost feel more like, “Let me see if I can talk you out of incarnational urban missions.” I also found it refreshing that he looks at the ministry he does as one of many strategies. I have read far too many books on various strategies (frontier missions, never send money missions, only send money missions, CPM, and so forth) that appear to express the view that their form of missions is the only form. I appreciated the balance in this book.

For people who are interested in missions, but don’t know much about it, I think they will appreciate the early chapters more. These chapters are more biographical, and really can open up one’s eyes to what is involved in serving God sacrificially.

For people who are looking more seriously into missions, especially incarnational missions (if you want incarnational missions explained in more detail, read the book, especially Appendix A, or go to, the latter chapters may be more for them, especially as there are reflection questions to go over as far as whether they are ready for this type of ministry. It is also in the latter chapters where different flavors of this type of ministry are looked over, to help a prospective missionary to see where, if anywhere, he or she may fit into this broad category of service.

For me, since I teach missions, I tend to like chapters that add clarity to a topic that wasn’t there before (at least in my mind). I appreciated especially chapters 10, 11, and 13. Chapter 10 spoke of “Anchor Institutions”— those institutions that come alongside to support and guide the missionary. I like the terminology and the types of such institutions more than the way I normally hear them described. Chapter 11 was on choosing ministry approaches. Again, one size does NOT fit all and I found the options given here clear and helpful. Chapter 13 was on “engagement” and “disengagement.” As one involved in missionary member care, I appreciated the time here trying to help missionaries find balance in a ministry that can easily overwhelm.

I have very few complaints, and even the term complaint might be too strong here. I will note two minor things.

#1. In chapter 8 are two lists. One list gives positive characteristcs for self-evaluation to see if you as a future missionary should consider being an Incarnational Leader. The positive list is good overall. Some of them are a bit generic, more guidance for ministering full-time than specifically for International Leadership, but that is okay. However, the negative list I don’t think really relates to Incarnational Leader at all. It is a list of qualities that are bad for any full-time ministry not just Incarnational Leadership. Perhaps it would be good to have good and bad qualities for full-time ministry, and good and bad qualities for incarnational ministry in urban settings.

#2. My other “complaint” I give in half-jest. In giving his descriptions of some of the challenges associated with incarnational ministry to the poor (or cross-cultural missions in general I would add), he mentions a lot of things including challenges due to one’s own children. I would argue that the section of the challenges associated with children should be in all bold print. Raising our three children in Baguio was a challenge, when they were young, but I would say as they got older it became a lot more difficult. It became so difficult that we sometimes wondered whether we had sacrificed our children for ministry. All three of our children are grown up and doing much better now, but I still think we made some big mistakes. Smith’s children are still rather young. Time will tell what his perspective will be in the future.

Anyway, I would strongly recommend reading this book if you are interested in supporting Christian missions in any way, and even more so if you are considering serving in missions to the urban poor and destitute of the world.

Ten Common Missionary Roles

Gailyn Van Rheenen lists fen common roles or activites of long-term missionaries in one of his books on missions <Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, 2nd ed. (Zondervan, 2014), Chapter 6>:

(1) Traditional church planting in unreached areas (Pioneering)

(2) Training local church leaders in order for a church planting movement to be successful (a bit too specific, let’s just say leadership development)

(3) Providing theological education to national leaders by training them where they are (onsite theological development)

(4) Teaching advanced theological studies in Bible schools and seminaries (offsite theological development)

(5) Serving as Bible translators (Self-explanatory)

6) Helping the poor and the suffering by focusing on social transformational development (Community development)

(7) Responding to natural disasters, providing medical services, and taking care of orphans (Relief and Helps ministries)

(8) Serving as business missionaries who live out in terms of economic realities (BAM)

(9) Serving as ministers of international justice to advocate for the oppressed (Social Justice)

(10) Serving as missionary support personnel who serve other missionaries (Several things, really)

We could group these into three general groups:

“Spiritualistic” Ministries: Numbers 1-5

“Social” Ministries: Numbers 6-9

Support Ministries: Number 10

Now if you think about it, the one that fits what people often think missionaries do is #1. In truth, it is the one that Ralph Winter wanted to be the only one called missionary. I understand the simplicity of the definition, but missions is a team sport and because of that I believe the broader understanding is useful. Arguably, #5, Bible translation is also part of what is often thought of as

Next, Numbers 2-4 are all about training— Theological and ministerial training.

Numbers 6-9 perhaps are better viewed as Transformational ministries

Number 10 is too broad. It includes missionary member care

This gives us:

Traditional Missions: Pioneer Missions and Bible Translation

Training Ministries: Ministerial Training, Theological Training

Transformational Ministries: Relief, Social Justice, Developmental Ministries

Support Ministries: Missionary Member Care, Logistical Support, Administrative Support and Mobilization

They all are needed and all should be honored.

Types of “Great Missionaries”

What does it take to be a great missionary? I think there are different types of missionaries and there are different ways they can be seen as good.

  1. Innovator. Barnabas. Some missionaries do something that is highly innovative and as such establish patterns that guide missionaries long after them. Barnabas appears to be a great example of this with the strategy that he used for mentoring and then entering strategic locations for missions. Other could include Zeigenbald, and John Nevius.
  2. Theologian Paul. Some missionaries develop and (often) write theological works. Such works can be theology of mission, or missional theology. Paul, while certainly a very good missionary as shown in his 3 mission trips. However, what made him great was his writings— 13 letters to various churches. These letters were practical, pastoral, and personal. However, they were very much theological. Other missionaries also embraced theological writing might include Roland Allen and Leslie Newbigin.
  3. Promoter. David Livingstone. This is a bit more dubious. Many ask the question of whether David Livingstone was a great missionary. And in his work in Africa they may have a point. At the same time, Livingstone was great in inspiring people to support missions or give more to missions. An even more extreme case may be Henry Stanley, who perhaps could be described as a bad missionary (but a great promoter of missions). Other missionaries may be clearly be good missionaries but are still more recognized in their role of promoting missions. Some examples might include Lottie Moon, Albert Schweitzer, Luther Rice, and Amy Carmichael.
  4. Contextualizers. Ulfilas. Some successfully brought the Christian faith successfully into a new culture. Often this is most clearly visible in terms of translation of Bible and liturgy. There are some that are uncertain of Ulfilas because of his theology. No one, however, could fail to recognize his accomplishment in translating the Bible into Gothic language. Others might include Methodius, Cyril, and Ola Hanson.
  5. Trailblazers. Adoniram and Ann Judson. Some missionaries may not be innovators in the strictest sense, but trailblaze a new place of ministry— opening the door wide for follow-on missionaries to follow. The Judsons were the first to work in Burma, and their challenging work opened the door for others after. Sometimes they gain the title of “Apostle of _______.” Samuel Zwerner and Nicholas Kassachin are a couple of examples.
  6. Organizer. Ludwig Von Zinzendorf. Some may have not done much personally in terms of missions, but they created structures that were highly effective in missions. Von Zinzendorf wasn’t really a missionary, although he did some visits to missionaries in the field. However, he brought structure to the United Brethren (Moravians) creating the first major mission movement in Protestantism. Another would be Hudson Taylor.
  7. Faithful. Justinian Von Welz. In most vocations there are superstars. Nothing wrong with that. However, it would be ill-advised to assume that the greatest missionaries were necessarily the ones identified as great in our eyes. Von Welz was an innovator, but too ahead of his time to be recognized as such by most. By almost every measure he was a failure. However, he was faithful even to death. By pretty much every measure William Borden was a failure— rejecting family fortune only to die before reaching his final mission destination. But he was faithful to the call and faithful to the end. These were the Faithful Servant of the parable of Jesus.

There are other categories of greatness. However, I hope you see from the #7 that list in general is a bit dubious. I think it is good as a reminder that there is more than one way to be seen as great or effective. However, our ideas of greatness may NOT coincide with what is God’s view of greatness.

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.

Crazy Missionaries?— Quote from Ruth Tucker

Referring to the focus of studying missionaries in mission history–

An added bonus was the lively cast of characters. I have often wondered as I have studied missions history if there is any other field of endeavor that has been peopled by such a “crazy” lot. Many of them were, it seems to me, more eccentric and risky and individualistic and driven than other segments of the population. Often self-sacrificing to the extreme, many were also pedantic and critical and mean-spirited— unable to live in harmony with colleagues or with those to whom they sought to ministry.

–Ruth Tucker, FROM JERUSALEM TO IRIAN JAYA: A BIOGRAPHICAL HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN MISSIONS, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), pg 11 (Preface to the Second Edition).

This quote gives me both comfort and caution. The assessment of the quirckiness of missionaries is a bit of a comfort. The stereotype that missionaries go overseas because they ‘cannot hack it at home,’ is generally false, but does point to the fact that missionaries often are idiosyncratic and countercultural in their own homelands. As a missionary who is rather academic, introverted, and (yes) grumpy, it is comforting to know that I am part of a long tradition— a tradition that has successfully spread the gospel throughout the world. It is comforting since mission agencies today often look for extraverts who are more focused with obedient ‘doing.’ It is good in my mind that mission agencies are less focused on the rather dubious thing called the “missionary call.” That goodness may be offset by replacing that standard with personality testing. <Note: My wife and I have a counseling center, and we have done personality tests for missionaries. I have no problem with these testings, but I believe they are of more value for the candidate’s self-discovery, NOT for determining viability.>

As noted, however, there is caution. Missionaries have gone overseas and wreaked havoc. Sometimes in the mission team this is a problem because it reduces morale and increases attrition. Additionally, it can sabotage kingdom growth. There is a deeply flawed view that in ministry, “If even one person responds to the gospel, this makes it all worthwhile.” Ignoring opportunity losses, the fact is that an incompetent missionary or a divisive missionary, can undermine ministry… salting the mission field (a bad thing if you are not familiar with the expression) for years.

Missionaries are on odd bunch. That is a good thing… but they certainly need prayers to ensure that God can use that oddness effectively for His Kingdom.

Robbery and Missions— a Generally Balanced Reflection

<I put this on my other webpage… the missions page of my wife and mine. But it is relevant here as well… so here it is.>

One of those things that is considered “normal’ in the mission field is getting robbed. It is simply presumed in many cases that since one is moving to a developing country one must be constantly vigilant because you know just know that you are surrounded by people in great need who will steal from you if they can. Moving to the Philippines, we had no reason to question that perspective. Most houses have bars on the windows, and when possible, there are courtyards with walls with sharp things (wrought iron commonly, but sometimes broken glass) embedded in them. I became so used to this I was afraid that I would feel freaked out by the windows and lawns in the US that welcome home invasion. In the Philippines, all but the smallest businesses have guards who appear to be well-trained and friendly, but have deadly-looking weaponry on them. Cashing a check is so difficult in the Philippines as almost any imperfection is a sign to the bank that it must be fraudulent. So much of the way things are handled in the Philippines just screams, “This is a place where criminals are everywhere.”

Despite this, in just over 17 years I have never been robbed. Well, maybe once or twice. One time I dropped my wallet without knowing it. Even then I got my wallet back. There was 500 pesos missing (about $10). Since that would be what I would have given the person for finding the wallet, it hardly seems like a robbery. One time I was shaken down by a member of the police for P2500 for some alleged traffic violation. Yes, I do consider that to be a true robbery… but thankfully the vast majority of my interactions with the police in the Philippines have been positive.

Not all have had this experience. One friend of mine, an American missionary who lived a few kilometers from us, got his house broken into numerous times. Since that individual had anger management problems (definitely a “No-No” in the Philippines) my suspicion was that the break-ins were not so much ‘we want your stuff’ and more ‘we want you to leave.’ Another missionary related how his house was robbed, and how the police put up obstacles in the investigation, only moving forward with an arrest after that missionary had actually worked the case and found proof of who the perpetrators were. Even then he actually had to go over the head of the ones assigned the case. His theory was that the local police received money from the gang who were doing the break-ins. No idea if that was true. Yet another missionary experienced a very well-orchestrated home invasion… and would have most likely suffered a second if one of the compound guards had not happened upon one of the members of the team during his rounds.

For me, my problems have not been in the Philippines but in the US. The only house robbery I ever experienced was in the US, as well as the only car break-in. Most recently, we had a different sort of crime here in the States. We had to buy a (used of course, does anyone actually buy new?) car. Knowing the reputation of used car dealers, I get pretty nervous. Renting a car was clearly out of the question. The cost of a decent used car was about the same as the renting the cheapest car available for around 3 months (a different form of crime I suppose). We started researching online. Eventually, we had narrowed things down to about four or five cars that looked good on Carfax. We went to the first place— I will call it “A Used Cars.” I will admit that the people who ran it (brothers) were pretty friendly and accommodating. However, I felt that there were some reasons to think that MAYBE I should not trust them. Anyway, there were a couple of cars that looked pretty good, but nothing that was PERFECT for us. Then we went to the second place “B Motors” (still protecting their names even though I suppose I don’t really have to). They were also friendly and had cars in our price range. One car, however, seemed about perfect for us. After a test-drive and a bit of research we decided it was just what we wanted. We got a loan approved with our credit union, filled out the paperwork, decided to get a used car warranty insurance for it, and within four days of first seeing the car, it was now ours with temporary dealer tags. We were told that we will be given a call when the regular tags and registration show up.

Thirty days later we heard nothing from “B Motors.” I give them a call, but their number was not working. I check them on the Web and it says that they are “Temporarily Closed.” It was Thanksgiving Weekend. I figured them may have shut down for a few days. After that weekend, I tried to call again, and the phone was still not working. I check the Web and now it is supposedly “Permanently Closed.” That is not good. Despite what Google says, their website suggested they were open, so we sent a direct message to them through their contact page, but got no response. However, now Google was back to saying that they were open. Between that and the fact that we were busy turning the new house we bought into a home, we did not take things too seriously. However, when December came with no permanent plates and no word from our dealer, we realized that we had to act.

We drove to the dealership finding, NOT to our surprise, that there was a totally different name on it— now it was, I shall say, “C Autoworld.” I went into “C Autoworld” and found, again not to our surprise, that the people running the place were entirely new. We talked to the lady who appeared to be in charge. She said that we are part of a whole stream of people who have been coming to their place about “B Motors.” According to her, “B Motors” had been owned by a guy who had a history of scamming. He would set up a dealership under a false name, and then steal from customers. It seems like the stealing was not in terms of actual cars, but in processing fees and DMV (department of motor vehicle) charges. Anyway, DMV shut them down. She did not know how to get hold of any of them, but gave us the number of the Virginia department that oversaw car dealerships. We called the number and then turned in a complaint. That department appears like it will be helpful, even though the timetable they gave us is pretty slow. Not sure if we will have to repay some of those fees. We shall see. That got us thinking. We bought a used car warranty insurance. We had actually carefully investigated before and found that this particular warranty insurance has a very good reputation (not all of them do) so we got it through the “B Motors” dealership. We went online to check on the status of our insurance policy and found, yet again not to our surprise, that they had never heard of us. The auto dealership had pocketed our money.

It does appear that we have a legal car and a car that works well. That is a blessing. However, we were robbed in terms of insurance money and the official paperwork from the DMV. It looks like this can be fixed without too much pain. It, however, is slowing down our return to the Philippines.

It is human nature to profile. Some profile based on nationality or race or economic status or others. Most of us, I think, feel that people who are like themselves are less likely to cheat them than people that are different. Over and over I have found this not to be true. Criminality is more a case of the heart than of other factors. Sure, desperation may apply pressure on someone to do wrong, but from my own experience, I have only been cheated by people who did it because of greed, not economic desperation.

The first car dealership, ‘A Used Cars,’ the one I felt a twinge of concern about, they are active, doing well, and on the NICE, not NAUGHTY, list at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I would say Lesson Learned, but some lessons one must learn again and again. I remember a guy who was in Brazil who had a pickpocket come upon him. The thief reached into his pocket but made a mistake and was caught as he removed his hand. Money went flying all over the place and he ran off. Immediately, other Brazilians hurried over to the where the American tourist was and began grabbing the money. Then they brought the money to the tourist and apologizing for what he went through. They want to be thought of as a safe and moral nation. It is all too easy to remember the pickpocket and see that as ‘the norm.’ However the REAL norm was the Good Samaritans (Good Brazilians) who sought to help the tourist in his time of need.

The Missionary’s Two Homes

Sometimes as Christians we talk about the idea that this world is not our real home— heaven is our real home. One of my favorite gospel songs as a youth spoke of this. The first verse said,

“This wold is not my my home, I’m a just a passin’ through.

If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do.

The angels beckon me, from Heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

It is a fun song. It is not totally accurate, of course. The Bible speaks of Earth as our eternal home— Heaven on Earth. In effect, this is our one home.

But as missionaries, we typically have two homes. One is in our home country, and one is our in our country of service. For years that wasn’t really important to me. We sold our house in the US and moved into our house in the Philippines. We spent 90% of our time in the Philippines, and the plan of my wife and I was (is?) to retire in the Philippines. As such, the US was not our home, but a place we visit on occasion.

However, this has changed somewhat. Our three children are now grown up and have chosen to live in the US. Additionally, one of them has some health needs that have required us to be a bit more involved in helping her along. Our old solution of just coming over and staying with relatives and friends has not worked. Additionally, short-term and long term rentals of houses and of cars have proven to be prohibitively expensive. We were actually pretty desperate for awhile. Thankfully, do some truly divine grace, we were able to work out things to have a house (with mortgage of course), and car (with loan of course).

This did remind me of the rope metaphor used by Ryland and Carey back in 1792, where Carey expressed willingness to explore into the unknown (like as into a deep pit or cave) as long as his friends back home would “hold onto the rope.”

It is hard to serve as a missionary when the rope is cut back in one’s birth country. This can be in terms of financial support. But this can also be in terms of a “home base”— a place one can call home when “home.”

Things are a bit different, perhaps, for people who serve with a full-service mission organization. However, most of the people I know in missions are independent or semi-independent missionaries. I have known some who have been completely cut off from their home base. Several of them did eventually have to return to their sending country and start ‘from scratch.’ Another got stranded in their home country during COVID, but have been able to move in with their son. Another such family had similar things occur and they moved in with their parents. One lost contact with their home country, but another country and associated church adopted him and that helped him serve. Another married into his missionary country, and as such has set quite deep roots in his service country. However, one never knows when the lack of a second home may cause issues.

As much as we may focus on the Philippines being our new home, times change. We don’t know the future, and we cannot assume that God’s best for us aligns with what we think is best.

We now have a home in the US that is our home when we are home. Two of our adult children live there year-around. We cannot afford to be homeless when back in our sending country, so this is a great blessing. We also have a home in the Philippines… perhaps it is our home until we die. Perhaps not. Regardless, it is our home.

When we return to the US, we can say it is good to be home. When we return to the Philippines, we can say it is good to be home.

We found that we needed an anchor point in both countries— we did not for 17 years, but we do now. It was a tough decision to take preciously collected savings to put into a house in the US (especially during a time of ridiculous housing prices). However, God has been good, and we found something pretty close to the perfect place (for us). Now we can go back and forth between our two countries much easier— between our two homes.

Extra thought—- In English we have two different words— house and home. They are overlapping words. A house is a building that people live in. A home usually is a building, and it has to do with where people live. But there is an emotional side to home that is not in house. The word home has a deeply emotional sense of belongingness. In Tagalog, there is a similar equivalent. The word ‘bahay’ means house— building to live in. But there is another word as well, ‘tahanan.’ It has a similar sense as home… a place of belongingness. I wonder how many other languages have this equivalent pair of terms?

Serving as a Christian Missionary— Is It Worth It?

Quote from the movie, “Men in Black”– where “K” explains what it means to become a member of the the ‘MIB”

Edwards: What’s the catch?

K: The catch? The catch is you will sever every human contact. Nobody will ever know you exist anywhere. Ever. I’ll give you to sunrise to think it over.

Edwards : Hey! Is it worth it?

K: Oh yeah, it’s worth it… … if you’re strong enough!

In the movie, the statement of K is questioned by the narrative where it starts to become clear that “K” is less than fully satisfied with his life as a member of MIB. He gave up the love of his life to gain knowledge of “What is out there.” But slowly he began to question this decision, and by the end, seeks to leave MIB to take the path not (initially) taken.

Does that truly undermine his statement, or simply point out that he is not strong enough?

Many missionaries have asked the same question.

—Is it worth it? Does the question depend on one’s strength (resilience, sense of calling, faith)?

—Can “strong missionaries” struggle with this answer?

—Is it wrong to even ask questions such as whether it is worth it to be a missionary?

The issue is not really so much about strength or faith. Rather it is about Opportunity Cost.

When you take one path, you miss the opportunities that other paths hold are lost and never come back.

Years ago, I quit my job, we sold our house and traveled to another country. I could have stayed on my old path as an engineer. Perhaps we would have a large house and a beautiful car. I don’t know because we did not take that path. Maybe our children would do better… or worse. I don’t know… but things would be different.

I Corinthians 15:12-19 I feel speaks of this sort of Opportunity Cost. Paul notes that if there is no resurrection from the dead that all Christians are have only this life and are lost in their sins, and the dead are simply dead. This seems reasonable enough. But then he adds, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” The previous verses would suggest that Christians are equally miserable. But in verse 19, Christians are “more to be pitied’ (eleeinoteroi) than all other men. This suggests that Christians would actually be in a worse state than all others because they have invested in something that did not pay off, unlike the rest.

Luke 14:25-33 records Jesus talking of the cost of being one of His disciples. He makes it clear that it is important to ‘count the cost.’ Reading the Bible, I believe it is quite clear that God is telling us that IT IS WORTH IT to follow Him. But that does not imply that God does not want us to go through the effort of running the numbers.

The “Rich Young Fool” decided that the cost of following Jesus was too much. However, this was not a unique occurrence. Judas Iscariot changed his mind. Elijah quit… for awhile. So did John Mark. Many of the Kings of Judah (Saul, David, Solomon, Uzziah, Hezekiah, Josiah, for example) started out good but struggled in holding to the true path.

It is very human— meaning very normal for us, being human— to question whether being a missionary is worth it. It is healthy, and the impulse should not be stifled. Any missionary that struggles with this should be listened to, non-judgmentally, and sensitively.

It is worth it… but it sure doesn’t always feel like it.

Defining “Christian Missions” and “Missionary”

It is strange that I have been involved with full-time Christian missions for 17 years and have been teaching Christian missions for 13 years and yet I have never found definitions for “Christian Missions” and “Missionary” that I like. Some are too narrow. For example, some definitions for missionary limit to those who are commissioned or ordained by a sending church or agency. For me that is a too… vocational… understanding of the term. Others think of missionary in terms of calling. That would be okay I suppose if everyone shared the same understanding of what calling means. (Hint here… there is NO common understanding of what it means to be called by God.) In terms of Christian missions, some definitions focus on churchplanting, or pioneering, or being international, or being ‘cross-cultural.’ Those definitions I think were always too narrow, but in this time of globalization, I think they have easily reached the point of being— well — pointless. Other definitions are so broad that every Christian is a missionary and everything the church does everywhere is Christian mission. I must admit that there is a part of me that likes broad definitions. However, there are distinct features of Christian missions and serving as a missionary that deserve their own labels and training and study. Watering terms down too much make them essentially meaningless. They become like what has been happening with the term “worship,” where in emphasizing that everything we say and do is worship, effectively, nothing is distinctly hallowed in terms of worship.

So I thought I would try to throw out a couple of definitions today.

Christian Missions is the intentional work of the church to go outside of its normal boundaries to join God’s work where the CHURCH IS NOT, where the CHURCH HAS NOT, or where the CHURCH CANNOT.

Yes, this definition is pretty broad still, but I think it has key elements.

  1. It is intentional work. This is service… the expenditure of time, energy, and effort.
  2. The focus of missions is on the church. In other words missions is defined in terms of the church rather than culture or national boundaries. In terms of organization, missions may be built within a sodality structure or a modality structure, but in terms of organism, it is about the church— the assembly of the faithful.
  3. It involves going outside of its normal boundaries. That means it reaches beyond its own membership, its own community, its own normal sphere of influence. It is a sending out and going out.
  4. It is joining God’s work. As the saying goes, God is at work (everywhere) and invites us (the church) to join Him in that work.
  5. It may be in terms of where the church is not— where churches don’t exist. It would involve evangelism, churchplanting, discipleship, and leader development. This is pioneering
  6. It may be in terms of where the church has not— churches may exist but are not functioning well in some ways. It involve inspiring and training churches, church organizations, and individuals. This is empowering
  7. It may be in terms of where the church cannot. Some places churches may lack the ability, long-term, to do certain types of ministry work. This may include such things medical care, missionary member care, Bible translation, or radio ministry. This is a work of specialization.

Missionaries are people who intentionally embrace their role in Christian missions and identify themselves in terms of that role.

This definition also sounds pretty vague, and is essentially meaningless if not tied to the definition for Christian missions. Additionally, the term notes:

  1. It is people. This is obvious but when we say that Christian missions is about ‘the church,’ there is a risk of it becoming abstract. Christian missions may be related to the church, but it is carried out by people… individually and corporately, joining God’s presence and efforts in the field.
  2. It is intentional. It is intentional in the sense that avoids the “everything you and I do is missions”-sense. Individuals identify that what they are doing is Christian missions as is defined earlier. As such it has the characteristics listed earlier.
  3. The individuals self-identify themselves as missionaries. In other words, if you don’t identify as a missionary, in a very key and important way you are NOT a missionary. In a broad sense this has to do with calling. I am not totally sure that every people in missions has to have received some big unambiguous Isaiah 6 sort of calling. But there should be some sort of recognition that they have joined a brotherhood and sisterhood that is unique in focus and role within the church.

Are these definitions perfect. Of course not. In fact, I am not even sure if I fit into the definition of missionary that I have written. Maybe it is better to describe myself as a “Cross-cultural Minister.” Regardless, I do think that the definitions at least establish a more real world foundation for discussion of these topics.

But I welcome suggestions for improvements.