The Beautiful and Messy Call of a Missionary

The Beautiful and Messy Call of a Missionary

The call of a missionary is to carry Christ's presence into the spiritually dark places of our earth.

Within the treasure chest of missionary inspirations, David Livingstone’s question is found: “Cannot the love of Christ carry the missionary where the slave trade carries the trader?” His ministry in the 1800s focused on slavery in the heart of Africa. Livingstone’s true north was that the love of Christ for His world is a radically invasive, all-consuming, inclusive, and courageous plan of rescue and redemption carried out through the vessel of the missionary.

The church benefits from and is inspired by the missionary ‘greats’ – individuals who left everything and set sail for the love of souls, who buried babies and wives and husbands in faraway lands that somehow became home. Sometimes they returned. Often they did not.

Methodist James Calvert led a team of missionaries to the cannibals of the Fiji Islands. The ship’s captain tried in vain to convince the group to turn back. “You will lose your life and the lives of those with you if you go among such savages,” he cried. Calvert replied, “We died before we came here.”

The Changing Missions Map

In some sense, missionary work has changed since those early saints charted their journeys into the mysterious places of our planet. Surging people movements from war, economic upheaval, and natural disasters have turned the charted 19th-century maps of Livingstone and Calvert upside down.

One changed aspect of today’s reality for the western Christian is that the perceived business of slave transaction no longer happens as it did for Livingstone, a continent away: it is now an enterprise operating in local neighborhoods. The once seemingly clear definition of missions as “out there” has grown fuzzy. People cross borders and traverse different cultures, religions, languages, and world perspectives next door. If God is adjusting a western understanding of missions and missionaries, then geopolitical changes in our recent history should help us translate and articulate the current events of our migrating global demographic.

Recent Developments in Missions

Looking at the past quarter of a century demonstrates that God has been systematically adjusting our concept of missions.  In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and missionaries flooded what had been a closed and unwelcoming space for the Gospel in the Soviet Union. The Church translated that into God’s answer to prayer. In the last decade, a groundswell of believers has surged from within the house church movement in China. The Church also saw that as God’s answer to prayer.

As missionaries flow into new parts of our planet where the Church functions in freedom, will we dare to believe that God is answering prayer? Will we submit to the will and Spirit of God at work in our world?

Welcoming the Stranger as Mission

It is a painful truth for us as global Christian communities that the missioning God whose name we carry, whose sanctuary we seek, and whose blessing we desire pushes us both spiritually and geographically into places where we would rather not go. Even more frightening is that He commands every believer to emulate His action of throwing open the door and welcoming the stranger to the table.

As our concepts of missions and missionaries are stretched towards new paradigms, we must remember that God is the ultimate missionary who is constantly missioning.

God so desires that we catch this key element: that the story of Jesus from its inception is rooted in ‘going out.’ Mary leaves Nazareth. Joseph and Mary travel to Jerusalem. Joseph and Mary are driven to Egypt. As the seed of God grows within Mary, His presence drives her further from her comfort and deeper into the unknown. So too the Messiah becomes the unexpected, disruptive, powerfully present shield for all that are weary, heavy-laden, war-torn, unwanted, demon-possessed, handicapped, voiceless, and unclean.

As missionaries, and even more broadly as missional people, our call is to carry Christ’s presence into the spiritually dark places of our earth. “Some wish to live within the sound of a chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of Hell,” said J.T. Studd, British missionary to Africa in the 1800s. Hell’s doorstep may be time zones away, or it may be next door, but missional people offer dignity, walk in solidarity, and become intentionally present. It is a messy, uncomfortable, costly enterprise.

Klaus Arnold, the rector of European Nazarene College, reminds us that Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. While a traditional understanding points to the powerful potency of the smallest of seeds growing into a large plant, Arnold highlights other nuances.

In Jewish culture, the mustard plant was unclean: something nobody wanted in their garden. Growing into an enormous entity, it easily propagated other unwieldy, unclean mustard plants that created chaos among well-maintained rows. A mustard plant’s large leaves were a sanctuary for birds and small rodents: varmints unwelcome in any garden. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” said Jesus.

What a concept! Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is invasive: it disrupts the eco-systems of the world. As it grows, it welcomes the unwanted to come into the garden and even to receive refuge there. Our concept of missions and missionaries must begin with the radical and uncomfortable conclusion that our identity is synonymous with a mustard plant, disturbing the neatly appointed and productive systems of our world. The kingdom becomes a safe haven for the unwanted as we move into the neighborhoods and cultures of our world or as we welcome them into ours.

The Call of the Missionary

Missionaries answer to an individual call: a call to leave their culture and be transplanted into another. Specific gifts and graces along with academic preparation are part of the call for the missionary. They may serve as accountants, basketball coaches, English teachers, as well as preachers. Some preach from a pulpit, and others do not. The church, recognizing the calling, gifts, and graces of an individual, commissions her or him to be sent.

There is also a universal call to all believers to engage with God in His missioning endeavors.

While some are specifically commissioned to be missionaries, all believers are called to be missional.

The worlds of Livingstone, Studd, and Calvert have not faded away. The injustices that took them to the far corners of their worlds still rage. Today, our planet groans with 29 million people trapped in slavery – a much larger number than when Livingstone forayed into the African continent. There are 69.5 million displaced people. Poverty, prejudice, war, the lack of clean water, and natural disasters are all factors that create the need for healing in the midst of brokenness.

For the Nazarene, our mission is a call to solidarity, to holy presence, and to dignity. Restoring dignity is a Spirit-empowered choice to engage people in ways that offer genuine relationships. We witness this in the Gospels.  Jesus can be found at the table with sinners, including those who would betray him. Restoring dignity is more than a two-hour soup kitchen shift where those who “have” feed those who “have-not.”  It is a shared distribution line and a shared table where barriers fade for the sake of genuine friendship.

Solidarity is the emulation of Jesus: the choice to intentionally set aside the influence and advantage that our own culture offers in order to step into solidarity with another soul. To take this step willingly, chained to the limitations of the other, is the incarnational story of Christ.

Perhaps the call to presence requires the largest leap of faith. It challenges our comfort and security.  We are tethered to God’s extravagant grace, which perfectly and persistently pursues the heart of every soul seeking the path to the kingdom. It seems counter-intuitive to lay open our own hearts for God’s transformative power to work in us. The very thing that gives tangible witness to “God with us” is our bodies filled with God’s radiance. Here we begin to grasp the awesome power of Calvert’s words: “We died before we came here.”

Teanna Sunberg is a missionary in the Church of the Nazarene currently serving in Central Europe.

Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2018.

Please note: This article was originally published in 2018. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.